Inquiry group at Lyndon Institute: (L to R) Magen Bias, Lara White, Jill Nichols, Taylore Aussiker, Rachel Riendeau, Nikki Berry, Terha Steen.  Missing from photo: Johanna Polsenberg

 

A visitor to a high school in January might expect to see students studying for mid-year exams, taking tests, writing papers, or participating in a myriad of other traditional activities. However, visit Lyndon Institute (LI) in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, and instead, you’ll see a consistent buzz of activity such as students designing and launching a near-space balloon, organizing to open a community food bank, or preparing an interactive art exhibit. What is causing this variety of activity and energizing students and staff alike? Why, it’s LI’s January Term (J-Term), of course.

What Is J-Term?

J-Term is the direct result of bringing together a group of LI educators over 10 years ago to imagine what school could look like given a blank canvas. Over the course of several discussions, the group settled on the idea of providing a boost to teaching and learning via an intensive 3-week project-based learning mini-term between semesters. Upon the return to school after the holiday break, teachers would lead self-designed courses based on their interests and passions. Over the years, students themselves have also proposed, co-taught, and led classes for their peers. Projects have varied from launching a near-space balloon during the first J-Term to getting a hands-on look at an actual hot-air balloon readied for launch from the school’s football field earlier this year. Recent courses include Feeding Hope: Combating Food Insecurity Locally and Museum Exhibit: “Girlhood (It’s Complicated). By creating numerous opportunities for hands-on, experiential, and deeper learning, LI educators have an opportunity to use J-Term as a mini research-and-design space in which new projects and pedagogies can be designed, tested, and iterated over time. After three weeks of deep exploration of a topic, the school hosts Exhibition Night, and the outside community is invited to see what students have been up to.

Beyond the three weeks of deep student engagement, the ultimate goal is that the best of J-Term’s deeper learning finds its way into other parts of the school’s curriculum during the fall and spring semesters. And this is exactly what LI’s Academic Dean and current UVEI Principal Intern candidate, Terha Steen, is working toward.

Moving Beyond J-Term

Designing these deeper learning opportunities experienced in J-Term takes attention to detail. Working to extend these opportunities to other parts of the curriculum beyond J-Term requires a rather extensive examination of current practices and beliefs of teaching and learning. To accomplish this, Terha has helped to facilitate a school-based partnership between LI and UVEI and invited a group of willing LI educators to build their leadership and facilitation skills to foster deeper learning and equitable outcomes for students. As part of her school improvement project, Terha is engaging her colleagues in an inquiry cycle around the connections between deeper learning and equity, namely that every student, regardless of background, ability, or aspiration, deserves the opportunity to engage in immersive learning opportunities that foster deeper learning at LI: effective communication and collaboration, self-direction, problem-solving, and community engagement. This effort intends to empower Terha’s colleagues to engage others around including more equity-centered deeper learning opportunities typically found in J-Term throughout the rest of the curriculum.

Adults Need Deeper Learning Opportunities, Too

Knowing that adults, like students, deserve their own opportunities for deeper learning, Terha utilized a diagnosis-and-design approach to engage her inquiry group. In turn, the cohort created their own theory of action, starting with identifying a specific problem of practice: “Teachers desire collaboration with their colleagues around incorporating more deeper learning and equity-focused opportunities for students. Additionally, teachers desire a deeper working knowledge of deeper learning and equity.” To address this challenge, the cohort decided to utilize the tools at their disposal–including the use of AI–to experiment with and design additional deeper learning experiences for their students. The group then decided to embrace a Lesson Study approach to providing feedback to one another on their lesson/unit designs as well as their teaching of these lessons. The result: cohort members found this collaborative approach to lesson design and refinement extremely rewarding in that not only were they able to share their expertise and learn from one another, but they also experienced many of the same desired outcomes that they have for their students: meaningful and effective communication and collaboration, self-direction, problem-solving, and deeper engagement within a professional community. 

Empowered to Make Change

Empowering and inspiring cohort members is a critical first step, but this alone is not likely to move the needle of change within the school. Terha and her team know that in order to have an impact beyond their classrooms, cohort members also need to be able to lead similar conversations with their colleagues. As a result, the group discussed how they could go about this work moving forward and strategize ways to help others within their school engage in a similar inquiry cycle. By intentionally distributing leadership with her cohort members, Terha has positioned her colleagues to serve as change agents, all working together to build coherence by providing a focusing direction, deepening learning, securing mutual accountability, and cultivating collaborative cultures. When asked for feedback at the end of the cohort’s most recent meeting, one participant stood and exclaimed, “I feel empowered to work with my peers on this!”

Reflection on the Process

I asked Terha to share some of her thoughts about her work with this cohort of fellow educators and her school improvement project.

Can you share some quick thoughts about this experience so far? Why this approach to school improvement? 

Designing opportunities that allow people to experience deeper learning and the benefits of effective collaboration is probably my favorite type of work, so this experience has been thoroughly enjoyable. There’s something about carving out and protecting the time teachers need for focused discussion, collective problem-solving, and collaborative lesson design that seems both purposeful and rewarding for everyone involved.  

Why focus on equity-centered deeper learning? 

This focus aligns with the mission and vision of the school, but I also simply feel we have a moral imperative to provide our people–students and teachers–with equity-centered deeper learning. This focus helps to support people in feeling empowered, connected, and ultimately effective. It may seem like a stretch to some, but when I take the long view of this work, I see it as a commitment to the well-being and enrichment of our broader community. That makes this work worth doing.

What has been successful with the work of the cohort? 

I think success has come in a few forms: Teachers becoming more comfortable with the idea of dabbling in something new and then seeing the impacts of those small changes – which spurs further willingness to try new things; the support and camaraderie that has developed among the group, manifesting in both a sense of accountability and support in each other’s professional growth; the sense of empowerment teachers have expressed after working together in this way, as well as their aspiration to continue working together in a similar fashion – while also including more of their colleagues – next year. Teachers in the cohort report improved student engagement, but long-term student impact remains to be seen

What are some challenges? 

No surprise here – Time. Time is always the thing, but we make it work. The energy and reflection that come from these sessions can only take root if the work is ongoing, and it can be tough to maintain focus when the day-to-day of school floods in.  We counter that by protecting and committing to the purposeful use of the time we have set aside for professional learning.

Looking Ahead

 

The result: a school community in which all community members are engaged in deeper learning and where teachers become the students that they want their students to be.

Acknowledging the significance of deeper learning for every student marked a pivotal advancement for LI towards an equity-centered pedagogy. However, deeper learning for educators seems to be a necessary first step toward school-wide change. This has been Terha’s approach toward school improvement: empowering and inspiring her teachers to deepen their knowledge and skills and to share their learning with others. The result: a school community in which all community members are engaged in deeper learning and where teachers become the students that they want their students to be.