Thursday, March 3, 2016

Bullis Charter Middle School Intersessions

Intersessions are one of the most unique tenets of the BCS middle school program. During these three-week sessions, students move beyond the classroom and engage in active learning in the real world. Students develop real life skills as they work through problems, helping them to become well-rounded students with the 21st century abilities needed to be successful in university and in the modern workplace.

For three weeks each trimester, the daily schedule is suspended while students engage in an extended inquiry process of an assigned focus area. Projects are organized around a driving question, requiring students to investigate, collaborate, design, and construct actual solutions to real-life problems. 21st century skills are more than academic, and hands-on Intersessions provide students the opportunity to practice and refine important ‘life’ skills such as empathy, creativity, rationality, determination, and resourcefulness.

The first seventh grade Intersession combines sewing, cooking, and woodworking. While not typical middle school content, these pursuits integrate math, design, problem solving, and fine motor skills.  “At BCS, we expose all, not just some, of our students to the arts, to making, to taking risks, and to trying things that they might not attempt to learn on their own,” explains Lisa Stone, a BCS seventh grade teacher.

In the second seventh grade Intersession, students tackle Engineering & Design in the school’s

FabLab, where they have access to a variety of technology and tools including 3D printers, laser cutters, design programs, power drills and more. As part of this intersession, students interview staff members and peers to learn more about real problems found in the school. They then choose which issue they want to work on and begin to devise solutions for this problem.  Solving a problem at this level encourages students to use their critical thinking skills and to continuously plan and reevaluate, as they tackle different issues that arise along way. For example, one group of students was tasked with how to transport rolling backpacks across wood chips. As a solution, the students designed and built a “backpack gondola.” These projects are what Intersessions are all about: finding solutions and working through problems, just as one does in real life.

For their third and final Intersession, seventh graders are asked to stage a 100% student-led performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In addition to learning Shakespearean history and dialogue while performing the play, the students serve as the directors, casting crew, and light and sound engineers. They also build upon their previous Intersessions by sewing the costumes and designing and constructing the sets. Teachers are on-hand as advisors only and are part of the audience when the students perform their production on a professional stage at the Bus Barn Theater in Los Altos.

“Intersessions reinforce the students’ full year studies”, explains Ms. Stone. “At BCS, we focus on the interconnectedness of subject matter and integration. Even though students aren't going to their "regular classes" during this time, they can see that there are components of math, writing, and science in constructing a device to solve a problem. Intersessions help students understand the interconnectedness between the subjects.”

In addition to reinforcing regular studies, Intersessions extend the learning of skills and concepts through authentic, real-world applications.  For example, seventh graders learn composition in weekly music classes and are then required to score The Midsummer Night’s Dream production during Intersession.  Eight graders learn coding as part of the core curriculum and then apply those skills when designing educational apps at Intersession.  Students are encouraged to consult with industry experts as they seek to refine and improve their outcomes, and these same experts often provide feedback at the end of a project.

Intersessions are a critical part of the BCS curriculum. They offer the middle school students the opportunity to gain exposure, interact with experts and audiences, and be accountable for their ideas and projects. 

BCS Founding Principal/Superintendent Wanny Hersey explains the thinking behind these authentic learning opportunities, “We believe that in creating connections, relevance and meaning are discovered, and the rate of retention improves dramatically. Our students are empowered to design and lead their own education, thereby developing adult leaders with the ability to thrive in an ever-changing world.”