Turning the School Upside Down One Week a Year

Fall 2016

By Kate George and Alison Siefert

Bay Ridge Prep is an independent college preparatory school located in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Like many small independent schools, Bay Ridge Prep has only one class per grade level. The Lower School comprises kindergarten through fifth grade, and the average class size is 15 children. Our small size prevents us from working with grade-level teams. Every faculty meeting is, in essence, a vertical meeting, and while they are always productive and collegial, we find that we are longing for collaboration. 

Studies increasingly emphasize that teacher collaboration is a key element in creating an environment for teachers that improves their practice and addresses diverse student needs.1 Three years ago, our lower school faculty decided to dedicate a significant amount of planning time to transform our school’s structure for one week each year. We call it Intersession, a time between semesters where every classroom becomes a one-room schoolhouse, hosting children from kindergarten to grade five. During this week, we plan and execute a single school-wide curriculum, try new teaching strategies, and share students in multi-age groups. 

Our Intersession model was born one year in midwinter, when teachers and students were at the height of their irritability. Perhaps because we were cooped up inside the classroom and it was usually too cold to play outside, we were longing for something to enliven our daily routines. We decided that February would be an ideal time for students to break from the routine and interact with new friends in a new classroom. We, too, were excited and relieved by the idea of receiving a new group of kids for a few days. In an effort to revive ourselves with new faces and a new curriculum, we began planning our first Intersession. Now, three years later, we couldn’t think of a better way to get excited about teaching in the middle of winter. It’s quickly becoming one of our favorite parts of the school year. 

It takes us about one month to plan a one-week Intersession. Some of this planning is done together as a team, and some work is completed independently. We first meet in January to begin planning for an early February Intersession. We sit in a circle — the lower school teachers, our learning support specialists, and our lower school head. It’s a small group for a faculty meeting, with only nine of us. In the first meeting, we decide on a topic. There is always an element of excitement as we discuss possible topics. All nine of us will come to an agreement on one topic, and we will work together to plan a mini-curriculum for this topic. 

The choices are endless: ocean life, ancient civilizations, natural disasters, space exploration, and so on. We consider the breadth of content knowledge, possible field-trip opportunities, and major project ideas for each topic. We work to remind ourselves that atypical topics are the point. Fifth-graders can be just as fascinated by a study of playground design as kindergarten children. Collaboration, artistic expression, and joyful learning are the main objectives for both teachers and students. 

Once we land on a topic, subject areas are assigned to each teacher so that we cover the arts, science, social studies, literacy, and math. Some teachers are assigned the task of making additional activities or projects. In the following weeks, each teacher researches and gathers materials for his or her subject area in order to develop a differentiated lesson. 

In the planning phase, we focus on creating a spectrum of learning objectives for each age group. What should a five-year-old understand as a result of each activity? How might that be different for a nine-year-old? Based on our interests and budding ideas, we gather resources: books, curriculum guides, and hands-on activities that will help us build our unit. Essential to our process is sharing our knowledge of developmental skills so that our lessons are differentiated for all ages and abilities. Our goal is for all children to have the opportunity to be challenged in a way they may have not experienced in their grade-level classroom, but we don’t want younger students sitting back while their older peers do all the work. Each lesson contains components that are developmentally appropriate for many ages. As a result, the planning process equips us to teach a multi-age, interdisciplinary unit. 

In our next faculty meeting, the teachers present their lesson or project idea to the group. We come prepared with books, handouts, sample projects, art supplies, computer programs, and manipulatives. In this meeting, each of us is learning how to teach a lesson that was developed by one of our colleagues. We also invite the music, art, Spanish, and gym teachers to join us so that they, too, can plan lessons within the topic of our Intersession. By the conclusion of the meeting, each teacher has a differentiated lesson in each subject area in addition to a final project. 

In addition to enabling us to share curriculum, Intersession provides teachers with an opportunity to share students. A week before Intersession we begin constructing the “perfect” multi-age class. Students are divided up into new classrooms. Each teacher is allotted the same number of students appropriate for her particular classroom space; the class size ranges from 12 to 18. We pay close attention to student temperament. Who would enjoy returning to a kindergarten classroom for one week? Who would do best remaining with his current teacher? Which siblings should be placed together? Which should not? In these new class groups, children are asked to make a new friend, try something different, and learn something interesting. 

This past year, we chose Ancient Egypt as our topic. We planned meticulously, organized our materials, printed lists of our new classes, and finally were ready for Intersession week. Day 1 of our Intersession was like the first day of school all over again. New faces and old friends sat on our carpets, eager and a bit nervous. The teachers felt the same way. Some had had little experience with older students. Others initially forgot how much help a five-year-old required. We offered words of encouragement to each other and provided helpful tips on how to settle a hyperactive kindergartner or how to motivate an uninspired fifth-grader. By communicating about our own areas of expertise, we helped calm each other’s nerves and prepare for our new class dynamic. 

