By: Chris Unger

Seven years ago, the Lyndon Institute, way up in northern Vermont, decided to do school differently–take three weeks in January (called “J-term) and have teachers teach something they are passionate about, and let the students decide what they want to learn. While not a new idea for a number of higher ed institutions and some secondary schools, this “experiment” for Lyndon Institute has become an opportunity to reimagine what school could be. To call it a success seven years later would be an understatement.  

Learning That Is Personally Engaging, Authentic and Experiential

The expectations for teachers is that they propose to teach something that they are really interested in, if not passionate about—see this year’s catalog for all J-term offerings—and find a way to weave in the Lyndon Institute’s transferable skills, which highlight the competencies they want each student to develop for their future success. Students then decide what to take. 

This changes the game. When a teacher is teaching something they themselves find fascinating or love to do, they’re unlikely to pull out a textbook and teach it through more traditional school practices. Rather, they start to investigate, explore, make, create, and do something that is far more active, experiential, and project-based. For example, rock climbing. If a teacher loves rock climbing, they are likely to have students doing what? Climb rocks!  

So what over the last six years has been taught? Everything ranging from the craft of fly tying, jewelry making, gaming and storytelling to the very technical skills that come with the production of music, plays, theater and radio broadcasts to the intensely personal, social, and political that comes with civic debate and the discovery of community. (See a few of the classes offered this past January below.)

But to what end? Indeed the students still learn content. For example, electric circuitry, how to weld, digitally compose sound, and build a quinzhee hut. How to interview (see the “Humans of the Northeast Kingdom” and “J-term Podcast” classes) and make a fire from scratch (Surviving the Winter).  But most will tell you that what they learned was far and above specific content and domain-specific skills. More importantly, they learned how to collaborate, communicate, problem-solve, critically evaluate, create, and be a leader.  

One group of students was given the opportunity to reimagine the look and feel of two hallways, which they did with much enthusiasm, thought and planning, ranging from painting a tree growing around the bend to the Mexican sugar skull mandalas outside the Spanish teacher’s classroom. The gift of reimagining the space led to the very real and hard work of collaboratively designing and repainting the walls.

The Rock Band, fueled by Special Education teacher Mr. Levine’s longtime love of playing in a band, improvised and rehearsed their own set for exhibition night. (Hear Mr. Levine’s thoughts on J-term, its impact, and see the students perform here.)

Mr. Levine rocking out with his students during exhibition night.

And on exhibition night the “Surviving the Winter” students showcased their quinzhee hut, makeshift tarp shelter and igloo alongside a bonfire in front of the school.  

Students standing by the bonfire they made for exhibition night.

The Makey-Makey Music group constructed their musical installation inside the stairwell where moms, dads and grandparents could play “Stairway to Heaven” as they walked up the stairs.

The display case at the entrance of the school showcased students’ jewelry. And a young man proudly showed me the A-frame he’d welded so that his father could more easily pull their snowmobile up onto the back of his truck.

Learning Beyond Traditional Content.

For takeaways, I will leave you with this one lasting image, of a young woman who I was told did not speak much in class. Her job, it so became, was to ensure that the production of their podcast on J-term came to fruition—on time and with quality.  

The podcast class works quickly to finish their podcast for exhibition night.

The faculty advisor repeatedly told me how anxious he was about the production coming together in time. The two hosts, Silas and Emily, had completed their narration for the podcast just hours before the deadline only to realize that their mic hadn’t been on, leaving them to record it all over again. Despite their immediate disappointment, they redid the take and Julian, their senior year sound man, furiously spliced the final audio up to the last minute, detailing how J-term was started and teachers and students appreciation for what J-term has to offer. (Listen to the podcast and how J-term began, and find out what students learned from J-term here.) 

It was completed just in time. But think about this: What can be gained from such a real-world, authentic, time-sensitive and personally significant production?  Moreover, to work as a team on a product meant for others beyond the school? As Andi, the young woman who previously didn’t consider she had anything of value to offer, said: “I’m learning things about myself. I’m learning about communication and leadership and creative expression. Yes, I’m not learning biology. Not learning anything about what the mitochondria does. But I am learning that I can be a leader—and I can be a good one. I can teach people. And I can do things wildly out of my comfort zone.”

As I traveled the hallways, students and teachers shared with me their stories of meaningful engagement, relevant learning, and the development of competencies that reached far beyond the accumulation of traditional content and domain-specific skills. I heard stories of students thriving and learning about things they didn’t know they would like. And even better, about what they could do, make and create.

Next Steps

While I heard amazing stories of learning, I also heard stories of how teachers were reconsidering what it means to teach. (Hear what Chris Manges and Maddie Cobb appreciated about being able to take students out into the wild.) Freed from the expectation to cover traditional curriculum, they could turn their attention to student learning through meaningful work. Judd put it like this: “It’s true authentic project-based learning, where the kids really have a focus on what they want to see, what they want to get out of the setting. We discuss it right out of the gates at the beginning: what everybody’s desires are, what they want to get out of the class. And, sure enough, it has come to fruition. It’s kind of that bow and arrow analogy.  How much do we pull back, and in what direction, but inevitably when do we let go and let that arrow fly?”

The teachers at Lyndon are now thinking hard about how to take the insights gained from running J-term to how it can inform their day-to-day classes and instruction. In J-term, they are focused more on how to facilitate learning rather than how they will deliver content. And for both students and teachers, they are now asking: “If this is so cool…why can’t this be school?” Indeed.

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Chris Unger is a Teaching Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Northeastern University and supports the Graduate School of Education’s Network for Experiential Teaching and Learning (NExT) with a number of his colleagues at the university. You can follow him and NExT on Twitter @Chris_Unger and #NUNExT, respectively.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you, Chris Unger, for sharing your thoughts about LI’s innovative J-term. Lyndon Institute is often neglected by the local newspaper and so your very thorough article came as a welcomed surprise. My sons all attended LI and had a wonderful education. My grandson, Julian, was able to actually teach one of the J-term courses both in his Junior and Senior year. It’s a great addition to Lyndon Institute’s excellent educational program.

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