“Go light, go light,” painting instructor Jonathan Smith advises a group of six students. “You can always add more, but you can’t take it away.”
Smith has offered this advice many times during his 28 years at Concord Academy, but on this mild March morning, he is not in a studio art class and he is not talking about paint. Instead, he is in the brightly lit kitchen of his West Concord home, and the material at hand is flour.As part of a four-day program called Spring Session, now in its second year, Smith and history instructor Stephanie Manzella are teaching artisanal baking — and learning about their own teaching as well. The learning comes during moments like Smith’s parallel between watercolor and flour, as well as in the act of collaboration and the need to plan using a different timetable. “It’s nice to have a complete change of pace,” says Smith.
Giving teachers four days to explore new approaches to pedagogy was the impetus for Spring Session, says Kim Frederick, program coordinator and history instructor. “It’s experiential professional development,” says Frederick. “The hope is that teachers will be able to reflect on their everyday pedagogy with fresh eyes, much as one sees and appreciates one’s own country anew after time abroad.”
Some teachers use the week as a chance to incorporate hands-on activities into their work with students. Sally Zimmerli, acting director of student life, is part of a team of teachers who revived the famous Stuff course once offered to graduating seniors by Headmistress Elizabeth B. Hall. For Zimmerli’s portion of the class, she teaches students to change a tire and jump-start a car.
“I wanted them to be empowered to help themselves in a pinch,” says Zimmerli. Her group meets in a parking lot, uses student vehicles—and manuals—as their course materials, and talks a lot about what to do when something goes wrong on the road. While the goals are automotive and practical, Zimmerli says she also aims to teach good habits of mind that are useful off the road as well. “The idea of stepping back and assessing all possible solutions to a problem” is something Zimmerli hopes students will take into their classes and their personal lives.
Immigration and Culinary Innovation
This course will explore how immigrants have transformed the culinary repertoires of their new homes, and how their cuisines have been transformed by the experience of migration. We will focus on the culinary innovations of the Chinese diaspora, reading about food cultures, talking to people about their experiences transplanting their culinary traditions to their new homes, and trying our hand at recreating the dishes and recipes of China using ingredients available in the United States.
Other instructors see the week as a chance to model what Latin instructor Liz Penland ’89 calls “sandbox thinking”: the kind of joyful experimentation young children engage in on the playground, when they are not self-conscious about the final product. She is part of a group teaching Craftivism 101: Knitting and Social Justice. On the first morning of the program, students are spread out in the Upper Stu-Fac, and Penland is teaching a member of the seniorclass to knit a hat. Slowly, the student unwinds the purple yarn as Penland shows her first one stitch, then another. So far, the creation looks nothing like a hat, but both teacher and student seem relaxed about it. They keep unwinding the yarn.
The week is a chance to model “sandbox thinking”: the kind of joyful experimentation young children engage in on the playground.Meanwhile, out on the tennis courts, there is a bigger, messier example of sandbox thinking. Science instructor Max Hall and librarian Martha Kennedy are standing back as students try to pry the roof off a tiny Smart car. Hall, who dreamed up the class Take Apart a Car and Don’t Put It Back Together, grins with satisfaction as shiny black paint chips fly into the air.
“Aren’t you glad you all are wearing those safety goggles?” he shouts.
Both Penland and Hall say the format of spring session—two whole days devoted to one ungraded subject—allows them to let student curiosity drive at least part of what happens during the course. “It’s deliciously unplanned,” Hall says. “Outline only. The rest is according to whim, theirs and mine.” On the first day of Hall’s course, students expressed curiosity about how airbags work. So, after getting the go-ahead from the physical plant staff, the class deployed the Smart’s airbags on the back of the tennis courts—and they found out.
Take Apart a Car and Don’t Put it Back Together
What makes a car go? Find out piece by piece! We purchased a complete and running automobile (2014 smart fortwo) from a salvage auction (it is a “total loss” from a collision, though it remains drivable). The mission: Take it apart, see how it works, and stack up the parts for reuse. Unbuild, deconstruct, conserve, and recycle. Turn bolts, cut steel, and unravel the endless insides of a modern car. You don’t have to have any experience, just curiosity and a desire to get your hands dirty while learning how to use mechanical tools.
For many faculty members, the big draw of Spring Session is the chance to collaborate across disciplines in a way that is difficult to do within the school’s usual framework. In the course Game Design, students huddle around tables in the basement of the Math and Arts Center. Led by Shawn Bartok, a math instructor, and Laura Twichell ’01, an English instructor and assistant dean for community and equity, four teams are playing and reviewing board games. After each game they play, they record impressions of what they like and don’t like on sticky notes; later in the day, they will use these impressions to design their own games.