Throughout the week, each teacher conducted the prepared lessons in her own way at her own speed. Each Intersession class was then able to experience each activity and project but in a unique manner. Regardless of the style each teacher brought to the topic, all children learned about Ancient Egyptian culture and widened their understanding of a way of life different from their own. We found Egypt on a world map and discussed the differences between Ancient Egypt and what Egypt is like today. The children chose from a variety of models and completed a map of Ancient Egypt that depicted its geography. In partnerships, the children read about the many ways the Nile enabled life for the Ancient Egyptians, and they discussed how water is important to any civilization. We taught our classes about many pharaohs and the class system that defined a hierarchy of different occupations. The children wrote creative journal entries by imagining what type of job they would like to have in Ancient Egypt; they created an Egyptian style self-portrait to accompany their writing. If self-portraits and journal entries didn’t spark students’ interest, they also had an option to create their own Egyptian god or goddess and write a unique myth about him or her. 

Students collaborated in groups to solve multi-problem math puzzles that included math skills from different grade levels. Once all problems were correctly solved, the puzzle revealed an interesting Egyptian vocabulary term and a picture. As a science experiment, children mummified apples and observed their decay over several days. In art class, we all learned how to write our names in hieroglyphics and made a cartouche (Egyptian name plate) made out of clay. Teachers provided plenty of additional optional activities for the children to work on during quiet times or when they were finished with a project. We facilitated projects that were open-ended and offered flexibility in design and content in order to differentiate the activities for all children. The positive impacts of our Intersession were endless. It seemed that each child and teacher benefited from this experience. Not only were we trying something new with Intersession, but we were asking students to step outside their comfort zones to participate in mixed-age groups. We were amazed by the potential of our students when working with children of different ages; the shy third-grader became a group leader when working on a map of the Nile; the seemingly immature six-year-old became more independent with the influence of her older classmates. We noticed a sense of pride in the younger students as they tackled new challenges in group projects with their older peers. We witnessed a newfound maturity in the fourth- and fifth-graders as they kindly taught and assisted the younger ones and patiently waited for all students to take part in an activity at his or her own pace. The students displayed a sense of ownership over their learning when they returned to their homeroom at the end of each day, enthusiastically sharing what they had done in their separate groups. Seeing our students’ joy and pride in their learning experiences gave us satisfaction for the work we put in to plan the Intersession. 

At the end of Intersession, children returned to their classrooms carrying handmade musical instruments, science projects, and posters displaying their new knowledge. First-graders bounded over to their teacher yelling, “Miss Allison, look what I made!” In afternoon meetings, children reported wonderful tidbits of their day: 

“I read a book with a new friend, a big kid!” “Someone helped me solve a math problem.” “The fourth-grade teacher is really nice.” “I got to make a cartouche and write my name in hieroglyphics.” 

While we didn’t necessarily sit on the carpet together, the teachers had their own afternoon share: “I have new respect for kindergarten teachers!” and “I can’t believe the progress they have made!” were common refrains. We talked about how our new insights on students would change our teaching. 

Each year we incorporate what we learned from our Intersession experiences into our everyday teaching, helping us respond more effectively to every child, regardless of the grade level we teach. By midyear, it’s all too easy for us to fall into teaching the basic grade-level standards and forget about differentiation. Intersession is our reaffirmation to look at each individual in our class, notice and respect their differences, and differentiate our teaching to best challenge all of the children. Many children can progress much farther than we expect, both socially and academically. Intersession reminds us to offer assignments that are open-ended, challenging, and limitless, and we can be amazed by the things our students do and learn. 

In our school mission statement, we declare that we are a “student-centered community that values the unique talents and learning styles of each person.” Intersession is a key example of how we are able to let each student work at his or her optimum level and in a style that he or she prefers. Each lesson, activity, and project we do in Intersession provides a multitude of choices for students to select so that they can create something that showcases their skills, talents, personality, and knowledge. After reflecting on our Intersession and discussing each child’s success, we are motivated to include more choices in our grade-level classrooms. As teachers who are often isolated in our classrooms, this experience gives us reason to plan lessons together, research together, discuss our students together, and be reminded that we are not alone and that our colleagues are often our best resource. 

Notes

1. Carrie D. Leana, “The Missing Link in School Reform,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2011; online at http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/ the_missing_link_in_school_reform.

Kate George

Kate George (kgeorge@bayridgeprep.org) has served as the Lower School Director at Bay Ridge Prep for over 13 years.

Alison Siefert

Allison Siefert(asiefert@bayridgeprep.org) is in her third year of teaching first grade at Bay Ridge Prep, prior to which she taught at The Foote School.