Inside the Mercersburg Intensive

Thursday, April 1, 2021

As the curtain slowly closed on the calendar year of 2020, Mercersburg students and faculty connected from down the street and around the world for a four-week academic period unlike anything the Academy had attempted before. 

Known as the Mercersburg Intensive, the span between the fall and winter academic terms saw the class schedule of each student consist entirely of a single course, allowing for deep and meaningful learning, synthesis, creativity, and exploration to take hold. 

Teaching faculty (as well as some administrative faculty and staff who led courses) focused on a single topic during the term with their classes—some of which were as small as five students. The school’s faculty and staff curated a roster of 50 course topics, many of which were designed specifically with a focus on this moment and year. Mercersburg’s theme for the 2020–2021 academic year is “Making a Difference.”

The robust and eclectic range of subjects covered everything from improving quality of life for the elderly, tackling bias and inequity, researching and debating the mathematics of voting, and even collecting and sharing the stories of Mercersburg Academy's alumni and history. All courses were held in a virtual environment due to the closure of campus to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

John David Bennett, Mercersburg’s dean of curricular innovation, describes the Intensive as “an opportunity to wipe away the periphery and become absorbed in a joyful, inspiring, satisfying sojourn into learning and discovery.”

“Some of the deepest learning doesn’t happen in traditional schooling,” says Bennett, who is in his 14th year at Mercersburg. “Research has determined that deep learning—though found in traditional core courses—is common within extracurricular activities and electives, where students work with focused purpose on something that taps their curiosity. An intensive takes away the distractions and lets you engage in some serious play—and where there’s play, there’s usually learning. That’s the goal.”

Many faculty and staff spent portions of the summer engaged in professional development and training to best design and refine their courses for the Intensive period, including a weeklong virtual session with Katie Martin of Altitude Learning. The school produced a handbook for Intensive teachers to help guide the process, but teachers (and students) enjoyed the freedom to guide their courses to where the learning truly leads them.
 
Arts faculty members Jim Brinson and Bryan Morgan ’07 and the nine students enrolled in the “Songs of Peace and Hope” course analyzed historical works of poetry and music—from classical to hip-hop—that advocate for and focus on reconciliation, love, and hope for humanity. Students then worked toward creating their own works of music or prose inspired by the topic.
 
Brinson says that the idea for the course came from much of the turmoil and unsettledness of this year, specifically the confluence of the pandemic and the ongoing struggle for racial justice and equity in the streets and hearts of America. “We wanted our students to have the time to truly be creative in expressing their desire for peace,” he says. “With the way the term is designed, the kids could really focus on this course, take their time, be inspired, and let their ideas germinate. 

“It was a really gratifying experience. When we started, I know some of the kids were probably asking themselves how they were going to write their own music. But they just started creating, and what they ended up producing really was first class. I hope all the students are proud of what they created.” (Brinson, who is the school’s longtime organist and carillonneur in addition to working with students involved in vocal music, is using student-composed music from the course in Mercersburg’s Sunday Chapel services the rest of this year.)

While a number of schools like Mercersburg implemented a similar Intensive-style term (many during an equivalent portion of their academic calendars, given the unusual circumstances of 2020–2021), what makes the Mercersburg Intensive different is the sheer breadth and quantity of course offerings. More than 30 Mercersburg alumni participated in a number of different courses as special guests, providing expertise and in courses ranging from “Business and Its Role in the Cultural Foundations of Peace” to “Life Reflected: The Fine Art of History” and even “Stand Up,” which was dedicated to helping students discover their own voices through comedy.
 
“Something I’ve learned from conversations with a number of administrators at schools that already have intensives is that, with all the necessary training we’ve done, the way to do this is really just to go through it—for the faculty to have the experience of teaching and learning in a bit of an alternative way,” says Bennett, who taught an Intensive titled “Broadcasting with Podcasting: Tell the Whole World About Heroes Who Make a Difference.” “In a sense, it’s a little bit of ‘unschooling.’

“For many of us teaching these courses, we started with a canvas that was 100 percent blank. In my case, our students were creating a podcast. And it was great to see some of the younger students really shine; honestly, some of the strongest podcasters in the class were ninth graders. Teachers were really excited to have a diversity in ages among the students in their classes.”

Daniel Zhong ’23, who lives in nearby Greencastle, Pennsylvania, and is in his second year at Mercersburg, was one of nine students enrolled in “Maker’s Lab: Designing for the Elderly” with faculty members Franklin Bell and Jessica Doubell.

“I enjoyed the whole experience of the class,” Zhong says. “I did not expect to learn so much about the process of helping out people in our community. Usually, regular classes teach material and then give homework or tests based on the material. 

“But in this class, instead of tests or homework, we were given the chance to concentrate on finding ways to design and create products for the elderly. We spent most of our time focusing on interviewing people and creating a list of items through 3D printing that the those we spoke with could benefit from. My interactions with the people that I talked or interviewed were amazing. They were all so kind and tried their best to help us.”

“Designing for the Elderly” was based in part on the original Maker’s Lab course, which is one of the school’s Springboard capstone offerings for members of the senior class. One of the advantages of the Intensive format is giving younger students like Zhong exposure to different disciplines at an earlier age, potentially seeding an interest in future study. Bennett, for one, says that many of the Intensive topics could be accurately described as “mini-Springboard courses.”

Faculty member Kristen Pixler, who taught “Art and Activism in the Digital Era,” counseled students to be ready for a different type of class structure—in a good way—than some may have been used to.
 
“Challenge-based learning, which is what we’re diving into here, can be ‘messy’ and requires dedication and focus and true academic curiosity,” Pixler says. “In this format, students and teachers need to bring a bit of patience for themselves. This type of work has a natural evolution that is unique for each student. It’s not as clear-cut or as linear as [traditional] education. Being prepared for the organic path it takes requires some patience and some grit to get through it. Our students had a wonderful journey.” 

From his vantage point as both a teacher of an Intensive and the administrator overseeing the entire experiment, Bennett sees a lot to analyze and dissect as the school continually refines how it tailors its curriculum to best prepare its students for the world beyond Mercersburg.

“We learned a lot, and it wasn’t at all learned begrudgingly,” Bennett says. “For the teachers, it was probably equal parts stressful and great. I really tried to get my students—none of whom chose my course as their first choice—to constructively criticize the class. It was hard for them. The buzz has been really positive.”

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To see highlights of student work from a number of Mercersburg Intensive courses, visit mercersburg.edu/intensive.


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