Mr. Casey Strecker, the teacher, is running in the halls. In front of the principal. At the head of a pack of ecstatic tweens. There’s squealing and jostling as the entire class hurtles down flight after flight of stairs at Minneapolis’ Anthony Middle School.
Call this one humanities in action. Mr. Strecker is delivering a lesson in the structure of story. The class will start in the basement, the metaphoric bottom, or starting point, of their narrative.
As they race back up — the “rising action” of a tale taking off — they’re propelling themselves toward the top floor, the “climax.” After “falling action,” they’ll end in the basement again, at the end.
Welcome to Spring Break Academy, an invitation-only week when Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) teachers get a chance to deploy alternative strategies in small groups. It’s just a few days, but it’s precious time that allows for individual attention.
(Full disclosure: Your Humble Blogger has personal experience with Mr. Strecker, who captured the imagination of one of her kids some time back, thus earning the unending admiration of a teacher junkie.)
Winded and ever-so-slightly fragrant, back in Mr. Strecker’s room the class settles down to identifying plot points in a number of different stories. While they’re at it, they’ll look for metaphors and similes and other literary devices. Because the group sprint is a departure from traditional instruction, it’s likely to reach the students who struggle to absorb lectures.
The brainchild of MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s executive team, Spring Break Academy is not the long-sought longer school year. Nor is it the district’s strategy for reaching those students who are sometimes grades behind.
‘We’re trying to fill gaps’
It’s an effort to reach kids who are “on the cusp” of performing at grade level. Kids for whom four partial days and a field trip — canceled because of an April snowstorm — plus a host of afternoon activities ranging from soccer to cooking, can make a big difference.
“We’re trying to fill gaps,” explained Anthony Principal Jackie Hanson. “There are kids who can obviously benefit from more focused time on their needs.”
Tests are a topic of discussion, but there is no drilling going on. “We’ve taught test-taking strategies in advisories all year long,” said Hanson. “It’s not things we haven’t used with other kids.”
At Anthony, every day of the program, which took place last week, opened with a whole-academy meeting at which adults shared stories of hardships overcome. Kids are blown away to hear that the accomplished speakers started out where many of the students are now.
Trying different strategies
The academic portion of the day was designed partly around surveys students took while the week was being planned and partly around information about the specific skills gaps they had. Some kids wanted help managing anxiety about testing, for instance.
If she weren’t in school, seventh-grader Jolie guessed she would be at home on the couch. “I find learning kind of fun,” she reported. “Especially at Anthony because there are a lot of different strategies that they give us.”
Mufita likes math, but not math tests. Last week one of his teachers walked him through calming breathing exercises. “I like the fact that there are less kids,” he said. “So we can have an individual focus.”
Al liked getting to know kids he’s not normally in class with. “I just want to say this is a good place to learn from your mistakes,” he said. “The program of activities is fun because you get to choose what you want to do.”
In many classes, teachers showed kids where they were in a particular subject, and helped them set goals. Having concrete objectives made strategizing more relevant, the students said.
About 2,500 students
Spring Break Academy was held in 13 MPS schools. Attendance fluctuated from day to day, but hovered around 2,500. At Anthony, 11 of 33 faculty members were paid to participate, as were four support staff. Buses ran and meals were served.
The district plans to continue the program, likely over both winter and spring breaks next year. The programming will be paid for with $1 million of MPS’ state integration revenue, which is now tied to gap-closing student outcomes. At some locations, Saturday school may be added.
For Mr. Strecker, the best part of the week — he climax of the story, as it were — was being able to tailor his teaching to the kids in his room during any given hour: “I’ve had smaller groups to work with, so I’ve been able to give one-to-one attention.”
Hanson declared herself pleased with the entire endeavor, but especially thrilled to see personal relationships between teachers and kids blossoming. Mattering as individuals, she said, “is magic — just magic.”
“It’s that confidence and competence,” she said. “We want kids to feel they can do well, whether that’s on the next test they take or the next paper they write or the next game they play.”