The ties that bind

[attach]751[/attach]What is a school without its traditions? Friday night dances, special football cheers, loving rivalries between teams or houses — these activities could be the mainstays of any school.

At Toronto’s independent and private schools, many traditions have taken a life of their own, often morphing from one-off events to full-blown annual activities that engage students in the classroom and beyond. Some even hold meaning for the surrounding community.

These customs can become the defining feature of a school.

At Fieldstone Day School, students and teachers live and breathe Shakespeare.

Every student from junior kindergarten to grade 12 learns about Shakespeare in a way that’s approachable. The entire school goes to Stratford to see a production each year, in addition to putting on its own versions of the bard’s work. There’s even a “Shakespeare Lane” that houses a mural, artifacts and posters featuring the playwright.

Shakespeare at this school is definitely an attitude.

When Fieldstone was started 12 years ago, the founder wanted every student to know Shakespeare because it fit with the school’s mandate of sharing information in a common language with successful people, says Melissa Volekaert, head of the lower school and grade 4 teacher.

As curriculum director at the time, Volekaert developed an engaging and fun learning program for all grade levels. Her “All the School’s a Stage” curriculum for the lower grades studying Shakespeare is well known in educational circles.

And what students learn in the classroom about the bard ties into a wider school tradition that has only grown as the years have gone by.

[attach]752[/attach]Shakespeare Day, held every year on April 23 (Shakespeare’s birth and death date), began years ago as a simple event with cupcakes and singing “Happy Birthday”.

Today it’s a production in its own right with students and teachers wearing period costumes and every class making a short presentation on what it’s learned about Shakespeare.

“It excites them as the kids see a bit about the plays they’re going to be reading about as they go through the grades,” Volekaert says of the day’s activities.

For the last four years, “The Shakespeare Challenge,” a Jeopardy-inspired trivia competition between students and teachers, has quickly established itself as a beloved tradition.

From trick questions to “What university did Shakespeare go to?” to subtler ones like “What colour flag would hang if A Midsummer Night’s Dream was being performed?” (the answer is white, in case you’re wondering), the event is a battle of the brains that complements what kids are learning.

“It takes what we’re doing in the classroom and makes it fun,” says Volekaert.

The challenge is also great for students’ self-esteem, she adds, because they realize they know something that would stump most people.

More generally, Volekaert sees the value of such traditions in fostering school spirit and a sense of community.

“It’s something the kids can identify their school with,” she says. “It gives them a chance to define who we are as a community and place themselves within that community.”

Community building has to start somewhere. At The Linden School, a birthday event on the very first day of the school’s existence in 1993 was initially meant to introduce new students to each other, says co-founder and board member Eleanor Moore.

The original event began with a breakfast, after which the girls organized themselves into their family groups. Each member of every “family” was given a badge with a word on it and the families had to work together to decode an inspiring quote from a famous woman. Once the sentence was figured out, each girl would stand up and in turn say their word that helped form the sentence.

“Everybody gave their voice,” says Moore, adding the idea of speaking fits with the school’s mission of providing students with a responsible voice.

When it comes to building upon the tradition, it didn’t take long for students to pick up the reigns and extend the first-day-of-school ritual into an end-of-year ritual.

As Moore describes it, two students who started at the school in its first year finished the program in four years instead of five. As the first graduates of the school, the students decided they wanted to speak about what they’d learned at the school at the graduation ceremony. To commemorate the event, the girls also wove wreaths of linden leaves and wore them to the ceremony.

“Here we are 16 years later and (we) still weave these wreaths,” says Moore.

Not only that, alumni return every year to place the linden wreaths on the heads of graduating students.

“Rituals are really significant in our lives,” Moore says. They’re also a means of learning about the community and passing on the culture of the school.

Former student Lidia Salvador, who graduated in 2007 and now works summers at the school, can speak to the power of such traditions. Because she moved a lot, she attended six different schools, yet Linden is so ingrained in her heart that she plans on working there full time in the future.

“I love the place,” says Salvador.

On her very first day of school during the birthday event, Salvador says she recalls thinking, “Wow, this is such a community”.

“It’s a great introduction,” she says of the beginning-of-year festivities. “It’s that emphasis on community we’re always talking about.”

At Salvador’s graduation, each and every student from the graduating class stood up and addressed specific teachers and thanked them for their contribution, in keeping with the tradition started by the first grads.

It just wouldn’t have been appropriate to have one student speak for the whole class, she says, especially since every girl hones her voice throughout the year through leadership roles and other activities.

“It’s almost as though your voice grows as you continue on,” Salvador says.

Instead of a tradition growing organically, sometimes it comes out of the blue — literally.

At Montcrest School, Kite Day has been going strong for more than 20 years. Art teacher Betty White, who’s been with the school 25 years, remembers walking out of the school one day and looking up into the wild blue yonder. In her mind soared an idea of what could be.

“I suddenly saw the sky full of kites,” says White.

Since then, Kite Day has been an annual May celebration. It starts with a speech in the school’s gymnasium followed by a procession down to Riverdale Park, where the students let loose the kites they made in art class.

Parents, alumni — you name it — come out to watch the march from across the street, says White.

“It’s become this huge family thing,” she says.

That ability for a tradition to develop a life of its own beyond the school’s walls is evident in the ways kids respond to the event. The kites become metaphors for all sorts of things, says White.

She mentions one child, who wasn’t the best of students, whose kite would never fly. But one year, a really good year for the student, that kite flew. The student was ecstatic.

Another boy didn’t want his kite to come down, so White let him tie it to the school fence. Another’s is still flying at the family cottage. It survived the winter.

“It’s a joyful period,” White says of the event. “It brings in the spring.”

Students have fun, but they also revere the custom in ways that are as surprising as they are mirthful.

One student, upon standing next to the special kite that is part of the procession only, declared to White, “Oh my God, I never thought I’d get this close to the ceremonial kite.”

Director of admissions Michael Dilworth sums up the value of Kite Day in terms anyone can appreciate: “It’s lovely having a tradition that’s pure childhood.”