New Oak Knoll School Program EmpowHERs Middle School Girls

Seventh and eighth-grade Oak Knoll students learned how to push their boundaries, step out of their comfort zones and take risks during the school’s four-day EmpowHER program September 9-14, 2021

EmpowHER is an Oak Knoll School signature program that teaches girls to build confidence, take risks and to be themselves. 

Before their regular academic classes began for the new school year, Oak Knoll School seventh and eighth grade middle school students participated in programmatic workshops led by seventh and eighth grade teachers and advisors. 

This marks the first academic school year that EmpowHER is weaved into the middle school’s curriculum.

“The program is intentionally designed to be taught by the grade-level teachers as an opportunity for the teachers and students to learn from each other in a non-traditional academic setting,” said Kathryn McGroarty, Upper School Division Head. “Faculty and students forge relationships based on a shared experience that creates connections through each unique activity. EmpowHER not only asks each girl to grow as an individual, but also the class and the grade-level team to grow and bond as a group.” 

Christine Mahoney, Oak Knoll School Upper School Counselor, said that EmpowHER is so important for young women to engage in because it helps them to build an even greater sense of self, confidence, and empowers their ability to thrive as independent individuals.

“During my time observing this program being implemented, I saw the girls coming together as one, united group,” said Mahoney. “They explored a variety of conversational topics, which I believe has further helped to expand their self-awareness with others and within themselves. Being new to Oak Knoll School, I thought it was very rewarding to see such a significant student connection, and it says a lot about the values that Oak Knoll strongly believes in reinforcing.” 

Although new to the Upper School curriculum this fall, the idea surrounding EmpowHER began churning during the summer of 2018 when a parent left a copy of the “The Confidence Code,” by Claire Shipman, senior national correspondent with “Good Morning America,” and Katty Kay, BBC journalist, in Head of School Jennifer G. Landis’s office. 

After being inspired by the work of Shipman and Kay, Landis and Nicole Johnston, Upper School History Department chair and teacher, initiated their own journey to develop a program tailored to the Upper School to empower and inspire girls. 

During the summer of 2019, Landis and Johnston launched “Confidence Counts,” a week-long pilot program for EmpowHER. There, the girls participated in various activities and scenarios which encouraged them to be supportive of one another as they tackled individual and group challenges, sometimes out of their comfort zones. 

“Our vision was that it would provide students with some bonding and team-building opportunities in addition to providing some specific skills around risk-taking, failure, and recovery, as well as conflict resolution, perseverance, self-reflection and wellness,” said Landis. 

Last week, Oak Knoll School’s seventh-
 and eighth-grade students embarked on the EmpowHER program designed to inspire, empower and boost confidence, especially through failure. 

Workshops included lessons on the importance of building trust, friendships, how to identify and fix failures, and how to risk plan. One group activity about taking risks asked students to choose their least favorite activity — dancing, singing, or acting. Then, students were asked to perform the activity that made them feel most uncomfortable in front of their peers.  

Through this performance, Caroline Burr ’27 of Westfield learned that it’s OK to take risks and that risks can help to boost your confidence 

“The girls responded so enthusiastically to the skits when they had to act them out,” said Rebecca Mull, Upper School World Language teacher. “They did great, and you would have never known that these were their lease favorite activities because they were all so enthusiastic.”

Another workshop lead by Upper School Dean of 7-9 Students Edith Ticona, walked students through the process of failure fixes.

“It’s always better to fix a little problem than it is a bigger problem,” said Ticona. “So, at the beginning of a problem if you don’t understand something speak up,” Ticona said. 

“There are going to be times when you get a grade that you’re not happy about so by supporting each other it will make a huge difference,” she said. “They had to journal about their failures afterwards and write down in the journals about what they learned.”

Juliette Polking ’27
of Kinnelon said that she loved learning that she and her fellow students are alike because they all share similar failed experiences. 

Alani Bolivar ’27 of East Orange agreed adding that she loved the program activities that showcased how students could improve their confidence. 

“My favorite thing so far has been all of the confidence building activities,” Bolivar said. 

Upper School English teacher Natasha Ludlow and Colleen Bradley, Upper School theology teacher and member of Campus Ministry, led a workshop of eighth graders and discussed how to “find your squad” – the importance of choosing the right people in life to trust. 

“Trust is a big deal,” said Ludlow. “So, when you’re choosing who these people are in your life that you can go to for different things you want to make sure that you trust that person. We all need a squad of people who we can trust for different reasons and with different information like your parents, siblings, friends, teachers and coaches. You also might look back on this list of your squad members in the months to come and this list may change and that’s normal.”

The EmpowHER program is set to become a permanent staple in Oak Knoll School’s academic curriculum in the years ahead but will shift to focus primarily on seventh grade as that is the transition to the Upper School at Oak Knoll.

“COVID sidelined the rollout last year, so I am delighted that the seventh- and eighth-grade team was able to launch this program with the students in both grades this September,” said Landis. “I have heard some excellent reviews from students and parents about the benefits of starting the school year off in a way that helps form strong relationships and a shared experience rooted in challenges, fun, cooperation, and self-awareness.” 

Other workshop topic discussions included how similarities and differences help groups, lessons on community building and friendships, how to build communications skills and teamwork, lessons on being a culture critic and lessons about failure and discussions about role models and the importance of having gratitude. 

“When I think about the most important, trusted relationships in my life, they all started from a shared experience,” said Johnston. “This program is unique because all participants – teachers and students – are asked to move out of their comfort zone. The nervousness and excitement students feel is also felt by the teachers. Subbing an eighth-grade class one morning, I noticed the confidence the students had in asking me questions even though we had never met. EmpowHER helps students as individuals grow in confidence and the class establish a genuine camaraderie.”

Oak Knoll students wrapped up this year’s EmpowHER program eager to offer advice to next year’s class who are set to enter the program next fall. 

Marley Cioce ’27 of Essex Fells said that the program is a big confidence booster because it teaches her to always think about the bright side of things.

“I learned that if you are worried, that you don’t need to be because the people here are really uplifting and they will give you very good advice to help with anything,” said Angeli Garcia ’27 of Elizabeth.

As educators in a girls’ school, we wanted a program that helped our students to feel empowered as individuals and mutually supportive as classmates,” Landis said. “The benefits of knowing one’s own strengths and relying on others for support is a life lesson that we are thrilled the students are embracing as the school year begins.”


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