At Woodland Christian High School, we have struggled for some time with how to enfold all of our students into a Christian community of learning. We are aware that some students, for a host of reasons, find it difficult to connect and find a place to flourish at school. For many students who do not feel a sense of belonging, engaging in the learning process is a daily challenge. After many discussions with caring teachers and students, we started “At the Table.” As one of the teachers on the forefront of the development of this club, Ruth Arthur has joined me in writing this article to describe the efforts we are making to offer hospitality to our students.
At the Table is a group that was born out of a deep desire to enfold students in meaningful, safe, and inclusive ways. As a gathering of students and staff facilitators, At the Table practises intentional community, confidentiality, “filling the table”, and radical hospitality. In this way, we hope to be a place of belonging for students struggling with things like mental health, social isolation, self-image, identity, sexuality, or racism.
At the Table gathers every other week, one week with junior students (Grades 9 and 10) and the other with senior students (Grades 11 and 12). We set a table with tablecloths, candles, and greenery, working to create the atmosphere of celebration a family might experience as they gather around a table for a holiday meal. Intentional community is built through the sharing of food and conversation. It was our hope to provide a hot lunch to each student who attended, and to use real cutlery, plates, glasses, etc. but the pandemic complicated things. We have settled on students bringing their own lunch, while we provide quality snacks. As we eat, we give each student the opportunity to answer the following questions:
- What is one thing you are grateful for this week?
- What is one thing that has been difficult this week?
- What is one thing that no one here (or very few people) know about you?
During our first meeting of the year (and every subsequent meeting when new students join), we discuss the practices of At the Table with students. We stress that this is a place where we try to love and accept each student for who they are. We are here to listen to each other and to value each other—no judging, no labelling. We also discuss the importance of confidentiality, asking that what is shared around the table remains at the table. We encourage students as they arrive to sit in the next available seat; filling up the table in this way ensures that each student is sitting beside at least one other student. Finally, we ask students to practise radical hospitality by showing up faithfully, being fully present during meetings, actively listening to others share, and striving to vulnerably share themselves. We read the questions. We name the fact that building community can feel awkward and uncomfortable, but that repetition and time allow us to better know and understand each other. We also explain that having set questions is intended to remove any anxiety students might feel about sharing in a group. They know what questions will be asked, and are therefore able to form answers before sharing at the table.
Last year, when school moved online, At the Table continued to gather via Zoom. We asked students to turn on their cameras and bring their lunches. We shared pictures of our tables at home, whether set beautifully or piled with laundry, laptops, and dirty coffee mugs! Some of our students even made their lunches during our gatherings as they had limited time between classes and still wanted to attend.
We have struggled, as staff facilitators, with how best to advertise At the Table. We decided to focus on the language of belonging and building intentional community, inviting students who “feel like they can’t be themselves at school or haven’t yet found their place at school,” as well as inviting students who “desire to be a good friend and ally to others but aren’t sure how to do so.” This enabled us to clearly communicate that all students are welcome at the table!
While we are still in the early days of At the Table—and have faced some challenges in establishing the group during the COVID pandemic (especially with junior students)—we are excited about what we are hearing from students and what we are observing as staff facilitators. Students need a place to share the challenges they face and the questions they have without fear of judgement—a place to be accepted and valued for who they are. Staff facilitators, whose lives are guided by a commitment to following Jesus, play a significant role in accompanying our students through these challenges. It is our hope that through hospitality, we can consistently offer hope, grace, and a place for belonging to all of our students.
Ruth Arthur has taught English and Bible at Woodland Christian High School for over 15 years. John Van Pelt is principal at Woodland Christian High School and the Upper Grand regional cohort leader.
 These questions, as well as the idea of gathering around a table were inspired by the Edvance Annual Gathering 2020 speaker, David Brooks.
 The idea of filling the next available seat came from knowledge of Conrad Greble’s use of this practice.