Staying After School

School News
November 7, 2017

It’s 3:30pm on a Wednesday at VMS. Carpool has concluded, but the building is still abuzz with activity. In the gym, a group of K-2 students is learning to climb on the indoor rock wall. On the opposite end of the building, middle school students are busy building robots in the MakerSpace. Next door, there’s a bunch of students ranging in age from 8-18 exploring virtual worlds in Minecraft. And down the hall, a K-5 cross-age literacy club is on an analog adventure reading aloud to one another.

An After School Academy has quietly blossomed at VMS. The program, which began last year, provides enrichment opportunities for students in cross-aged groups, but serves equally as a venue for teachers to share passions and talents that may lie outside of the scope of what they normally teach. For example, fourth grade teacher Mrs. Warner offers knitting, and kindergarten teacher Mrs. Szmyd, teaches coding and climbing. Enrollment for the current session is just over 175 students in grades K-12, representing 40% of the student body.

K-2 Coding Club with kindergarten teacher, Ms. Szmyd. Students work in Scratch jr., a visually-based coding platform. 

One of the true highlights of being a teacher is when you have the opportunity to share something you're passionate about with someone who is equally interested in the given subject. No matter what it is—whether you’re sharing programming or cooking, rock climbing or video games—the joy is unmistakable for both student and teacher in these moments of synergy, and that was the driving force behind Vail Mountain School’s After School Academy.

“We have so many talented faculty, staff, and parents in our VMS community and it's important we tap into their interests and passions so that we can enrich and expose our students to more opportunities,” notes Lower School Director, Julie Schlossinger, who has been instrumental in building the program.

Ms. Sibila helps a student start a pot in her Wheel Throwing class. 

Often referred to as “clubs” and typically lasting six weeks, the offerings have included robotics, knitting, reading, Dungeons and Dragons, MakerSpace, yoga, writing, pottery, art, Minecraft, mindfulness, and building with Legos. And that’s just the past session. Each course also has a cross-age component to it, allowing students of different age groups to learn together, building community bonds that transcend grades. Some clubs follow more traditional groupings like K-2 or 6-8, but others, like Minecraft with Technology Director, Mr. Chambers, or Dungeons and Dragons with Computer Science Teacher, Ms. Billingsley, are offered to students in grades 2-12.

Teaching from a place of passion or interest also helps students and teachers see each other in a different light, much the same way as the VMS orientation trips. “It’s naturally a more relaxed environment,” says Middle School Division Director, Kabe ErkenBrack, who has been partnering with Mrs. Schlossinger to expand the After School Academy this year and has taught a couple of courses himself. “Walls come down, and you’re able to get to know the other person as an authentic human being. You can really build genuine rapport that, in turn, makes both parties more interested in being there. As a result, they’ll accomplish more together.”

One of the biggest advantages to this kind of program is that it helps reinforce one of the school’s core values: building community. Not only are teachers bonding with students, but those students are also bonding with each other, learning new skills with other kids from different age groups. And by the same token, teachers also have the opportunity to work with kids they may not have otherwise had the chance to connect with.

“All of a sudden [because of my after-school class] I knew twenty lower school students I didn’t know before,” said ErkenBrack, whose day to day focus is primarily on his middle schoolers. “Now they recognize me in the hallway and give me high fives. It really builds the K-12 community we’re looking for.”

The heart of the After School Academy, though, is the desire to enrich learning, diversify students’ interests, and provide opportunities to dig into subjects that aren’t necessarily offered in school. All the same, students are learning valuable skills that they can take forward into their lives. And who knows? They may discover passions of their own or something new in the process.

In fact, VMS is hoping they will. “We believe passions should be shared,” said Schlossinger. “Exposing our students to new skills and activities allows for new interests to ignite.”

And students who are passionate about a subject tend to produce outstanding work. “Authentic learning starts with student choice.” ErkenBrack explained, “When you can provide those opportunities for students to jump into something that they love doing, they are going to be better about setting goals and they are going to be better about following through. There’s this sort of magic that happens and the kids start producing projects that are well beyond your expectations.”

An animation of screenshots from a videogame created by Sammie Shim in Mr. ErkenBrack's Coding class. 

ErkenBrack recounted an after-school coding class he taught for 6-8th graders. They followed Harvard’s CS50 curriculum, an online college level coding course, and built programs using Scratch that ultimately became video games. “Some of the video games that kids came up with were amazing!” ErkenBrack remarked, “And that was just from giving [the students] access to this material and professors that they wouldn’t otherwise have encountered perhaps until college.”

Vail Mountain School’s After School Academy is only in its second year, but it is growing quickly as a result of its popularity among students and faculty. Schlossinger expects the offerings to become even more diverse and interesting. It’s a colorful program, to say the least. One that combines enriching extra curricular activities with community cultivation—a vibrant fusion that makes the student experience at VMS all the more powerful.  

This story was contributed to VMS News by freelance writer, Will Brendza, working in collaboration with the Vail Mountain School Advancement Office.