“It has to be interdisciplinary, you have to work with someone from another department…and it has to be experiential, hands-on, not entirely classroom-based”: these are the guidelines that the school president, Dr. Dan Griffiths, originally shared with Stevenson teachers. Other than those three loose rules, they were free to create whatever their hearts desired. This opportunity is one that very few teachers get to experience: full control over a hands-on course that allows them to explore passions that don’t fit into their usual teaching commitment.
Therefore, a student might be surprised to see a math teacher hosting a comedy class or an English teacher leading a course that allows students to create a boat from the ground up. English teacher and X-term instructor Elijah Colby quips, “Students may find this hard to believe or terrifying but we have full and interesting lives outside of the classroom.” Dean of Co-Curricular Education Erik Olson adds that this newfound excitement and dedication from teachers will undoubtedly rub off on students: “The teachers are really excited because they’re passionate about these things… that in itself, students are going to see that adults are excited so I think that will make them more excited about it.”
While X-Term might initially feel like a burden to some students (something they must attend before escaping school on summer break), it is extremely different from the traditional structure of a regular school semester. History and journalism teacher Dale Hinckley asserts, “It’s not like, 'Here's the information, memorize it, now I'll test you on it.'” Rather, he says, “All of these proposals are about doing things, making things, creating things — not just studying what other people have done.” The hope for X-Term is that this hands-on type of learning will elicit more engagement from students and also offer them a really fun experience while learning something that truly interests them.
With this more experiential class system comes a breakdown of the barrier between students and teachers.
Hinckley elaborates, “Faculty and students will be working as equals to explore something, to learn something new.” Since these courses are so specialized, there will also be a smaller student-to-teacher ratio. A normal classroom at Stevenson ranges from 12-16 students per teacher, whereas an X-term course might have 7 students for every teacher.
Additionally, X-term allows the school year to end on a very high note for all students, instead of possibly ending the school year with a grueling two-hour AP Calculus AB final. Griffiths shares his original thought about replacing that miserable last week of school with X-Term: “What could we do that gives you that boost of energy and engagement — to finish the school year feeling really excited about learning and really excited about school.”
For one particular course, English teacher Lucy Stockdale has taken X-Term as an opportunity to dive deeper into a subject that she enjoys teaching during the school year. Her course centers around the idea of Transcendentalism. Thus, the participants will read texts by transcendentalist authors, watch movies that play into those same themes, and finally finish off the course with a two-night camping trip in Big Sur to truly understand Transcendentalism through a personal experience. Stockdale says, “When I teach this unit we’ll go for a nature walk on the campus, so we’re trying but you’re not really able to fully be immersed.” However, for X-Term, she is able to take advantage of the longer time period and local resources to truly allow her students to understand what they are learning.
X-term also presents a unique opportunity for many different students and teachers that may not have known each other to develop a strong bond in a new environment.
Stockdale explains, “Our course is so personal, there's so much personal writing, just the nature of the course will create space to really learn about students’ stories. I think what I love about these kinds of units when I teach them in English is that I learn a lot about students who I've been working with for months more deeply. So this will be a good chance to really get to know people kind of quickly in ways that wouldn’t really offer themselves if you’re just having a conversation.” Stockdale is not the only faculty member passionate about this subject as she will be co-teaching with three other Stevenson faculty members. While this will be a big change from her usual class structure, she explains that they are all taking over different aspects of the course, allowing each individual to best utilize their skills to contribute to the class.
While Stockdale has chosen to stay in the English realm, Colby has taken X-Term as an opportunity to share a hobby he holds a great love for with Stevenson students. Colby will be supervising a group of students on their journey to piece together planks of wood to create a usable canoe. He explains, “This is something that I tinker with in my summers and spare time, and grew up building boats and maintaining old wooden boats. And being able to share that with [students] is really cool.” He explains that there are a lot of different skills he will help the students master: “One, just using the tools: drills and saws and hand tools and sanders and those sorts of things. Two, maybe the harder side of it is: how do you take a set of drawings in a book and transfer them, in a process called lofting, onto full-dimension lumber? So that they can then cut the pieces, bevel the edges, and then put them together.” With these students of all different ages coming together, everyone participating will bring different interests and skill sets to the table hopefully balancing one another out.
Colby clarifies, “Somebody’s going to be really interested in the lofting process…Somebody else is going to be really interested in the chemistry of getting the hypoxi mixed just right…And then somebody else, perhaps, is going to take an interest in what the final fit of the boat is.” Colby also shares that with this diversity in students, he hopes the collaborative course will invite the opportunity for some new relationships to be formed: “I’ve found in the past when I’ve had the opportunity to work with kids in this sort of forum, maybe outside of English for example, and then I see them around campus or have them in class; we have this whole different rapport.”
While the final goal of this course is to have a finalized canoe that can truly float, Colby hopes that the students “might still have a successful couple of weeks just based on what they learned about approaching those kinds of challenges.” He has a particularly unique strategy where he hopes he will simply be there as a guide and not even have to work on the boat himself. This allows his students to work together in a hands-on and independent environment. Without a teacher’s help, the students are forced to confront a new task. Colby concludes, “The challenge is for them to sit down on day one and come together, hopefully as a team. Divide up responsibilities and roles, figure out a way to make decisions, check in, make sure they’re doing the right thing. And when the inevitable happens, and they make a mistake, how will they fix it?”
While this is X-Term’s rookie season, the program has promising outlooks. Olson shares that even as a first year participant in this type of experiential learning model, Stevenson is level with other schools who have almost identical projects: “There are some other programs out there that are similar, and they’ve already been doing it for years. And we’re pretty much in alignment with how they’ve done it and what they’ve learned to get to the way that they're structured.” They are hoping to expand X-Term so that in future years, the program can include international trips, more resources, and even more immersive experiences. Olson speculates, “I would say in the next three, four, or five years, we want to have trips that are going international.” His colleague Griffiths is passionate about ensuring that everyone will be able to go on these larger trips. He reiterates, “We don't want this to be something that we charge a lot for all the opportunities and therefore those that can afford can go and do the cool things and those that can’t have to stay on campus.” The long-term hope is that while X-Term continues to expand, students will have at least one chance to go on an international trip within their three years of participating.
While there is still a sense of mystery surrounding X-Term, students seem primed for the experience. Junior Harrison Wilmot says, “I believe X-Term will inspire me to go out of my comfort zone, meet new people, and establish stronger relationships with my teachers. The fact that we can go outside and learn life skills is intriguing and something you can rarely do in the classroom.”