Academy: A Midmester Approach

An innovative approach to developing multidisciplinary curriculum that taps into student interest

By: Jennifer Smith


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.

Academy Design

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.

Schedule
8:25-8:35 Advisory
8:40-10:40 Course #1
10:45-12:00 Recess/Lunch
12:05-12:40 Team Building
12:45-2:40 Course #2
2:45-3:45 Exploratory

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.

Academy Assessment

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.
jsmith@mcdonogh.org


Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2020.

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