The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 30, 2008

CCHS parents learn about social program called Challenge Day

What is Challenge Day? Under the leadership of physics teacher Brian Miller and a committee of students, for the second year Concord-Carlisle Regional High School (CCHS) has reserved a school day for teachers, students, and parents to share experiences, build community, and “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Attendees at the CCHS Parents Association meeting Tuesday May 20 were treated to a glimpse into the activities and dynamics of Challenge Day.

Sample activities

Miller, whose enthusiasm and youth may have caused some parents to mistake him for one of his students, began with an overview. “Challenge Day can be this really emotional day.” It features a variety of activities and games intended to “break down the walls of separation and create new levels of respect and communication.” Each student is asked to make “one intentional positive change each day.” Participation is voluntary with many students turned away for lack of space.

Students Ryan Miller and Caroline Cronin then introduced the concept of “a share.” Each participant begins a sentence with “If you really knew me you would know . . .” Examples of shares might begin with favorite hobbies and activities, but as the session goes on, students are encouraged to share problems and pain. Breaking down the barrier that prevents deep sharing is called “lowering the water line.” Cronin noted that one of the values of a share is to learn “a lot have gone through what I have, and even if they haven’t, they can be there for me.” Miller pointed to the chance to find commonalities with students “you might pass in the hallways and not think twice.”

Another Challenge Day activity is “raise your hand” if you agree with certain statements. To give an example, the parents were asked, “Do you believe cliques, stereotyping, teasing, and violence occur at CCHS?” Many did. Follow-on questions included, “Is it possible to make it go away?” and “Do you want to be part of the team that makes it happen?”

A film was then shown of an Oprah episode showing Challenge Day at a midwestern school. In the film, an activity called “crossing the line” generated profuse tears as participants admitted to having been teased or stereotyped, or to family and personal problems such as addictions. Reconciliation was possible as participants noted someone in the room had hurt or humiliated them. A voice-over explained that crossing the line allows students to learn they are not alone in their troubles.

Back in the CCHS cafeteria, parents were led in a similar exercise. We stood up in agreement if our child was “new to a school or community” “witness to unhealthy choices,” “struggled with an eating disorder or steroid use,” “teased by a family member” “afraid or ashamed to show emotions” or “teased because of braces, glasses, height, weight, or appearance.” At each point we were encouraged to “Notice who’s standing and how that feels.” Before the activity began, everyone was asked to contribute to a list of group norms that included respect, a sense of humor, confidentiality, and listening without judging.

We then broke into smaller groups of six to eight, each led by a facilitator. In a real Challenge Day, this would be a previously trained student, parent or teacher. We took turns answering the question, “Who is my hero?” Each member of the group was allocated one and a half minutes to answer, and if they finished earlier, the group was to remain silent for the rest of the time. In our group, I learned one member had a 96-year-old grandmother facing challenges, another had a sister with cancer, and another was friends with the head of an international aid organization.

Parent reactions

Most parents at the meeting expressed positive support for the program, including a dad who admitted, “I’m a real skeptic . . . (and) I was really bowled over” by participating this year. But a mom stood up to note that many of the techniques of Challenge Day are used in cult training, including EST and Human Awareness Institute. “I just think everyone should be aware.”

After the meeting I had a brief conversation with a parent who believed her student who had taken part in Challenge Day had felt pressured to reveal more than she wanted to. The parent suggested that freshmen and those new to the school should not be included as they are less likely to understand what they are signing up for. She also felt Challenge Day should remain voluntary. The Challenge Day survey results report only eight student participants of 325 felt “too much pressure to tell personal stories,” but it is not clear whether this was from a question on the survey or whether these were write-in comments.

Miller noted the movement began with two California parents and was brought to his attention by a student. “I thought it would be really appropriate for our school and could make a difference.” CCHS was the first school in Massachusetts to bring in the program, and Miller has since gone to California for further training. He refers those with questions about the organization to their website

Miller said that after each Challenge Day, group leaders meet with guidance counselors to review results and relay information on students who may need further intervention. Students are informed beforehand that this will take place. One parent questioned the lasting benefits, and Ryan admitted that “as time goes by, the effect will lessen.” Encouragingly, he felt the first year “in a week or two everyone had reverted to their old patterns” whereas this year it took a month or more. Miller acknowledged the need for more than a once-a-year exercise, and indicated he will be holding Challenge Day lunches at which students can be reminded what was learned.

Students value program

Miller thanked a committee of students who had administered a Challenge Day survey of CCHS students. It netted 996 responses of about 1,200 students, 325 who had participated in Challenge Day and 669 who had not. Of those who participated, 96% felt it was worthwhile and wanted more avenues to continue. Of those who had not, 80% had a positive opinion, with 17% finding it useless or a waste of time, and the rest neutral.

Of those who had participated, 99.6% reported they had recently performed an act of kindness, including “reaching out to peers, especially during lunch,” “being less judgmental, more accepting or tolerant,” or “meeting and making new friends.” In contrast, 45% of non-participants reported postitive actions that included community service (18%) and “personal acts of kindness” (27%). The survey report notes that Challenge Day focuses on actions that are “more behavioral and personal” such as reaching out to classmates.

Miller noted that change may come in small ways, such as sitting with a different person at lunch. He says some students sit in the hallway rather than eat lunch alone, and that one Challenge Day participant revealed she was eating lunch in the bathroom because “she didn’t want to come to the caf.” He is devising a tool kit for spreading the messages and techniques of Challenge Day to interested CCHS teachers, and notes that in his physics classes, three minutes are devoted to group sharing.

Also in process is a “circle of change” group of students, teachers, and parents “committed to keeping the program going.” Miller invited interested parents to attend a lunch or contact him at ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito