Welcome to High School

by Joyce Mason

The first day of high school is one of our culture’s inevitable rites of passage.

For most young people, arrival in high school represents a significant shift in status. Like achieving teenager status on one’s 13th birthday, this is a moment that is long anticipated, pretty exciting and often scary.

Guidance and classroom teachers in both middle and secondary schools are always looking for ways of smoothing the transition.

At Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School in London, teachers are pleased to report that senior students are taking the lead in guiding younger ones.


It’s noon on the first Friday in May. Hundreds of Grade 8 students are arriving at Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School carrying sleeping bags, PJs, toiletries and other essentials for an expedition into the unknown.

As they enter the building they are met by senior Banting students – many dressed in wild costumes – who check off their names, assign them a colour, and direct them to join one of 15 colour teams in the cafeteria. Once there, they meet the two student skill-builders who will lead and guide their team of Grade 8s for the next 24 hours.

“When they come into the cafeteria carrying their sleeping bags, some look terrified.”

“When they come into the cafeteria carrying their sleeping bags – a lot of them accompanied by parents – some look terrified and really unhappy,” says Nancy Carson, head of guidance at Banting. “Although they know – we tell them – that they are not going to be in a group with their friends, when their friend is going to the orange group and they are going to the purple group and these crazily dressed kids are greeting them …”

But the fun soon begins and the mood shifts pretty quickly.

This 24-hour event and sleepover is known as Wild Card. Wild Card is not a recruitment event – students will have chosen their high schools by March – it is a welcome-in-advance organized by senior students.

Preparing to lead

The team leaders, known as skill-builders, are Grades 11 and 12 students. All have applied to do this and have convinced their peers that they have the resourcefulness and kindness necessary to lead a group of Grade 8s through the next 24 hours. The role is highly coveted.

“We take about six hours going through the applications,” says Emily, one of the senior student organizers for Wild Card 2008. “If they have a good application and they’re a good kid then absolutely we’ll put them on the list.”

Still, there are not enough skill-builder positions for all who would like them, so there is an extensive list of additional roles for senior students in areas like security, entertainment, food services and videography.

Organizers are looking for the most responsible and positive students to act as skill-builders. “You don’t have to be the perfect candidate but there has to be potential,” says Emily.

Organizers address prospective problems in advance. Emily provides an example: When members of the organizing committee had reservations about one applicant, they discussed it with him and found the process was really valuable. He ended up being a “fabulous” skill-builder.

“The process allowed him to realize there were certain things he needed to improve on and encouraged him to build on his strengths.”

When selecting skill-builders there are multiple considerations. Organizers want both those who’ve done it before and first-timers from Grade 11, who will be able to take the lead the following year. Each team must have one boy and one girl, matched by organizers for complementary skills and compatibility.

Before they partner up, skill-builders have a full day of training that includes icebreaking, trust and boundary-breaking exercises. In one exercise, each of the boys spends two minutes with each of the girls and then rotates to the next. Those in both groups have to focus and listen to the other person to learn a little something about their prospective partners.

“It’s a little like speed dating really,” laughs Emily. “It’s funny and the things they talk about in two minutes … you start on one topic and end up somewhere totally different.”

By the end of the day, everyone feels very comfortable with the entire group.

Skill-builders have their training day two weeks before Wild Card. They get to know each other and train for what they are going to do so that any concerns or questions they have can be ironed out before Wild Card begins.

Because some have done it before and some haven’t, they are able to learn from each other’s experiences. For example, they will talk about how they’ve handled it when there is a kid who doesn’t want to participate.

As Emily points out, “Not all kids in Grade 8 are gung-ho for being crazy and everything, and a lot of them think they’re too cool for many of the activities.”

The consensus is that the best thing to do is take it easy on these “cool” kids and let them know it’s OK if they don’t feel comfortable with it. Surprisingly, they do eventually come around.

This year there were 30 skill-builders for 15 teams of Grade 8s and another 70 students involved in various support roles, including security, kitchen duty, video production and more. These others have two one-hour training sessions prior to the event to ensure that they all know what will be expected of them and when.

Let the games begin

As the day gets under way, the Grade 8 teams are led through a series of fun- and game-filled sessions: icebreakers, teamwork and communications, trust, boundary breakers.

There is food – giant submarine sandwiches.

There are performances and entertainment.

There is more food – pizza and salad.

“At the end of the night, we have the boundary-breaker sessions,” says Emily. “It’s a nice atmosphere where they can talk about different things.”

Before starting, they get comfy, light some candles (placed on foil to catch drips) and set the ground rules: anyone can pass on answering a question, don’t debate, don’t judge, don’t pry, respect confidence.

Skill-builders have a list of more than 40 questions to draw from in the handy little manual they received during their training. Depending on their group’s interests and level of maturity, which the skill-builders will have a reasonable sense of by now, they may ask different things, ranging from what’s your favourite song or kind of music, or describe a happy memory, to when was the last time you cried?

Once they’re done with the boundary breakers, the boys and girls are sorted off into their respective gymnasiums for the night, guarded by security and teachers, and the skill-builders have a break from the kids for five hours or so, until breakfast.

“In eleven years, I’ve only once sent a student home.”

“This is when we have a scheduled staff meeting with the skill-builders,” says Carson, “to discuss any issues or situations that concern them.

“But really we encourage them to reach out for help if they need it, whenever they need it.

“The skill-builders are very good and work very hard, but they aren’t afraid to ask for help. They may come to one of the teachers to say, “I have these two kids in my group who seem to be in conflict and what can I do.”

Without interfering, the teachers keep a watchful eye for possible problems.

This year, for example, Carson was concerned about one Grade 8 boy who had been quite negative and very opinionated during a school tour in January. Initially, during Wild Card, there were problems with him being insulting to kitchen staff and others. She was even considering pulling him out and sending him home, which is indeed rare.

“In eleven years, I’ve only once sent a student home,” she says. But it did not come to that this year. “The senior skill-builder really wanted us to leave the boy with him. He was determined to turn the situation around.”

And he did.

“It reminded me of how hard the leaders work to make connections,” says Carson.

A new day

Wild Card’s Saturday morning usually arrives with a minimum of sleep and, in the boys’ gym, the spray of water guns from the mezzanine.

Everyone gathers in the cafeteria again for exercises, and breakfast is served. Then the whole gang heads back to the gymnasium for activities before breaking into their teams again. In the smaller groups they discuss what they’ve done together and skill-builders take time to tell individuals what they’ve appreciated and enjoyed about them. As the morning nears its end, all teams come together again and skill-builders begin handing out pieces of paper, which the kids tape to each other’s backs. This is a closing ritual borrowed from DARE. (See Wild Card Beginnings on this page.)

“At DARE we start with, ‘I’m special because …’ but at Wild Card we write, ‘I’m wild because …’ And they go around and write on each other’s back something positive, something they enjoyed about that person. And you have to stop them because they want to keep going.”


Teams are led through a series of game-filled sessions, including trust builders and boundary breakers.

Parents arrive to pick up the children and everyone watches a videotape of the preceding 24 hours. High school students have been filming throughout and have stayed up all night to edit, finally burning the end result to DVD at 5:30 AM.

When the parents arrive at noon on Saturday, the change is marked.

“The parents are a little antsy to get going and the kids are lagging behind. They’re hugging their skill-builders, they’re hugging each other,” says Carson. “They really don’t want to go. And that’s the part that’s most moving to me.”

Getting there from here

While students often know about Wild Card from older siblings or friends – and it reflects a great deal about the atmosphere of the school, which is no doubt a draw for many – Banting staff and students make it clear that Wild Card is not a recruiting event.

First, they don’t promote Wild Card until the end of March or early April, after decisions about high schools have been made.

Second, as Banting principal Tony Jones points out, while most of those attending Wild Card will be students at Banting in the fall, Wild Card is open to any Grade 8 student in Banting’s feeder schools. There is a lot that these young people get out of the experience. Other area schools have some special programs or offer different extracurricular opportunities. But that doesn’t mean that their students won’t get something valuable out of Wild Card, and Banting staff members agree that they want as many kids as possible to have access to those benefits.

This year, of the 205 Grade 8 students who attended Wild Card, 21 were registered to attend other schools.

In late March and early April, Banting students visit the feeder schools to make presentations about Wild Card. They bring along information packages that include a description of the event and its purpose, permission forms and a list of things the students may and may not bring.

There are costs involved in putting on the Wild Card event and the Grade 8s are asked to pay $35 each.

“But we make it clear that if someone can’t afford that, they can still come,” says George, the student-body president at Banting who watched over the financial end of the event this year. Organizers budget to cover those who can’t afford to pay, try to keep costs to a minimum and look for donations.

Taking the lead

Students are the power behind Wild Card. They started it. They love it and they keep it going. They fundraise and they organize. This year about 100 Banting students were involved in running the event, out of a student body of approximately 1,100.

Each year the students choose a new theme and closely guard the secret so the theme itself will be part of the surprise and excitement when the Grade 8s arrive. This year’s theme was travel, specifically, Around the World in Two Days!

Banting students compete to design a theme-based Wild Card T-shirt. They apply to work on various committees, to serve food and to guard and guide their younger charges. They also offer up their talents and tricks as potential entertainers.

“During the event we offer different workshops, like a dance workshop or someone teaching card tricks,” says Emily. “We try to showcase all kinds of talents.”

As much as possible, students work to integrate the year’s theme into the unfolding events. For example, in 2007, when the theme was Circus, they set up activities in the style of a three-ring circus and were able to showcase a range of surprising and previous hidden talents from among their peers – who included jugglers, tumblers and contortionists.


In the girls’ gymnasium, morning arrives with a minimum of sleep.

This year’s entertainment included a performance by Grade 9 students titled The Nightmares of High School, in which the horrors thankfully dissolved with a final awakening to the reality of high school.

Wild Card also draws on the services of professionals. The Grade 8s were particularly impressed by Jeff West, a hypnotist who also teaches at Fanshawe College. Ian Tyson, a motivational speaker, was also a great hit.

Tyson spoke about being in the moment and not letting the years of high school slip by, about not being too shy and not afraid to be silly. And he led by example.

The Grade 8 students refer to him as the comedian.

“Yeah,” says Emily. “I don’t think they realize that he is really teaching them something. He’s just so hilarious that he gets across to everyone really well.”

Good clean fun

“It’s all about good clean fun,” is a phrase that comes up frequently among student organizers, administration and guidance counsellors involved in the project.

“We are concerned about maintaining young people’s innocence,” says Carson.

The training manual for the student leaders and volunteers makes it explicit that they are in a position of responsibility – they are role models and guardians. Their mission is to create a space of acceptance, adventure, safety and fun.

“Wild Card was awesome!”

“One year, early on, I thought we could add in something about study skills,” laughs Carson. “That truly was the teacher in me thinking, ‘Wow, we’ve got all these kids getting ready for high school. What an opportunity.’

“But it really isn’t about that, and all these years later I’ve come to my senses. Really it’s all about kindness. It’s good clean fun. It’s making connections. It is completely about how to get on the right foot in that social sense. And really it’s about fun.”

The high points

“When the Grade 8s arrive back at the school the Monday after Wild Card, they are so pumped and excited,” says Heather Buchan, a learning support and Grade 8 science teacher at Orchard Park Elementary School – one of Banting’s feeder schools. “Most of them are wearing their Wild Card T-shirts.”

Two Grade 8 girls at Orchard Park agree: “Wild Card was awesome!”

They admit that they didn’t want to be separated from their friends when they first arrived but that it probably helped. “It was a good way to meet new people.”

They rhyme off the highlights: games, boundary breakers, a hypnotist, the sleepover, water guns, the comedian, the dance.

One sums it up: “It was so fun,” she says.

