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Post-Testing, School Goes Outside the Core

Washington

There's been a lot of talk lately about how rigid curricula and the focus on testing have—and will continue to—impede teachers' creativity in the classroom.

However, yesterday morning at The Inspired Teaching School, a pre-K-4th grade charter school in Washington, teacher creativity was in full effect.

With testing in the rear view mirror, the school is holding what it calls "intersession"—four days in which teachers pick something outside the core curriculum to teach. This year's topics included filmmaking, zoology, and, the one I attended, running. Students choose what they'd like to learn about and attend two-hour sessions on that topic each day.

"The idea behind intersession is to have times in the year where we purposefully disrupt the rhythm that is our norm, to have time for deep inquiry, exploration, and community building," Zoe Duskin, the school's principal, explained. For teachers, she said, intersession is "a chance to get to teach something they're passionate about that they don't always get to spend as much time on as they'd like."

It's a concept most often implemented with middle and high school students, especially because the break from routine can be harder for younger students. But Duskin said she sees it as an "opportunity to give students some coaching in risk-taking."

Fourth grade teacher Rebecca Schmidt began the first running lesson by brainstorming with students about safety and what they hoped to learn over the next several days. A seasoned distance-runner (and periodic blogger for Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable), Schmidt then took the mix of 1st to 4th graders out for a short run on the sidewalks of D.C. Some kids sprinted and stopped, while others found their pace. At first a few teased each other, expressing their own insecurities, but by the end it was all high fives and kind words ("You can do it! Keep running!"). Several kids who had struggled to stay focused in the classroom turned out to be determined on foot.

After about 15-minutes, Schmidt brought the now-sweaty yet cheerful kids in to cool down, stretch, and reflect. Above all, they expressed their excitement about having had the option to decide how far they ran—all but one had chosen to do a second lap around the urban track Schmidt had mapped out.

For an observer, the morals of the day were many. Passion is contagious. Choice leads to engagement. Every child excels at something. And, importantly, sometimes kids just need to run.

Duskin said that even as academics standards are raised—including with the advent of the Common Core State Standards' assessments—she'll keep the program going. The soft skills kids learn—among them "perseverance, personal strength, and integrity"—will transfer to academics, she said. "I love intersession. We'll stick with it and continue to modify things as the school grows."

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