Waterford fifth-graders make 'amazing' impressions
Waterford — Walking into Oswegatchie Elementary School on Thursday night, a few guests were greeted by a pair of young gentlemen holding open the door and wearing suit jackets, ties and excited grins despite the blistering cold.
"Hello, how are you?" they said, before briskly but politely heading inside to the gym, which had been transformed into what fourth grade teacher Allison Gallis called "The Gauntlet": a frenetic test of friendliness placing two dozen fifth-graders in a variety of 90-second challenges in manners, speech, poise and positivity.
Spearheaded by Gallis with help from substitute Ellen Dyjak, the competition followed months of voluntary before-school lessons in a localized version of The Amazing Shake etiquette and social competency program. Created at the Ron Clark Academy, an Atlanta, Ga., nonprofit middle school, The Amazing Shake National Competition is set for Feb. 22-24.
Wowing educators and volunteers serving as judges — with parents watching in suspense from the bleachers — the students on Thursday weaved between challenge stations and shook hands, made eye contact, set tables, conducted interviews, gave speeches on bullying, encouraged a rock wall climber and breezed through a mock newscast despite cue cards going haywire.
"It used to be hard to stand strong and go out of my way, but it's gotten way better," fifth-grader Jennie Macca said in an interview. "The lessons teach you life skills and teach you to be charismatic."
Gallis and Dyjak brought in personable locals and professionals to help with lessons the last several weeks: Principal Joe Macrino offered conversational advice; Superintendent Tom Giard taught a session on conflict resolution; and Waterford Police Department Officer Dan Lane ensured students remembered proper meet-and-greet techniques, including a firm handshake.
Macrino said both shy and gregarious students had learned listening skills and the importance of considering others' perspectives, all while offering genuine greetings and interactions without "a dog and pony show."
"I've had to speak with a lot fewer fifth-graders the last couple months," Macrino said with a smile, crediting Gallis, volunteers and students for making his job easier. "This program could have gotten me out of some trouble when I was younger."
"They're expected to know every staff members' name and greet them," Gallis said in an interview. "It's really powerful seeing them give a handshake to (Macrino) and then the younger kids see that and say, 'That's really cool,' and they give handshakes too."
Dyjak, whose son, Alex, joined the program, noted opening presents with family this past Christmas took almost an hour longer than usual because no one shredded open a gift without "opening the card first, acknowledging the person and thanking them. Alex's behavior was contagious."
The judges on Thursday narrowed the field to 10 top performing students, who were then treated to lunch at Filomena's on Friday. There, the students worked a room of judges, including local politicians, business and community leaders, keeping conversations flowing and carefully pouring one another glasses of ice water. Most, but not all the students, ensured napkins wound up in their laps just before food arrived.
Adyson Wiseman, Jameson Smith and Wynonna Tuang earned the top three spots. School staff will interview them on Tuesday, Feb. 5, before a winner is announced the next day, Gallis said.
"I definitely wasn't like this when I was 10," said Cristian Brown, an East Lyme native and student at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point who served as a judge Friday. "With phones and iPads, you hear people talking about kids spending time on technology, but these kids are here to show they are more than capable of talking face-to-face and keeping great conversations. If I was working at a business, I'd hire all of them."
Giard applauded Gallis' leadership and said the program, which might expand to other district schools next year, "truly is teaching them life skills that will serve them well as students and as adults throughout their lives."
Gallis said if the program grows in popularity, it's possible students could compete at the national level in future years.
But Alex Dyjak said The Amazing Shake isn't just about competition.
"Everybody won because everybody learned social skills," he said. "Everybody I see here is a better person and has changed."
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