When asked if they think it made a difference for them about how they’ll feel heading off to high school in the fall, there is no hesitation or doubt. The answer is a resounding yes.

“I’d have been so nervous,” says this almost blissfully happy 13-year-old. Then she and her friend both laugh, perhaps recalling a sweetly fading memory of the butterflies they felt before Wild Card from the buoyant perspective of their new and more confident selves.


Wild Card security crew

Wild Card beginnings

The idea for Wild Card sprang into being 12 years ago with two students who were enrolled in a leadership program and looking for a project. 

Nancy Carson, head of guidance at Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School in London, recalls the genesis of the idea.

Emily and Andrew had taken part in DARE, an overnight leadership retreat held each fall at Banting that is open to students from all grades. They got a lot out of it and thought, wouldn’t it be great if Grade 9s could arrive at Banting already liking the school and already having fun.

“Our principal at the time, Ted McTavish, really believed in the students and their leadership. They were stellar kids and I really trusted their judgment,” says Carson.

So under the supervision of Carson, the students were given a green light and the first Wild Card sprang into existence the following spring, in 1998.

Carson recalls that it wasn’t easy trying to sell it to the Grade 8s because you had nothing to compare it to.

“I think we had around 120 Grade 8s that first year. So it was smaller but still pretty substantial,” recalls Carson, giving full credit to the “pure charisma” of the two students who went out to the feeder schools to make presentations to students.

This year, student organizers presented Carson with an album filled with mementos from past Wild Cards, including thank-you letters from Emily and Andrew. Emily now leads corporate retreats; she calls them Wild Cards for adults. Andrew, who thought he would become a teacher, is an organic farmer in BC. In his letter, he talks about wanting to maintain that childhood spirit – to have fun and enjoy the laughter in life.

Leading to high school

Although Sir Frederick Banting High School’s Wild Card is unusual in being open to students who will not be attending the school and in offering Grade 8 students this kind of welcoming experience months before high school begins, schools across the province have a wide range of orientation tools at their disposal. Variations and innovations abound and the leadership roles of senior students are very important.

Schools offer information sessions for next year’s students every winter. There are printed guides to high school, and Grade 8s visit many prospective high schools for a day in January, when they walk through the school and have a chance to attend Grade 9 classes, demonstrations and information sessions. Senior students usually take strong leadership roles in these sessions.

There are presentations and performances by high school students for the students at feeder schools, including anti-bullying and anti-harassment presentations.


Senior students greet future Grade 9ers; it’s about not being afraid to be silly and not being too shy to have fun.

Welcome programs – orientation barbeques, full days of games and activities – take place either just prior to or shortly after the beginning of the school year. In many schools, senior students are paired with Grade 9s in mentorship and orientation programs.

According to Debbie Green, Student Success Co-ordinator in the Avon Maitland DSB, there are a wide range of transition programs that vary depending on needs, and once Grade 9 begins there are many support services.

Middle and high school teachers collaborate and communicate to make the move smoother. Grade 8 and 9 teachers frequently exchange information. Within many boards they also confer on marking and expectations. And, of course, guidance counsellors set up additional sessions for students who are identified as “at risk” – both before and during the transition.

Camp Lajeunesse

Like those who started Wild Card, organizers of a Windsor-area day camp held this July – for students entering l’École secondaire catholique E.J. Lajeunesse – see their purpose as helping students make the leap from Grade 8 to 9 and, even more than this, as making memories that will last a lifetime.

The Windsor-area students attended a month-long leadership camp. Like Wild Card, this program helps students gain confidence, improve communication skills, develop leadership skills and make new friends in advance of high school. But here, there is the academic bonus of earning a language credit in advance of the academic year. The camp stresses francité and community involvement, offers workshops in health, nutrition and drama, and culminates in a visit to Ottawa, where students participate in a theatre production, L’écho d’un people.

“Our Grade 9 students who participated in the camp last year are incredibly engaged,” says Michelle Bloomfield, vice-principal at E.J. Lajeunesse. “They’ve gotten involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities that Grade 9s don’t usually participate in.”

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