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Parents Bulletin Board

New approach to Upper School trips will allow for pursuit of myriad interests, deeper engagement with coursework
Posted 01/25/2018 07:07PM

A shift in Durham Academy Upper School’s approach to class trips is opening up a world of possibilities: student dancers perfecting pliés with the best in the business in New York City; a pig-to-plate exploration of North Carolina’s barbecue industry; a more intimate, intense Civil Rights Tour, with abundant opportunities for reflection among a small group of participants.

The inaugural Maymester and course-capstone experiences for ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders will take place following the Class of 2019 commencement exercises (set for May 24, 2019) and will vary in length from four to 13 days. Senior Challenge, described by Upper School Director Lanis Wilson as “the defining trip for DA,” will remain a start-of-year trip for seniors.

To accommodate these new experiences for ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders, the 2018-2019 calendar looks a bit different from that in previous years; exams for all Upper Schoolers will conclude prior to commencement, and experiential education trips for grades 9 to 11 will no longer take place at the beginning of the school year. The Class of 2019 will gather on campus Aug. 17 to celebrate and prepare for Senior Challenge, leave for the wilderness adventure on Aug. 18, and return on Aug. 22. Classes will begin for all students Aug. 24. 

Wilson and Upper School teacher Kelly Teagarden, who will help coordinate the Maymester and capstone experiences, said students will be encouraged to participate in two off-campus experiences during their first three years in the Upper School. All ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders will rank selections from a set of culminating experiences — about 20 will be offered — or create an internship for themselves. Students will be assigned to a group in late fall.

“These changes align with our work on The Mission-Driven Life and build on the remapping and reshaping of our curriculum to strengthen both our academic and our extra-curricular programming,” Wilson said.  “… Defining what it means to be happy, moral and productive is the jumping-off point for more intense and practical conversations. Our students crave a larger sense of purpose; they want to better understand why they are learning, what they can achieve for themselves and what they might contribute to the world.”

At a time when extrinsic motivation can easily become a primary driver for students — with grades, recognitions and college acceptance serving as benchmarks for success — it’s important for DA to work toward fostering greater intrinsic motivation, “allowing students to pursue authentic passions and prioritizing the traits of The Mission-Driven Life,” Wilson continued.

An abundance of options

While proposals for these experiences are still being crafted by faculty members, it is expected that they will vary widely in focus and location.

“Students will now have a range of choices — service, leadership, academics, interdisciplinary studies, hands-on projects, outdoor education, global exploration — that complement and enhance the Upper School curriculum,” Wilson said. “From revised versions of our traditional class trips to internships to mini-courses to service projects, these culminating experiences will provide opportunities for experiences that we cannot otherwise accommodate in our academic calendar and provide students with opportunities to deepen and broaden their learning.”

Upper School dance teacher Laci McDonald hopes to take a small group of dance students to New York, perhaps to learn with Hope Boykin ’90, a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and take classes at the Broadway Dance Center.

“I'm excited for it. I've always wanted to take my students on this kind of trip,” McDonald said. “And I'm excited for the possibility of maybe teaming up with somebody else. Mike Meyer and I threw out the idea of he and I team-chaperoning. He was interested in also taking a group to New York to focus on a music experience, and then maybe we would meet up at a show. The possibility of collaboration with other faculty members is pretty cool.

“As an adviser,” McDonald continued, “I’m excited to be able to kind of help my advisees find an interest that they can then experience with another faculty member, maybe somebody that they won't ever even take a class with.”

The myriad choices that will be available to students holds enormous appeal for Teagarden.

“Students can choose one year to do something associated with a science class, and the next year to do something associated with a history class or to pursue a passion that's outside of both of those or do outdoor education,” she said. “… And I think this can really be an incubator for academic innovation for teachers.”

The Maymester period will also serve as the time during which most international trips will be held; rather than returning from spring break a week late and catching up on missed schoolwork, students will be able to fully immerse themselves in their overseas adventures.

