Centaurs, Cerberus, Chimera, oh my!
Are you intrigued by Ancient Greek myths?
Do you like to design and create art?
Read Homer’s Odyssey, explore Mediterranean
geography, and research the many Greek and
Roman myths. Learn how Greek and Roman artists
portrayed mythological legends through mosaics,
a beautiful and intricate art form. Take trips to the
Baltimore Museum of Art and Visionary Museum
to view both historical and modern mosaics up
close and in person. Master the art of mosaics by
learning to assemble small colorful pieces of glass
and stone as well as the process of grouting. Create
your own 21st century monster in mosaic form
inspired by the ancient Mediterranean techniques.
Does our Myths, Monsters, and Mosaics course
intrigue you? What if you could design any course you
wanted for middle school students, what course would
you create? What disciplines would you explore?
What skills would you combine? How would you
engage students’ interest? Posing these questions
to our colleagues, our journey designing Academy, a
midmester program, began.
What is Academy?
Academy is a three-week program separate from the
traditional school curriculum and schedule. Composed
of multidisciplinary courses designed to excite,
inspire, and engage, the program is extraordinarily
collaborative. Each course has two instructors who
design and teach the content together. Courses fall
into one of three categories: Science and Mathematics,
Humanities, or Arts. Student choice is a core
component of the program permitting students to selfselect
courses based on their own interest level.
Different from a traditional middle school class,
Academy courses run for two hours in length allowing
for in-depth study and engagement. Throughout the
course, teachers provide active learning experiences,
and the culmination of learning results in students
completing a capstone project related to the topic
of study. In addition to the courses, dedicated teambuilding
activities and exploratory sessions offer a
diverse group of activities throughout a student’s day.
During team building, students develop collaborative
skills through outdoor competitions. The exploratory
component exposes students to unique experiences such
as song writing, French cuisine, and chess instruction.
What do the core courses of Academy look like?
Imagination is the key. Academy allows teachers the
freedom to dream, imagine, and create their ideal course. Teachers’ passions shine, and they are more
invested when maintaining control of their own
project. Academy courses free teachers and students
alike from the constraints of specific curriculum and
offer the opportunity, through choice, to explore new
ideas and concepts and to innovate. Courses in our
first year ranged from Myths, Monsters, and Mosaics
to Spy School to Write and Stage Your Own Musical.
For years, my colleagues and I have loved to innovate.
We collaborated, integrated our courses, and
manipulated our time. Yet we still felt restricted by
schedule and curriculum requirements. We longed
for a different approach, an approach that would
include more innovation, student-choice, and further
opportunities to teach 21st century skills. After some
thought and pre-design, my colleague, Denise Wolf,
and I proposed the idea of incorporating a midmester
program to our principal. To our delight, he fully
supported the experiment and left us to the design
with one caveat, our program must be rigorous.
From the start, our intent was to create a
collaborative program, and we initiated conversation
with colleagues. Immediately, many teachers were
eager to veer off the rails with us. What are you
going to teach? What if we could build this, or do
that? Positive energy surrounded the idea among
our fifth and sixth grade colleagues. After weeks of
conversations we put the possibility to the test with a
survey of all fifth and sixth grade teachers. The results
were clear; we had a 100% commitment to launching a
program the following May, and our design began.
We solicited the faculty for a small committee
of volunteers to craft the program and run teacher
training sessions. Our first charge was to build a
schedule. Focused on providing enough time for deep
exploration, field trips, and project-based learning,
we determined two-hour long courses would be ideal.
We created a large block in the day, recess, lunch, and
team building, to easily extend course time for field
trips. With this format, trips or speakers could last
four hours if necessary.
With the requirement of building a rigorous
program, one that would not be challenged as
“summer camp” or “fluff,” our next step was to
establish a framework for course design. If the design
process proved rigorous, courses would naturally
follow suit. So, we implemented an extensive course
design process that includes multiple steps, mentors,
and hard deadlines.
As a first step, teachers brainstorm course ideas a
full 15 months in advance. We offer morning meetings,
lunch sessions, and even an after school happy hour
to get ideas rolling. Our key question is always: What
if you could teach anything? If teachers struggle to
generate an idea independently, anyone can select an
idea from the list and develop it.
Our school is fortunate enough to have a summer
stipend budget for work on unique and innovative
projects, and Academy receives funds to support
a summer workshop for course design. During this
summer session, our committee members lead sessions
instructing teachers to create courses with essential
questions and utilize Bloom’s Taxonomy, and we offer
collaborative critiques. At the end of the summer
session, teachers submit a written course proposal
to the Academy Committee. The proposal includes a
description of the course, skill lists, essential questions,
potential speakers or field trips, and a budget.
Following the summer session, the Academy
Committee meets to review each course proposal and
make recommendations. We developed a detailed
rubric to focus our critique of the courses that we
share with teachers in advance. This rubric essentially
defines the expectations of an Academy course and
includes criteria such as does the course incorporate
multiple disciplines, multiple skills, offer opportunities
for creativity and innovation, and explore authentic
and complex questions?
After discussing each course proposal at length,
the committee writes recommendations for the
courses and assigns a committee member to help
further develop each one. Committee members
act as mentors throughout the entire next year to
address any of the committee’s concerns as well as
suggest ideas not previously considered. Professional
days during the school year are dedicated to course
planning and collaboration.
What about assessment? How would we assess these
courses? What would we require of students and
teachers? An innovative program like Academy needed
its own unique method of assessment. As a projectoriented
program, we determined each course should
provide a capstone project for students to complete. For our first year, capstone projects ranged from designing
and building raised garden beds to constructing
windmills from recycled materials to designing a
student-run newspaper to creating a tile mosaic
representing a scene from a student-written myth.
In addition to the capstone project, we narrowed
to five key components for students to develop
throughout the program: commitment, collaboration,
critical thinking, character, and communication
skills. In short, we refer to them as the 5 Cs. Teachers
use these five core components to design course
activities and assessments. Using this simple and
direct terminology helps to clarify for students and
parents our specific goals for the program. It also
enables students to easily self-reflect on their growth
throughout each course.
For teachers to assess these skills directly, we
crafted an Academy report card. The report, simplistic
in design, includes a slider assessment of the 5 Cs as
well as a comment section. Our intent was to develop
a portfolio of student progress over the years, one that
would communicate specific skill development, growth,
and weaknesses. As well, report cards provide another
element of rigor and hold students accountable.
To celebrate student success and growth,
we established an evening finale with student
presentations called Academy Showcase. Designed
to focus on the communication component of the
program, the showcase guidelines require every
student to speak as part of a full class presentation.
Parents and community members are invited to
attend presentations ranging from skits to course
explanations to project demonstrations. Parents
experience the program through their child’s eyes as
students share new ideas, innovation, and growth.
Academy is a new approach to learning that our
changing world has long sought. We face the challenge
of balancing methods we know are tried and true
with innovative solutions to address the needs of the
future. With technology constantly at our fingertips,
students can easily search for information online
making some of our content irrelevant or unnecessary.
Students still need to learn, develop skills, and grow,
yet our approach must change. Programs like Academy
answer this challenge and provide a new method for
applying knowledge and developing 21st century skills
in a rigorous and engaging manner.
Jennifer Smith is co-creator of McDonogh School’s
Academy program, Owings Mills, Maryland. She has
more than 20 years of experience teaching at the
middle school level. She currently holds the role of fifth
grade team leader and teaches social studies.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2020.