Mercersburg Intensive: “Serious Play” Meets “Deep Learning”

Sunday, November 15, 2020
The "StoryCorps" course meets with sportscaster Bob Rathbun and Max Strauss ’12

Improving quality of life for the elderly. Tackling bias and inequity. Collecting and sharing the stories of Mercersburg. Researching and debating the mathematics of voting. 
These are just four of the approximately 50 different topics Mercersburg students focused on during the Mercersburg Intensive, a new four-week academic period held for the first time this year between the school’s fall and winter terms. From Monday, November 16, to Thursday, December 17 (with a weeklong break for Thanksgiving), groups of between five and 18 students examined a wide range of course topics curated and designed by the school’s faculty and staff, in many cases with a special focus on this moment and year. Each student’s academic schedule consisted entirely of a single Intensive course during these four weeks, allowing for deep and meaningful learning, synthesis, creativity, and exploration to take hold.
From big data to stopping the spread of misinformation, and from examining the experiences of Indigenous populations to the work of Black American filmmakers and the design of walkable cities, the courses encompassed a robust and eclectic range of subjects—many of which are designed around the school’s 2020–2021 theme of “Making a Difference.” All courses are being held in a virtual environment (since students departed campus by November 19 and will not physically return to campus until March 2021).
(See a full list of the course offerings; all courses were graded on a pass/fail basis.)

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.”

Dean of Curricular Innovation John David Bennett works with students in his Intensive

“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.”

(Listen to a podcast about the Mercersburg Intensive hosted by Associate Head of School for School Life Julia Stojak Maurer ’90, which features fellow faculty members Bennett, Kristen Pixler, and Will Willis.)
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) will enjoy 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.
“We’ll talk about the meaning of words and the events that were going on at the time the pieces or songs were written,” Morgan says. “We have kids from all four grades in the course, and some [fully] virtual students as well. We’ve designed the course so that the students really take it in the direction they want to go.”
Brinson adds that the idea for the course came from much of the turmoil and unsettledness of this year, specifically the confluence of the COVID-19 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 to let their ideas germinate. Hopefully the muse will strike and students will get to a point where they begin to share their ideas with one another and build on them with their fellow classmates.”
While a number of schools like Mercersburg have implemented or plan to establish 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.
“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 un-schooling; we’re sort of tearing down a lot of the classic structures of schooling, but I don’t think there will be any less learning. In some cases, there may even be a little bit more.”
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. “I’m hoping all the students will bring that. But students also 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’s going to take requires some patience and some grit to get through it. I’m hoping our students will have a wonderful journey and find something really bright and wonderful at the end.”