It is expected that several of the Maymester offerings, called Cavalier Capstones, will serve as culminating experiences for either semester or year-long courses. Some Maymester experiences might be open to only students in specific grade levels or who have taken specific courses, while others might be open to any student in grades 9 to 11.

“I think it’s is a unique moment for students to be able to get to know and bond and learn from and learn with students in other grades, and that's beneficial in the sense of just forming relationships kind of vertically,” Teagarden said. “Schools don't always have the opportunity to do that.”

Smaller groups, more fulfilling trips

Moving from grade-level-wide trips at the beginning of the year to interest-driven trips in May has another huge advantage: small group sizes, allowing for “intimate, more fulfilling and intense experiences,” Teagarden said. The Upper School student body will continue to grow in the coming years, which could make grade-level-wide trips more challenging.

Upper School history teacher Owen Bryant has led juniors on the Civil Rights Tour — with stops along a route spanning from Greensboro to Montgomery, Alabama — at the beginning of the school year for about 10 years. When the idea was initially hatched, it was envisioned as a trip for two elective courses, not the entire 11th-grade class, he recalled.

“I was sort of envisioning the trip as a small, intimate, sort of self-selected group of kids who would participate and really sort of be part of what I deem like a traveling classroom,” Bryant said. And, indeed, the inaugural Civil Rights Tour, with more than 100 participants, was a bit “unwieldy in terms of the deep, intellectual conversations about civil rights history in the country, and about race, and about a lot of these sensitive topics.”

Adjustments were made the following year to allow for more candid, intimate debriefing sessions with each advisory group each night, but traveling around the Southeast with 110 students still has its challenges. So Bryant is enthusiastic about the idea of taking a smaller, self-selected group of students on the journey next spring.

“Giving them options and giving them choices about what they want to go on, I think will really probably make each trip better,” he said. “Because it's really about the shared interest and the deep curiosity that kids have, as opposed to feeling like, this is the trip that the class goes on so I have to go on the trip, too.”

Leap of faith

The change from class trips at the beginning of the year to interest-driven trips in May “will seem exciting to some and daunting to others,” Wilson acknowledged, “but we are eager to take this leap of faith and better align our calendar with our mission and strategic plan.”

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time that trips have changed. The Civil Rights Tour replaced an outdoor-education program in the aughts, and outdoor-education program locations have changed many times over the years.

The one consistent thread in the Upper School’s experiential education program is Senior Challenge, and the tradition of the entire senior class hiking off in the wilderness of the North Carolina mountains each August will remain a tradition for years to come.

“It links our past graduates with our future alums,” Wilson said. “It has been a central experience for DA 12th-graders for 40 years. It deserves a place of prominence in our curriculum."

Senior Challenge will indeed mark its 40th anniversary in 2018, and trip director Greg Murray promises some memorable surprises on this year’s trip to celebrate the milestone.

The advisory group bonding that has been a fixture of start-of-year trips for grades 9 to 11 will still happen — just closer to home. Juniors and sophomores will spend the three days prior to the start of classes focused on purposeful conversations, bonding activities and community engagement. Ninth-graders will spend those three days engaged in similar activities, plus an overnight bonding experience.

McDonald, who serves as a lead class advisor for the Class of 2021, also understands that the new approach to Upper School trips may be challenging for some in the DA community.

“Change is hard. It's daunting to have to think about doing something new and recreating something,” she said. “But we have such an opportunity here to have some incredible new experiences. It's a new way to push ourselves and to challenge ourselves.”

Parent Events
  • March 2019
    • MonMar25 CavClassifieds Ad Deadline
  • April 2019
    • SatApr06 Benefit Auction 6:30 PM
    • ThuApr18 Parents Association General Membership Meeting 8:15 AMBrumley Performing Arts Building
    • WedApr24 CavClassifieds Ad Deadline
  • May 2019
    • WedMay22 Parents Council Luncheon and Meeting Brumley Performing Arts Building (Lower School)
    • FriMay24 CavClassifieds Ad Deadline
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