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This same group of students entered their first year of middle school in August 2020. Their classrooms were online and making friends had to occur from behind a computer screen.

“These students missed all the onboarding a normal sixth grader gets,” explained Debbie Holt, CMS principal.” They didn’t immediately learn how to open their locker, navigate a bigger school, or walk to different classes.”

Even though classrooms have returned to normal, students are still struggling to emerge from a virtual environment. Holt said she observed students become more comfortable texting each other, than talking across the lunch table.

“Sixth grade is that pivotal year where they (students) build interpersonal skills and learn how to communicate,” she explained.

Before the 2021-22 school year ended, Holt and her team started brainstorming ways to grow students’ communication and leadership skills. In partnership with Counseling Counts Consulting, all eighth-grade teachers dedicated an entire day of learning to an alternative learning environment where no technology is allowed.

Students were divided up into groups, each one paired with a teacher and UCCS grad student or faculty member. Groups rotated through different activities allowing each student a chance to lead, communicate face-to-face and build trust among peers.

Blake Maestas volunteered to be blindfolded while his peers’ yelled directions to him as he walked through an obstacle course.

While trying to walk over toys and school supplies he heard, “Move to the left by one step,” and “Take one big jump.”

“This is how we’re working on teamwork and building friendships,” Maestas said.

Meanwhile another group of students worked as a team to cross an imaginary river, using only a piece of rope and makeshift boats a.k.a. four-wheeled dollies. One by one students communicated across the river with their limited resources to get every student to the other side. This allowed students to problem-solve in real time and encouraged them to communicate different strategies for a successful result.

Holt is excited to watch these activities turn into real-time confidence. “It’s essential they know these skills before entering high school,” she said.

As the school year continues, eighth grade teachers will take the skills and infuse them into everyday classroom activities.