Creating an Amtgard group within a public high school can be a little challenging. As one of the organizers of a successful group I felt it might be useful to others I shared some of the lessons learned. Some things were handled particularly well and others were very much a failure. Hopefully both will aid others who want to do something similar.
To give a context to our school situation it is important to note that we are a large high school in a suburban to rural area. We have a population of approximately 2,100 students. The school has many after school clubs that range from the common (Key Club, Board Game Club, Gay/Straight Alliance) to the more uncommon (Harry Potter Club, Ultimate Frisbee Club, Star Wars Club). To someone not involved in education the process of getting a school club up and running can seem somewhat mysterious, so in an attempt to explain away some of the mystery here is how we organized ours.
The process in our school (and from talking to other educators in other school) is essentially this:
1. Students decide they want a club and find a staff member willing to sponsor the club.
2. Paperwork is submitted to the principal.
3. Club is approved/disapproved at the school level or sometimes passed up to the county level for approval
4. Club begins meeting and advertising.
For Amtgard as a whole the easiest way to streamline this process is to try to court educators and bring them in as active park members. These people will often streamline the process significantly by being on the “inside” of the school and will know to whom they need to speak and how to best fill out the paperwork. They can also serve as a public contact point for parents with concerns since presumably they will have an already established reputation in the community.
The paperwork, which is one of the most critical pieces, must immediately follow the induction of the club. This is the point where the organizers need to emphasize things that would appeal to administrators and parents and simultaneously address their probable concerns. In our paperwork we addressed the prominent concerns of safety and liability right away.
Safety we addressed by bringing in sample weapons and letting them handle the weapons, hit themselves with the weapons, hit us with the weapons, and generally show them the level of padding that would be used. We also had hard copies of guides on weapon construction that showed all the stages (with included photos) and laid out the safety requirements (like diameter etc.) and everything was neatly typed, edited, printed, and designed to look very professional. Also of note, at this point in the presentation we were doing melee rules only. No classes, no bows, no magic at all. This made the group a little easier to understand in the beginning.
Liability was a trickier thing and this was addressed through asking what sort of liability the school had for those who play sports. Football and wrestling would both have far more likelihood of injury than Amtgard. In the case of our school liability insurance was covered through the athletics department and the biggest requirement was that all participants had a yearly physical on file indicating a doctor cleared them for sports. It was agreed that no student would be allowed to participate in any fighting or drills unless they had a current physical on file with the school. As long as we abided by those restrictions our group would be covered under the same insurance that handles athletics and intramural sports.
With the logistics completed we then moved on to the pitch. In our experience focusing on the healthy activity aspect was the most successful. We highlighted that it typically appealed to many of the students who were not involved in sports. It gave them a peer group on campus and got them involved in school activities (which many studies have shown help students deal with peer pressure and other social problems). It gave them an adult on staff with whom they would feel comfortable talking and going to if they needed help. And finally, it got kids who primarily enjoyed playing video games to go outside in the sunshine with weapons they actually made themselves and get some exercise.
This last point was one that appealed to many parents because a common complaint about teenagers is their unwillingness to go outside and interact with other people since there was a preference to stay inside and keep interactions in a virtual space. The potential to increase activity among a typically sedentary population piqued the interest the school nurse - someone who will most likely become a huge ally and help in our future goal of securing grant money.
After you have the approvals and kids willing to get a physical and bring sticks to school for fighting you are well on your way to having the club running. Be sure though to negotiate where on campus you will be allowed to play. At first we were not allowed on the front campus for fear of weirding out the community. After a handful of months that restriction was removed. We were allowed to reserve gym space, football field space, and other athletic areas like all the other teams did. However, we were also a low priority in reserving these spaces and found ourselves being “bumped” a few times. Often we simply resorted to sparring in the hallways after school.
The nurse is a great ally. Ours was able to loan us pedometers so we could start gathering data to indicate increases in activity levels. She has also been open to writing in sections for our club when she applies for health grants. She is also very in the loop for pointing us to potential grant opportunities and helping us eventually apply for private and state grants.
Getting to activity as soon as possible is critical. The first year our club ran everyone was on fire to fight on campus and we drew interest by having folks out fighting. No garb and no classes but action was occurring. The second year those who enjoyed fighting were getting their fix twice a week at our normal park days and didn’t want to get a physical to play on campus. This lead to far fewer students showing up to our after school meetings and when newcomers showed up there was a definite cliquish vibe between those who played off campus and those who didn’t. This was crippling for the on-campus club this year and needs to be addressed next year.
Have activities planned for each week - particularly for those who only attend the after school club and never go out to the weekend park. Plan for some A&S activities. Bring in people to teach sewing, weapon making, etc. Show videos of major events and people in great garb. Have something available for those who want to participate but don’t want to fight on campus.
Have printed and bound copies of the monster books. Even though many are outdated they were super popular with newcomers. It makes the game look like D&D or a video game and really triggered a good bit of discussion and excitement. Printed copies were obviously cheaper but there was something to be said for a 9$ investment at Office Depot for something spiral bound and more official looking.
Start collecting data as soon as possible. From the very beginning have the students fill out a survey estimating their activity levels before getting involved in the club. Maybe have them use a pedometer for a couple days and record a starting point. When we started the thought of trying for grants never crossed our minds so to get this data we have to only focus on the newcomers. Collect data early - it will come in handy down the line.
Competitiveness and ego is one of the biggest problems you will have with a high school age club. Keeping that in mind try to focus on games that require teamwork or have goals other than annihilate the other team. Often I would design games with life pools or tasks and set a timer. The timer would be set shorter than I thought someone could reasonably accomplish the goal. This ended up with many ties and the kids focusing on “beating the clock” more than trying to crush another team. It helped me get them to focus more on bettering themselves and beating their own last efforts rather than focusing on beating the other guy.
Ego needs to be monitored carefully. The classic problem of someone not taking a hit because their pride is focused on the win is exacerbated when you have an age that is actively working on their identity and self-worth is in a fragile stage. Adults sponsoring the group need to keep an eye on the kids and not let someone fly off the handle with the accusations. They also need to keep an eye on those who seem to be ignoring valid hits. “Teaching them a lesson” physically is not the answer. Nor is confronting them publicly. Pull them aside, explain the reputation they are building. Be prepared to repeat this a few times until they learn their lesson. We have found that having someone shoot some video or photos of tournaments can help because if they are a continual problem you will probably end up with actual evidence to help sway them.
Keep the size and energy level of your kids in mind when designing games. Have games that will allow the smaller hyper kids to shine. Playing games that will allow a runner to capture some neutral object and then sprint around with it not only brings cardio into the club but lets the smaller kids have the chance to be the star for a game. Then have games that focus on other skills so someone else can be a star. Basically, tweak the games played over a month or two so every kid will feel like an awesome hero at least once. If that involves making them a monster with some abilities to balance their lack of skill then so be it.
Lastly, play with the kids. Being on the sidelines doesn’t encourage them to be engaged in the game. As scary as it may seem, you are their role model and they will follow your lead. If you are unengaged due to other commitments, you may find that the students respond in kind. So be active in reeving, running the games, making weapons with them, designing the games with them, and otherwise really buying into the game. Grading papers at your desk and expecting them to run with planning and organizing activities will lead to a very short lived club.