These days, school is about a lot more than just reading, writing and arithmetic. Experiential learning, in which students learn by doing, is growing in popularity as a way to introduce students to new concepts and to help them develop skills that will allow them to be successful in and out of the classroom.
To this end, Sewickley Academy recently introduced X-Block, an experiential learning curriculum in which middle school students take part in everything from building a kayak to holding mock trials to writing children’s literature and learning Chinese calligraphy.
“We know that kids learn best when doing something relevant and meaningful; when they can problem-solve and be creative,” explained Head of Middle School Dr. Shannon Mulholland. “We created X-Block to provide students with a way to work on things that they care about—inspiring students is part of the Academy’s mission.”
Through X-Block, students are able to sign up for experiential classes each year and then demonstrate their mastery of learning through project- and performance-based tasks. The classes are put together by teachers who have a passion for certain subjects.
“We see a transformation in our students,” said Dr. Mulholland. “For example, students who may have expressed that science class was not their thing are suddenly ignited by an X-Block course that introduces the physics and chemistry of toys.”
Seventh-grader Emma Di Domenico agreed. “I really enjoyed ‘The Chemistry and Physics of Toys’ this year because I learned a lot and got to do hands-on activities,” she said.
All of the courses are performance- or project-assessed, with students demonstrating the specific set of skills outlined at the beginning of the course. “Students get feedback along the way as they develop skills for public speaking, critical reading, research, using safety tools properly, collaboration and resilience,” said Dr. Mulholland. “Without a grade attached, they are free to focus on those skills and reflect on their progress.
“Students who prefer to learn by doing really thrive in this environment,” she added. “That transformation is evident when you watch the spark in a student’s eye when they have collaborated with peers to solve a meaningful problem. Students are up and moving instead of sitting at desks and listening to lectures. It’s really exciting.”
Students are involved in a grade-level X-Block class during one trimester and are able to choose individual X-Block classes during the first and second trimesters.
“Voice and choice is important to middle school students who are beginning to develop new interests and explore new skills,” said Dr. Mulholland. “Being able to choose what they want to learn is an important component of the program, and students appreciate having the opportunity to participate in a variety of skill-based classes throughout their time in middle school.”
X-Block has now become a yearly curricular offering along with English, science, math, history, world language, arts, and athletics.
Jonathan Riddle’s sixth-grade class worked on a newspaper for the first third of the year, and then 10 students joined him during the second trimester for the class ‘Paddle Away,’ in which they worked on completing a wooden kayak.
“Students certainly enjoyed the coursework being intentionally different; our photography group for the newspaper was running around grabbing shots of kids, and our editors and writers were frantic trying to beat the deadline,” said the program director and instructor. “These are challenges that they don’t face with other coursework.
“The group that worked on the kayak learned how to lay fiberglass cloth and to use copper wire for stitch-and-glue construction,” he added. “They developed craftsman skills, got a good basic class on tools, and learned how to ask for help when they needed it.”
Both teachers and parents were excited about the introduction of X-Block for the opportunity that it gave students to pursue their passions.
“We had a lot of meetings with teachers to ask about their areas of expertise and interest, and to figure out what would excite them and excite their students,” said Riddle. “Then we tried to match students up with those classes where teachers were able to share that expertise.”
“Educational vigor is one of our core values at Sewickley Academy, and our families expect that their students will be inspired to learn and challenged to think more critically as they grow,” said Mulholland. “A curriculum that is relevant and meaningful to students, offers choice and autonomy, and is executed by expert teachers who are passionate about their subjects and student learning is generally the formula for delivering on that promise.”
Sixth-grader Nicholas Zanic, for example, took ‘Real Life Math’ and appreciated the lessons that he learned. “I enjoyed it because it prepares you for the future, specifically taxes," he explained.
According to Mulholland, families have also expressed enthusiasm for the new X-Block curriculum and are excited to see the courses grow.
“In future years, we would like to be able to travel with our students and enhance their learning by exploring our community,” said Riddle, adding that because of COVID restrictions this year, it was not possible for the Environmental Science X-Block to schedule trips to the creek to examine water quality, or for the Mock Trial X-Block participants to visit a courtroom.
Added Mulholland, “There are endless possibilities of exploration that we look forward to considering, and we can’t wait to share more about our students’ success through middle school at Sewickley Academy.”
For more information, visit www.sewickley.org.