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COVID Has Made Socializing Even Weirder for Teens. This Bronx Student Is Working to Make It Better.

“It is harder to communicate than it used to be,” eighth grader Harold explains.

He’s not alone; a host of articles in the last six months like this one in Psychology Today have discussed the challenges many adults are having with a return to more social interaction than we had during the height of the pandemic. As if that readjustment weren’t enough, middle schoolers are navigating this international epidemic of social awkwardness and anxiety during a phase of life already legendary for its self-consciousness, and children in schools often spend over eight hours a day around hundreds of their peers—far more intense social interaction than many adults manage day-to-day.

Yet Harold and three of his classmates chat with relative ease as they gather just before lunch one day earlier this fall at the Partnership’s Immaculate Conception in the Bronx. They are taking about an initiative one of their classmates launched to lessen some of those communication challenges. Earlier in the fall, Gianna Almonte led her peers in a positive communication exercise that students were still marveling about weeks later.

“She was outstanding,” Gianna’s classmate Jeslene says without hesitation. “She broke things down and included everybody; I was like ‘is that a new teacher?’ because the way she talked, it was like the school had hired a new professional.”

The problems Gianna set out to address are anchored in the massive shift many students made this fall: many returned to in-person interactions with their peers for the first time in over a year and a half. “You see your old friends that you haven’t seen in a year, and it’s strange,” fellow eighth grader Gavin notes—a shift that was awkward as well for students who attended in person last year.

ICS eighth graders Gavin, Harold, Jeslene, and Gianna.

“When you are communicating online,” Gavin elaborates, “you can go straight to what the message is. But in person, they have body language and tone of voice, and that adds more things to listen to.” Those non-verbals compound the stress; as Harold adds, “you have to accept them and deal with their emotions in person; online, you can turn them off.”

Yet when asked if they want to return to remote learning, all students jump in with a chorus of “No!” Gavin explains a big reason why: “When you’re online, you have less energy than in person; you can’t feel what others are saying.” Harold adds, “You can feel their spirit in person.” And their classmate Gianna agrees: “you can feed off of other people’s energy.”

Gianna notes, though, that the benefit of feeding off of others’ energy comes with a possible downside: a lot of self-consciousness about what you are putting out there. “There’s a lot of anxiety and overthinking,” she explains frankly. “After I say something to someone, I’ll be wondering ‘what are they thinking about me?’” When you are on a computer, you can present yourself as you want to see yourself, but in real life, you are there as you.”

Those awkward conversations in person caused some peers to revert to mean-spirited joking, Gianna observed. “We can avoid that by communicating positively to begin with,” she decided—and she knew just the place for students to practice that: Eagle Circle.

ICS Dean Trista Rivera leads the first Eagle Circle of 2021 this September.

As the students explain, Eagle Circle kicks of Monday mornings for older students at Immaculate Conception; typically during that time, Dean Trista Rivera and Principal Alex Benjamin lead the students in celebrating each other’s birthdays and accomplishments and reflecting on everything from the school’s root beliefs to contemporary issues like environmental injustice.

Eagle Circle is one of scores of “culture carrier” practices in our schools—mechanisms our schools can use to translate their root beliefs into everyday practice so, as Partnership Assistant Superintendent Christian Dallavis says, “by graduation, you could watch our students’ actions and know what they believe.”

Eighth grader Gavin adds that Eagle Circle is simply “a good way to start the week off–energized and ready to learn, rather than jumping straight in.”

Two students reflect together during an Eagle Circle activity.

It is usually led by adults. But when Gianna asked that Eagle Circle time focus on the way students were communicating with each other, she also knew that a student needed to lead the session–and despite her nerves, she knew that student should be her.

She approached Dean Rivera with the idea; developed the activities and slide deck; and when the time came, she took the mic. Gianna had decided that the path to positive communication just involved getting to know each other’s interests better–and that the effort could start with connecting to new students or those in a different grade that her classmates might not know well.

In two rounds of conversations, students found partners and talked about a range of topics Gianna proposed, from favorite scary movies to goals they have. And Gianna shared tips about how to have positive conversations.

And in the weeks since, ICS’s administration has noticed some positive changes, including more students stepping up to ask to lead Eagle Circle and address topics they think are important to the community. “Where you lead,” Ms. Rivera notes, “others follow.”

Even as some adults in contexts like airplanes and Twitter struggle to value or maintain strong positive communications, Gianna and her classmates are doing just that. And the Immaculate Conception community is getting yet another taste of the progress and hope that can spring from intentionally crafted school cultures–with strong root beliefs they seek to put into practice, and routines like Eagle Circle that make it possible to do so.