“I finally feel like I’m a part of something.” —Seventh grade student in Anime Club

When those words were uttered extemporaneously following an interview with members of the Downingtown Middle School Anime Club, both the club sponsor, Todd Shirley, and I did a double take. That seventh grade student had struggled to make friends and meaningful connections all through their school career. Her statement was a striking validation of our school’s focus on relationships, kindness, and grace throughout an extraordinary year.

At the beginning of the 2020–21 school year, the Downingtown Area School District opened in a completely virtual format. Downingtown Middle School immediately began running virtual clubs that took place after school hours between 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. in an effort to keep students engaged, develop social connections, and protect their overall well-being. Teachers stepped up to the plate to run these clubs, which highlighted their own interests and gave students a chance to be with their fellow classmates. These clubs are the focus of our school’s NASSP Virtual Tour on June 2.

With Ms. Williams’ “Friday Night Dinner Club” (based on the Gilmore Girls), the “Stranger Strings” guitar club with Dr. Hufford, Ms. Davidson’s Ally Club, Mr. Shirley’s Roblox and Anime clubs, and Mr. Groff’s Jackbox Party Pack club, the momentum quickly began to steamroll as students, their families, teachers, and community members clamored to be a part of these experiences. While the physical doors of our middle school were closed, we were able to open up an entirely new and unique virtual community. And this type of virtual club experience can and will continue long after the pandemic has ended.

While the students benefited in so many ways, our teacher sponsors were similarly impacted. Sally Witmer described the experience of running karaoke club, which sums up the power of these social opportunities: 

“They shared fears, their hopes, their worries. Some of those students hadn’t left their house in 10, 11, or 12 months. They were lonely, they craved socialization, and this club gave them some semblance of normality, even if it was only one hour a week,” she said. “One student shared that she looked forward to club every week because she knew she’d have one hour of just being in her happy place—singing. She needed club time. They needed it. I needed it, too. Not only was it a place for routine and interaction during a crazy time in their lives, but we were all able to make ourselves vulnerable together with others in the same situation.”

This blog is part of NASSP’s Virtual Tour Series. Be sure to visit NASSP’s Facebook page on June 2 at 10:00 a.m. (ET) to participate in the live tour and join Nicholas at 9:00 p.m. (ET) on June 6 for a Pau Hana, an informal virtual networking session to ask questions and keep the conversation going. 

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