Warner Middle School prioritizes student growth at ‘Stranger Things’-themed conference

Warner Middle School students showed their peers how to improve their communication, embrace their individuality and prepare for their future during a “Stranger Things”-themed Kid Conference on Wednesday, March 8.

This annual student-led event was created more than 20 years ago at the Westminster School District campus to encourage greater student involvement on campus and help students develop stronger communication skills, said principal Dr. Kenneth Lopour.

Members of Warner’s Associated Student Body, the yearbook club and the Peer Assistance Leadership program teamed up with students from Westminster High School to organize the Kid Conference from the first activity to the last. The Associated Student Body helped craft this year’s “Make Your Strangeness Matter” theme and added updated leadership practices and team-building exercises they learned from a seminar last summer.

Throughout the day, students moved from one 30-minute breakout session to the next, moving out of their comfort zones as they competed in fast-paced games and picked up new ways to spread kindness on campus. Sixth- through eighth-grade students were encouraged via posters and fliers through their campus halls to embrace their positive attributes like bravery, optimism and courage.

With a focus on making new connections, working in teams and learning about oneself, the middle schoolers chose to highlight media with similar themes — specifically, the hit Netflix sci-fi series, “Stranger Things.”

Alongside the unpredictable adventures that the show’s characters like Eleven, Mike and Max get wrapped up in, they also deal with the pressures of fitting in and discovering their true selves — struggles that some Warner students said they have faced in the past.

Issues with self-confidence, standing up to bullies and peer pressure around nicotine use are concerns for some students, said seventh-grader Evelyn Vidal.

In activities like “Escape Vape-na,” — a nod to the series’ villain, Vecna — peer leaders addressed these problems by educating their classmates on the negative effects that vaping can have on their physical and mental health. They also emphasized the need for mental health support in the “Building your Defenses against the Upside-Down” session by constructing bags filled with written words of affirmations to help one another fight the negative thoughts that can sometimes occupy students’ minds.

Seventh-grader and Peer Assistance Leadership student Donna Huynh said her goal was to guide her peers to learn the school’s priorities of collaboration and positive thinking while leading them to “make their uniqueness matter and bring out their individuality.”

Sixth-graders in nearby classrooms took part in multiple sessions that focused on improving their verbal and nonverbal communication. In the “Giants in a Strange World” activity, students formed groups of five to build a fort made of colorful index cards without being allowed to speak to each other.

“As a school, we find that there’s a tangible benefit,” Dr. Lopour said of the impact of the Kid Conference on classrooms. “Students are actually treating each other nicer, they’re kinder to each other and it’s setting us up for our upcoming academic rigor that happens at the end of the year with state testing.”

While sixth- and seventh-grade sessions centered on embracing oneself and building relationships, eighth-graders met with representatives from Westminster High School to start building their futures. High schoolers from the MERITS, AVID, yearbook and the Puente programs led presentations and answered questions about what to expect when moving to a new campus.

“With the career day we’re offering tomorrow, our goal was to create an all-encompassing career and high school exploration opportunity for our students,” Dr. Lopour said.

For the last session of the day, the eighth-grade groups met with Westminster High counselors to begin their course selection process. Warner Middle and Westminster students ended the conference with an assembly showcasing some of the extracurricular programs that may be offered to eighth-graders next year along with performances from its colorguard, cheer, dance and Vietnamese-American culture clubs.

Westminster junior Kelly Ninh shared in a district video that she hopes that the Kid Conference activities could help show Warner students that they have support from older grade levels and resources from staff once they reach high school.