By Donald Wittkowski
Most of the time, students at Ocean City High School are focusing on history, math, English, chemistry and other subjects typical of their classroom studies.
But when hundreds of freshmen filed into the auditorium on Friday, the “teacher,” a guy nicknamed Breeze, told them the subject would be “hip hop 101.”
Students who volunteered to join Breeze on stage followed his lead to learn the latest steps, slides and spins that are part of the hip hop and breakdancing repertoire.
Yes, believe it or not, this was school.
Each year, the high school’s incoming freshman class goes through a daylong orientation that combines entertainment, pop culture, athletics and social consciousness. An anti-bullying component is included.
It is an elaborate event called Freshman Teambuilding Day. It helps freshmen make the transition from middle school to high school, where they are confronted with a host of new academic and social challenges, including blending in with the upperclassmen.
“It’s a big jump from middle school to high school,” explained Chris Clark, a social studies teacher who organizes the teambuilding day with special education teacher Nicole McMaster.
“We’re just trying to get the younger kids to interact with the upperclassmen. We want them to get to know some new faces,” McMaster added.
Clark described Freshman Teambuilding Day as the only event of its kind in New Jersey’s schools. Ocean City has been doing it for about 10 years.
Clark said the high school originally tried using traditional classroom instruction to help the freshmen acclimate to a whole new environment, but later discovered it was more effective to expose them to more unconventional teambuilding methods.
“It’s really about making connections and building relationships with other kids in school,” he said.
One freshman, 14-year-old Kate Carter, of Margate, said the teambuilding day would help her to collaborate with other students, including upperclassmen.
“Meeting new people can open new doors,” Carter said.
The activities were highlighted by a dance performance by a Philadelphia group called Hip Hop Fundamentals. HHF is an educational consultant that uses music and dance to engage students who might not otherwise be reached through traditional teaching methods.
“Are you guys ready to see some dancing?” HHF co-founder Steve “Steve Believe” Lunger said in a booming voice to energize the freshmen.
Accompanied by a thumping soundtrack, Lunger and fellow dancers Mark “Metal” Wong, David “DKizzo” Kruth and Tarrell “Breeze” Edwards performed new and old-school breakdancing moves while mixing in history lessons about hip hop culture.
Students were invited up on stage to learn the basics of breakdancing and try their luck at some improvised rap lyrics. Don’t worry, parents, they kept the lyrics clean.
“Are you guys having fun? Is this a good start to your education?” Lunger asked at one point, eliciting applause and roars of approval from the audience.
Joey D’Amico, a 14-year-old freshman from Margate, said he was completely surprised to find out that his school day would include a history lesson on hip hop and breakdancing.
“I think it’s cool to learn about the history of hip hop,” D’Amico said. “It’s definitely a different type of learning. It’s not math or science or history or the more traditional type of learning. It’s something new.”
The approximately 320 freshmen in this year’s class also spent time outside at the high school football stadium for a series of athletic events that promoted teambuilding.
More than 30 teachers, 160 upperclassmen and some local police officers and firefighters were part of the activities, Clark said.
Forest Wan, 17, a senior from Upper Township, was one of the upperclassmen helping the freshmen with their orientation. He noted that the teambuilding day was an important part of his transition to high school when he was a freshman.
“It’s an important job and role for me to do,” Wan said. “I feel I have a moral obligation to help these younger students.”
Tom Ballezzi, now a math teacher, recalled going through teambuilding day when he was a high school freshman in 2007. As a senior, he was one of the upperclassmen who served in a mentoring role to the freshmen.
“It’s something I remember to this day,” Ballezzi said. “In my freshman year, it was such a great experience. Then I wanted to give back as an upperclassman. Now, I’m giving back as a teacher.”