Head of School Blog: Notes from the Periphery

With all due respect for the time when school actually lets out, I think my favorite time of day at Falmouth Academy is fourth period.


As most of you know, fourth period, intentionally located right in the middle of the academic day, is when students step away from their grade level study of the core curriculum to pursue, alongside students of all grades, any number of non-traditional electives.  From farming to forensics, from chorus to curling, from drama to drawing, from painting to Python, from stagecraft to strings, from yoga to yearbook, these classes invite students to work with different parts of their brains and invite them to collaborate, construct, create, and communicate.They are intended to be explorations of adjacent content that are interactive and experiential in design and delivery.


Over the course of the year, I have observed that our kids usually go joyfully to fourth period, and I have often wondered why. What is it about these courses that excite our students and what can we learn from them that might inform how we design and deliver our more traditional courses?


I recently came across two articles that co-authors Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine published in response to Zachary Jason’s article “Bored out of their Minds”  in Ed., a quarterly magazine published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Mehta and Fine suggest that the answer to the crisis of student engagement that Jason explores can be found in school programming traditionally referred to as “extracurricular.”


In “High School Doesn’t Have to be Boring,” they ask the question, “What would it take to transform high schools into more humanizing and intellectually vital places?” They began by visiting schools reputed to be at the forefront of innovation and did not observe students who were any more engaged than at traditional schools. In the course of their studies, they also struggled to observe engagement in core academic classes.  


They concluded instead that the most powerful learning seemed to be occurring “at the periphery - in electives, clubs, and extracurricular activities,” noting that, “instead of feeling like training grounds or holding pens, they felt like design studios or research laboratories: lively productive places where teachers and students engaged together in consequential work. It turned out that high schools, all of them, not just the “innovative” ones, already had a model of powerful learning.”


The authors further opined, in “Why the Periphery is Often More Powerful Than the Core,” that extracurriculars, “are voluntary rather than mandatory; they often undertake work that is undertaken collectively rather than individually; they feature peer leadership and peer-to-peer learning; they involve dimensions of playfulness; and they aligned activities that are valued in broader American culture.” Quite a resonant list, at least from the perspective of this one-time faculty advisor to the Mock Trial and Model UN clubs.


“Strong teachers,” say our authors, “already incorporate some of these features in their classes,” and I am confident that this is the case in the core subject classrooms at Falmouth Academy because I have sat in them. But I am also confident that we core teachers could learn a lot more from beekeeping class than just how to keep bees.


Engagement is a prerequisite for learning.  Always.


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