When Upper School students returned to Germantown Friends in January after Winter Break, they did not resume their regular study of English, history, math, science and language. Instead, they immersed themselves in classes with unexpected, thought-provoking names such as Baseball in American Society, Unit Origami, Charles Darwin: A Life in Science and The Mystical World of James Bond.
Part of the Upper School’s new January Term, or J-Term, these courses are among those offered by GFS faculty and staff, who were tasked with creating four-week “mini courses” on subjects they were “passionate about” outside of the regularly-offered curriculum.
Head of School Dana Weeks said she told the faculty, “We all have something right now in our back pocket that we’re dying to teach, or that we can teach, or that we just don’t have enough time to teach – put it forward,”
Weeks returned to the classroom this month to lead two sections of Topics in Neurobiology.
“The success of a program like this is that you’re capitalizing on faculty expertise and interest because a course is only as good as the person who’s teaching it,” Weeks said. “The more excited you are about it, the better the class is going to be.”
Planning for J-Term began last spring when a committee was formed to create a mission for the program and a plan for how it would function. The committee considered requiring less homework, reducing stress for both students and faculty; longer class times, providing more space for experimentation, investigation and reflection; and weekly course-related, community-building field trips, to get the students out of the classroom and into the world. The ultimate objective was to offer students expanded learning opportunities in a more relaxed setting.
“Some of the goals behind initiating a month-long elective program were to expand our course offerings, to live out our school mission of ‘embracing the city’ [with weekly field trips] and to honor the multi-talented faculty who often have more passion and skills than can normally be accommodated in our regular course offerings,” said Chris Singler, English Department head and clerk of the J-Term Committee, who is currently teaching a J-Term course on Cyborgs, Megacorporations and the Dystopian Future: Cyberpunk Fiction and Movies. “Early reports have included that the students are remembering more because they have more time to reflect on the ideas presented in class, and that the weekly Friday field trips enable faculty and students to deepen connections as a community while exploring our phenomenal city.”
Last fall, students in grades 9, 10 and 12 – since the 1970s, eleventh graders at GFS have pursued independent projects during the month of January – were asked to select five to six courses from a catalog of close to 100, offered in once-weekly, three-hour blocks; twice-weekly, 90-minute sessions; or thrice weekly, hour-long classes. The schedule also allows for extra time for independent study or student club meetings, and having mixed-grade classes offers more diverse, multi-perspective discussions. All courses are graded on a pass/fail basis.
Early reports from students have been enthusiastic.
“J-Term has allowed me to take unusual classes that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to take at any high school,” said senior Jesse Overholser, whose course load includes Mass Incarceration, Astronomy, Magazine Journalism and Spain Before and After Franco. “One of my favorite classes is tutoring first graders at a local school. The kids are amazing, and working with them has inspired me to get [involved] locally to help fix our school crisis. J-Term has also given me more time to devote to my extracurriculars, like Mock Trial and the school newspaper because teachers are giving less homework.”
With J-Term classes now in their final week, many students are sad to say good-bye to their engaging electives.
“J-Term has been one of the best educational experiences I have ever had,” said senior Lauren Cunfer. “I am taking classes on topics that I actually want to pursue as careers, and I have never felt more productive or excited when coming to school.”
“The advantage of January Term is that it changes the pace of the year and the tone of the students’ experiences,” Weeks said. “Kids are happy—they’re home talking about their classes, and parents have reported that they’ve never had such extensive conversations with their children about what they’re doing in school. The best part has been listening to the students and hearing their enthusiasm – they’re literally joyful when they talk about their courses. I think the whole thing has been a huge success.”