Students decorate Sheffield Area Middle/High School

Students in Sheffield have decked the halls.

At their school.

The recent Christmas tradition at Sheffield Area Middle/High School and Sheffield Area Elementary School originally came about as a way to blow off some steam after PSSA testing.

Said SAMHS Student Council Advisor Sarah Connolly, this is the second consecutive year that the school has come together in a coordinated effort to bring the spirit of the season into their community spaces. But it was about five years ago, when PSSA scores were down and students needed a lift from the heavy work of testing. Tests were held in the morning, said Connolly, and in the afternoon that year students would work on Christmas decorations as a way to decompress.

The tradition, however, “fizzled out,” said Connolly. Much like the traditional “hanging of the greens,” a common service in western churches and schools where evergreens are brought indoors to signify everlasting life, in the case of churches, and to raise Christmas spirit among students, Sheffield’s coordinated decorating fell by the wayside for a while.

“I wanted to do it again this year,” said Connolly, who said that last year was the first revival of what she hopes will remain an ongoing school tradition. “We started talking about it before the Thanksgiving break this year,” Connolly said of student council, and work on the mostly handmade decorations that flow from every entrance and throughout every hall of the combined elementary, middle, and high school building began the first week of December.

Students are given opportunities to use flexible times throughout the school day – study halls, homeroom periods, and even working lunches – to work on decorations as a group. “They take pride in it,” said Connolly of the homemade decorations. And it’s clear to see by the amount of time they put into the decorations, as well as the fact that they are not being destroyed or ripped down by anyone once they’re placed, that students value them, Connolly said. “It’s all about student ownership.”

“It’s seamless, said school counselor Matt Menard, who splits his week between Sheffield and Warren Area Elementary Center. One of his favorite things about the Sheffield decoration effort is that no hallway is left undecorated, and no matter where you are between the two schools, the entire building is exemplary of the Christmas spirit. “And with (the) time comes pride,” he said. He agrees with Connolly that the Christmas decorating tradition at Sheffield not only gives students something to look forward to in terms of fun, but it bonds them as a group.

“They have responsibility,” said Connolly, who organizes the efforts each year, but who said that “without the other teachers getting involved I could never pull something like this off.” Students are given loose instructions and, depending on how their teachers decide to implement the program, they get to choose many elements of their decorations including themes, individual decoration creation, and making decisions about placement and execution of their collective ideas.

A letter went home with students indicating that school art class supplies shouldn’t be used for the project, but that donations from the community, teachers, and students themselves will be accepted. She also called for donations on Facebook. And the community, she said, responded enthusiastically. No less than seven Christmas trees, including decorations and lights, have been donated and set up around the school outside of “traffic” areas, and the wall spaces above lockers, bulletin boards, doors, and windows have been designated as fair game.

Students were broken up into grades from 6th through 12th, and student council, yearbook committee, and teacher’s aides got their own groups together. Elementary students and faculty also coordinated to make sure that their halls were just as festive. Anyone not interested in participating, said Connolly, were able to opt out and have free time supervised by a teacher. One entire day was devoted to the hanging of the students’ decorations, from 12:30 to 3 p.m., and Student Council has also sponsored a door decorating contest that will be running through Friday. “It’s become a tradition,” said Connolly. “Hopefully one that we continue.”

She said that students have already begun to talk about who wants to take what decorations home, adding that even on the day everything gets taken down the decorations are still always treated reverently, with students often negotiating who gets to keep which decorations.