Bartok says the class offers him a chance to teach something he enjoys but also to work with, and learn from, a colleague in the humanities. “Collaborating with Laura is helping me think about different ways to deliver material in my regular math classes,” he says. In particular, he says, it’s helping him to think about how to engage students in a number of different activities simultaneously.
‘It’s deliciously unplanned. Outline only. The rest is according to whim, theirs and mine.’Science instructor Susan Flink also says collaboration is her focus—and in her case, that means modeling the value of collaboration and experimentation for her students. She and fellow science instructor Amy Kumpel are teaching a course called Design Thinking, in which students engage in a series of cooperative challenges, like building towers from uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows. “The challenges helped me think about my own teaching,” says Flink, and how to encourage students in her regular classes to collaborate and experiment.
–Max Hall, science teacher
Spring Session also allows teachers to fine-tune aspects of their pedagogy or test-drive new ideas. Veteran math instructor Howie Bloom, who is teaching students to play bridge, says Spring Session helps him try out a “less teacher-centered” approach than he normally brings to the classroom. And English instructor Sabrina Sadique says it’s helping her think about the way she approaches the teaching of poetry. “Usually, when we close-read a poem, we deconstruct it line by line,” she says. “I wanted to deactivate the part of the brain that goes immediately to interpretation.” In Mindfulness Meditation, Poetry and Perception, Sadique works with Elise Hoblitzelle, health and wellness instructor. Drawing on the meditation techniques students have already learned with Hoblitzelle, Sadique asks them to just listen to two poems several times, then to draw what they heard, then to say the poems aloud to each other. Then she has them write, and write again. In time, she says, they reach the specificity that could enable them to write a critical essay, but they retain a sense of the poem’s whole.
Introduction to Game Theory
Game theory is a mathematical way of studying conflicts and cooperation. While the only math we’ll use is arithmetic, we will analyze a variety of strategic “games,” including dominance behavior among animals, nuclear disarmament, voting, and business cartels such as OPEC. We will operate in a classroom environment, with a variety of activities and instruction, and perhaps even watch a hit movie about a Nobel Prize-winning game theorist and his battle with schizophrenia.
With courses spread across two days rather than 80-minute periods, Spring Session brings a very different feel to the campus. The bell doesn’t ring, and the halls are quieter. At any given time, about a third of the student body is elsewhere — at the Museum of Fine Arts; meeting with scientists in Boston; walking to Carlisle and back; learning about climate change on a ski mountain. But whether off campus or on, faculty and students alike experience what it is like to have two days devoted to a single subject and with a single group of fellow learners.
Students overall say they enjoy the change of pace, the mixed-age classes, and the ungraded format of the week. Daniel Reden ’20 is part of The Art of Smoke, a class in which students dig a pit in the back of Lee House, smoke meat, and learn about a range of culinary traditions. For Reden, the big draw of the week is the hands-on format. “You get to get out here and do the dirty work,” he says. And senior Jess Pine ’17, a member of the craftivism course, welcomes the lack of grades. “I feel like I can try, and fail, without worrying about the grade,” she says. “And it’s cool to do different things and be with students from different classes.”
The idea of the whole school engaging in an alternative kind of learning did not begin with Spring Session. In the past, Concord Academy has had traditions like A Day of Action, during which the whole school did community service, and Museum Day, in which everyone went to museums, and the school continues to offer a special daylong program in lieu of regular classes each Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But Spring Session is uniquely focused on the idea of letting teachers test new approaches to material or new courses in a short-term, low-stakes way.
Students will learn about the Wayside, a local landmark in the Minuteman National Part, through a private tour of the house and an opportunity to talk with the rangers responsible for it. This will be the introduction to a two-week course in June, where students will take on the project of becoming living history tour guides. They will research and write a tour from the perspective of one of the children who lived in the Wayside — among them, the Alcott and Hawthorne children — and have the chance to give the tour this summer at the house.
Program coordinator Frederick says her hope is not that the program becomes an annual tradition, but that it begins a broader conversation about the strengths and limitations of the school’s current schedule and department configurations, simply by allowing faculty to imagine other models.
Right now, she says, faculty members are so accustomed to the existing framework that it is easy to forget other approaches are possible. “It’s like when you have a small infant, you think, ‘Whatever I do has to happen before naptime,’” says Frederick. “Parents with a 12-year-old would never think that way because they don’t have those constraints. So this is an experiment: What would you think about if we eliminated our usual time constraints?”
And, she adds, “Are the things we make possible this week important enough that we want to incorporate them into our regular practices?
As part of a Spring Session course on journalism, Ashley Kim ’19 and David Korn ’19 contributed reporting to this piece.