Mini-term: Learning Something New Across Divisions

Marcia Bernard, Librarian and Alice Gearhart, World Language Department Chair, Upper and Lower School Latin Teacher

Every year the Bement faculty embarks on the labor of love that is our mini-term, the three weeks between Thanksgiving break and the beginning of the winter vacation which we spend as a whole school studying a shared topic. Each year, we start from the ground up, structuring a unique educational experience for our students that is immersive, engaging, and fun. Following a successful formula that includes upper school-lower school collaborations, special guests and presentations at Friday all-school meetings, field trips, electives, and classroom activities that reinforce the theme, we join together for these three weeks that exemplify Bement at its finest. We’re at our best in mini-term because we are all together, learning, playing, and growing. Students are asked to move outside of their normal classrooms and routines for new and different experiences, but so are teachers and even staff. During mini-term, you might see science teachers leading a painting project, an English teacher leading students on a geocaching expedition, or the kitchen staff learning new recipes that support the theme. Mini-term allows us as adults to stretch, learn something new, and collaborate in the same ways we ask our students to. We “walk the walk” alongside our students and in doing so we create a more powerful learning experience as well as many more memories. 


Work on mini-term begins in the spring, as faculty weigh the merits of different topics for the upcoming mini-term. We think carefully about finding a theme that is a good fit for the whole school, kindergarten through ninth grade, and that works cross-departmentally. We also look specifically for themes that support a range of possible activities, workshops, speakers, and field trips. After we reach a consensus on a topic, the planning begins! The mini-term committee spends the following months gathering resources, arranging speakers and trips, and creating collaborative experiences for our students. In many years we have been able to tap into the expertise of members of the Bement community: Tundi Agardy P’17, a marine conservationist, joined the committee in planning the Oceans mini-term in 2016, and Cady Coleman P’16, retired NASA astronaut, was integral in organizing our Space mini-term in 2015. The day before students return from Thanksgiving for the mini-term kickoff, faculty have a full day of professional development and training for mini-term: for example, for Inventions mini-term in 2017, Ashley Pinakiewicz, Director of Bement in Shanghai, led teachers in a design thinking workshop. This training supports us as teachers as we prepare for that professional “stretch” that each new mini-term entails.


At the heart of what we do in mini-term is collaboration, and this comes to life most during our cross-divisional times. Upper school students join their lower school buddies most mornings in mini-term to rotate through a series of activities. On a given morning during the collaborative time, you might witness buddy groupings working on designing a superhero, learning some graffiti lettering techniques, or singing songs that tell stories. These collaborations are led by teachers eager to share a skill, passion, or just some fun across the grade levels, while other teachers participate alongside students, sharing their experience. Our older students learn compassion and patience as they guide and interact with their younger buddies, and all students show resilience in learning something new, especially when it doesn’t come easy. The learning continues throughout each mini-term day, as teachers incorporate the theme into their lessons through readings, projects, and many of the resources gathered by the mini-term committee. For upper school students, the day often ends with a variety of electives, some teacher-led, others led by a student with a teacher facilitating, but all designed around the year’s theme. The Homes and Habitats mini-term last year saw students felting bird nests, building house models out of paper, creating their own musical about a family meal, and debating environmental issues. Here again, students and teachers are working together, participating in the give and take of a collaborative project while learning valuable interpersonal skills. 


The learning that happens in mini-term is greatly enriched by the visitors, speakers, and field trips that are scheduled during those three weeks. During the Circus mini-term in 2014, Josh Shack from Circus Smirkus spent time on campus teaching the circus arts, and this training culminated in the students performing their own Bement circus at Deerfield Academy. Last year, for the Homes and Habitats mini-term, the Vermont Institute of Natural Science brought several of their incredible birds of prey to campus, and during the Oceans mini-term Greg Skomal, marine biologist and renowned Atlantic white shark researcher, came to Bement (without his sharks) and enthralled students with tales of his ocean adventures. This year we are fortunate to have both Justin Larocca Hansen and Jerry Craft, noted graphic novelists, visiting us, as well as alum Emily Zea ‘07, an illustrator and a student at The Center for Cartoon Studies. Field trips can range from visits to Historic Deerfield homes or the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, both within walking distance, to all-day excursions to the New England Aquarium in Boston or the Connecticut Science Center. Bringing our students in contact with experts in their fields or providing off-campus exposure to material and new experiences deepens the learning that goes on in mini-term, but also leads to lasting memories. 


Those memories are a big part of why mini-term is such a hallmark of the Bement experience and why the work that goes into creating mini-term every year is so worthwhile. Mini-term takes us out of the everyday and for three short weeks in December reminds us that stepping into the unfamiliar, when done together, teachers and students, allows for growth that we might not see otherwise. Working together as a whole school toward a common goal unifies and strengthens us, and every year mini-term serves to remind us that when learning is fun, it is not forgotten.

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