As I type this blog entry, I am surrounded by students working on their writing as part of their Book Making Intersession. I am here with them because Kight, their teacher, asked if I could step in for her while she went to get a cup of coffee. She needs a little perk-me-up because she spent the night at the school with the students who worked until midnight going back and forth between working on their own writing, watching the Lord of the Rings and discussing Tolkein’s writing choices. The kids are so engrossed in what they are doing I doubt that any of them even noticed the teacher hand off.
Here is what I am seeing right at this moment:
Two pairs of students are discussing their writing. One pair is arguing about which characters should get killed and how it should happen. The other two are discussing whether or not a written passage makes sense or not. The remaining eight students are seemingly completely able to concentrate despite their peer’s chatter. After looking more closely at their work I can see that two of the eight are visiting websites – one about the Olympics and one a youtube Manga video — possibly research for their writing or it could be they need a little bit of teacher redirection. Either way it, I am still deeply impressed at the focus and ownership I am witnessing.
In a nutshell, this is what Intersession is about – students authentically engaged in learning that they are passionate about and which directly relates to real world experiences.
Visit any educational magazine or blog today and you are likely to hear a lot about standardized testing (especially in conjunction with the new Common Core standards) and blended learning (the interplay of digital and “brick and mortar” classes that allow for more efficient individualized learning). Dig a little deeper in the research and you will find talk of 21st Century Learning and the need for teaching noncognitive skills such as grit and creativity. Sometimes these educational forces are pitted against each other in a false dichotomy. Usually they are spoken about in isolation, understandably since any one of these topics contain its own complexities and contradictions to analyze. But at the risk of taking on too much at one time, I believe they need to be considered together – because the best schools, the schools we want, must be designed with all these factors in mind. So we must learn how to talk to the public – parents, and policy makers and taxpayers and students – about what we are doing and why. We need to advocate for what we believe.
With that in mind, let me explain our Intersession Week, which I believe integrates all of the above. Twice a year at PFFS we spend four days in an intensive interdisciplinary, place-based learning experience. All sessions have an experiential component with students visiting a variety of community organizations. The rationale for exposing students to learning outside the classroom walls lies in the research showing that building background knowledge significantly helps students in their academic studies and that helping students make connections between what they are learning in classroom with the larger world motivates students to want to learn.
While difficult to measure, recent research indicates that providing students with field experiences has huge payoffs. http://www.studentsfirst.org/blog/entry/the-value-of-a-day-at-the-museum. Unfortunately the combined pressures of budget cuts, liability concerns and the need to increase standardized test scores, make such experiences less and less frequent. At PFFS we have a different perspective. We see these experiences as being at the heart of our educational program – they are highly motivating, stimulating learning opportunities that will stay with them forever.
This semester’s offerings included:
• Exploring the human relationship between people and animals (trips to the Wildlife Center, Pima Animal Control Center, Reid Park Zoo, and the Sonora Desert).
• A marathon writing session
• Examining the concept of “Grit” in people and the environment (trips included a 5.5 mile hike to Romero Falls Pools, Ben’s Bells and the UofA Challenge Course).
• Designing and creating costumes
• Learning about photography (students met with photographers and work in professional spaces at the Tucson Museum of Art and Pima Community College)
• Working out and learning from athletes who have had major life obstacles (students will be hiking, biking, skateboarding and rock climbing)
Intersessions are designed by teachers based on their interests and passions. We don’t have a system of ensuring that they represent a perfect mix of options, but as often happens with potlucks, what is brought to the table each year somehow just works as a nice variety. However, if I were to categorize the options offered, they would generally fall out into these groups:
Sometimes they allow students to express themselves artistically:
• Break a Leg Acting Intensive
• Everybody Dance Now
• Fashion Rebels
• Clay All The Way
• Cut and Paste Collective (book making and independent publishing)
Sometimes they are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) related:
• DIG DIY (Do It Green, Do It Yourself) – Making, fixing, recycling and planting to provide local, organic food sources
• The Desert for Dinner
• Cold Slimies
• Sunship III at the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning
Often they involve physical fitness:
• Bike the Barrio – exploring community art on bikes
• Move Your Booté (investing athletics and sports careers)
• Urban Playground
Many Intersessions have students explore the outdoors:
• Rocks and Remains
• Rock & Soul Campout
• The Desert for Dinner
• X Marks the Spot (backpacking in Aravaipa Canyon)
And often we have options that involve travel away:
• Durango, Colorado (Native American studies)
• Alamos, Mexico (photography in Mexico)
• Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (archeology)
• Los Angeles, California (Tolerance Museum)
(For a complete descriptions and pictures of Intersessions from the last few years visit: www.paulofreireschool.org/Intersession.html.)
Many of the Intersessions either have a social justice/environmental focus or the teachers have added a service learning component. For example, in an Intersession focused on dance, students choreographed/performed a collaborative piece around a theme of their choosing — bullying/cutting in schools (see my blog page entitled
Watch what middle students can do). In this semester’s Intersessions, Seth’s animal group organized and conducted an animal adoption event for Cold, Wet Noses (btw, they still have dogs that need homes – if anyone is interested in adopting please go to www.tucsoncoldwetnoses.com ).
On Friday of Intersession Week we come together to share – at first informally in our advisories and then the following week in Kiva – with presentations open to our parents. This sharing is a critical part of our Intersession week. Students are so excited to see each other after their 4 days absence (and you would not believe how dramatic they can be about finally being reunited with their classmates), and they are eager to hear about other experiences.
An added benefit of the Intersession program is that students are often placed in sessions without their closest friends and inevitable they forge new strong relationships. In effect, Intersessions act as a clique-buster for us. The student body feels significantly different afterwards — it becomes a much more unified and cohesive community.
As far as learning goes, it is hard, if not impossible to measure the knowledge gained during this week. We do ask teachers to articulate their learning goals up front and there is a literacy component involved for each Intersession. It is common to require students to journal their reflections, and all students work together at the end of the week to plan their group presentation. Throughout the week we see students learning skills as are required for their tasks (I watched kids learn Microsoft Publish and Photoshop, how to use a sewing machine, how to develop photos in a darkroom, how to change a bike tire, belay a rock climber, bring adequate water for a desert hike etc.)
But we believe the learning are students get from Intersession is so much greater than these tangible, measureable skills. Students are exposed to such a variety of new vistas, we can only guess what seeds will take root and sprout later. For my daughter’s 16th birthday I lent money in her name to Kiva, an organization that provides microloans to women starting small businesses predominately in Third World Countries. Brianna only seems slightly interested as we looked through the portfolio of possible entrepreneurs. However, three years later, after not a peep about this experience, she declared herself an economics major at college. The following year she took a class on microfinancing and traveled with a professor to Bangladesh to study woman empowerment. We can never truly know the impact of our teaching. That is not to say that we shouldn’t strive for pre and post assessments of student learning But if we limit our teaching only to what we can quantifiably measure, we will be narrowing our schools too much. On the other hand, if we open our schools to the possibilities that exist in our own backyards (and beyond) the payoffs can, and we believe inevitably will, be immense.