Lower School Intraterm

VMS Community Blog
Posted March 6, 2018
by Kristin Douthitt, Incoming Lower School Director

The day had finally arrived....after months of planning and preparing, our first ever lower school intraterm was about to begin. There was a hum in the school as the teachers arrived; checking their lists and supplies; making sure that everything was ready for the exciting week ahead. Then that hum elevated to a buzz as the students entered their classrooms to find out where they were going to begin their week of learning through project based ventures about the ocean.

You could hear many exclamations of joy as the students checked their cubbies to learn that they got to spend the day with a teacher they had cherished in the past or one they were excited to have in the future. The students started grouping up, chatting with each other, wondering exactly what they were going to learn and how. Buzz, buzz, buzz.....well, they were about to find out.

But first, you may wonder how we got here in the first place, so let’s take a step back in time for a moment. If you haven’t read Julie Schlossinger’s blog on project based learning yet, be sure to do so to understand the “why” behind this method of discovery and instruction.

As a part of professional development each summer, faculty members are provided a new book about innovative and research-based educational ideas, practices, and theories. This past August, a group of lower school teachers who read the book, Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning (PBL): A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction by John Larmer,‎ John Mergendoller, and‎ Suzie Boss, shared what they had learned about PBL and its impact on student achievement with their colleagues. At that presentation, an impactful seed was sown that grew to fruition as VMS’s first Lower School Intraterm Week.

Several lower school teachers volunteered for a planning committee that was charged with figuring out the logistics of a week dedicated to project based learning. They debated many questions such as:
  • the grouping of students K-5?
  • which LS faculty would be involved? (specialists?)
  • what topics/themes would spark the most interest and engagement?
  • what type of daily schedule would work?
When the plan was presented to the lower school faculty, the excitement began to build as teams formed, topics were narrowed, and careful planning began to shape the week of intraterm into an unforgettable experience for students.

We launched the week with a fourth grade recorder performance of “Under the Sea” and then watched a Blue Planet episode which followed the largest animal on earth, the blue whale. The documentary then took the students deep down into the sea to witness the aquatic food chain in action. Now it was time to head, with their new K-5 groups, to their classroom of the day where they were introduced to the driving question; challenging problem or question at the heart of the project.

The problems the multi-age groups worked to solve, and the process of what they accomplished were:
  • Problem: You are stranded on an island. Research your island, the inhabitants, and the resources to figure out how you can survive there while you figure out how to get off the island. Process: groups learned survival skills including making a raft and finding an escape route together.
  • Problem: With the deterioration of the ocean’s coral reefs, fish and other marine life are losing their homes. What can we do to provide future “housing” for the marine life? Process: Students learned about the biodiversity of the coral regions and were given "Top Secret" case studies to examine what can be done to help stop the coral reefs from dying.
  • Problem: How do tides affect the coastal landscape and people, and what can be done to keep beaches and houses safe? Process: Groups spent time examining the causes of beach erosion and then researched, designed and created a possible solution to save their beach house from eroding into the ocean. Teams of scientists and engineers tested their designs with tidal wave action and reflected on the success of their designs and possible changes.
  • Problem: What is causing ocean mammals and fish to disappear? Process: Students helped a marine biologist from Hawaii research the possible reasons for this problem and then invented their own animals with adaptations that could survive in the same environment.
In addition, lower school teachers of music, art, PE, Spanish, Mandarin, and greenhouse all chose various ocean topics such as food chains, plate tectonics, volcanoes, ocean food, and amazing creatures to continue to immerse students under the overarching umbrella of the ocean.

We are hopeful that your child reflected and shared each evening at home on how they spent their day engaged in the process of project based learning. We hope you heard examples of collaboration, learning through research and hands-on activities, and problem solving real life situations.

As teachers we also reflected on our first intraterm and here are some of of the insights:
  • I felt rejuvenated as an instructor as this process had me go outside of my normal routine and curriculum and lent itself to creativity and purposeful planning.
  • I witnessed students stepping up to be leaders and many groups became very cohesive by the end of the week. I saw them taking care of each other and figuring out how to work together.
  • The new group would enter each morning excited to find out what problem they were going to tackle for the day; evidence of sustained inquiry.
  • Students really gave the problem we were solving some thought and talked through possible solutions together before getting their materials. They were very deliberate and thoughtful.
  • It felt very student centered which made the engagement level high.
  • It pushed kids to think more deeply, at a very analytical level.
  • There was authenticity to the learning because we were working on real world problems.
That seed, through careful planning and design, grew into—well—a beautiful coral reef of learning and joy. The lower school team can call that a success for our first ever intraterm.......now let’s get started on brainstorming and planning for Intraterm 2019!

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.