Expanding the program: Opportunities for experiential learning

As the middle school teaching team, Alyssa and I are often thinking about how to better prepare students for high school. Alyssa and I are both familiar with Chicago Public Schools and some of their expectations for high school students, but I wanted to learn what high school is like at schools that are more closely aligned with our teaching philosophy.

I investigated the programs of some philosophically-aligned high schools and there was a common thread. Time in the middle of terms to pause the “normal” academic program and make space for more individualized and esoteric studies. These could take the form of multi-day field trips or full- or half-day courses in a highly specific subject, such as bass fishing, forensics, or the history and culture of bread.

This experiential learning that both of these schools offered through these special terms is well-aligned with our school philosophy, and many of our middle school students had been asking to learn things that we hadn’t been able to incorporate into our regular school day. And so, our middle school team decided that we would consider adding intersession weeks to our middle school program. We were able to find the time to offer this kind of learning to students without sacrificing our core curriculum and were able to offer three – fall, winter, and spring. I am so grateful that we were able to make it work, because it has been going so very well.

Intersession weeks are designed to be flexible they might be used for field trips, special activities, or specialty classes. We had our first intersession week in October and offered two choices of morning classes and two choices of afternoon classes. We know our students well and were able to factor their interests into our course offerings. Many students either take or may soon take the CTA to get to and from school, so Alyssa offered a course on Chicago geography and the CTA. Many students approached me with an interest in cooking, so I offered a cooking course.

Our next intersession week will be very special as we’ll have guests! We aligned our winter intersession week to align with Scattergood’s intersession week, as their middle school students will be visiting us for most of that week. For the remaining time, we’re offering mini-courses, and our students are just as excited about it as they were in October. We revealed the offerings yesterday, and this morning a student asked me why we made the choices “harder” this time – she liked so many of them that she didn’t know what to pick! Intersession weeks have helped us to further connect with our students, give them opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise, and keep students engaged and interested throughout the school year.

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Adrian Spencer

Is our middle school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) specialist. Born in Illinois, Adrian moved back to the Midwest after earning a B.A. in psychology from Florida Atlantic University and a M.A.T. in elementary education from the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Adrian has taught students from PreK to eighth grade in a variety of settings, including public and charter classrooms, an after-school program, and weekend and summer programs for students identified as gifted.

Adrian enjoys swimming, reading, and exploring Uptown, Edgewater, and Rogers Park.