Dirty Hands, Engaged Minds: Passion-Forward Project-Based Learning With ‘Intensives’

At the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, we have made innovation a part of our model. As a grade 6–12 all-girls public school in New York City, we pride ourselves on leading the way for the next generation of leaders with real-world learning, in real time, with real experts. For two weeks, our regular courses stop, and we “Intensify.” My virtual tour provides a look at our “Intensives,” which strive to integrate 21st-century skills in a 1:1 tech environment that offers students multiple ways to display mastery.

Intensifying: An Overview

Ranging from fitness challenges and photography to set design and robotics, each Intensive course bolsters skills that help students in all subjects and content areas, so it’s not a “break” from work—it’s just work that looks different. Students collaborate and work deeply for two weeks, culminating in a public expo at the end of the Intensive. Intensives are just that—an intense dive into a passion area, a chance to try something you may never have experienced or to go deeper into something you love, or perhaps an opportunity to help discover something new to love.

Play With Time

Imagine attending 45-minute meetings about disparate topics, eight in a row. How could anyone deeply process, communicate, and create in such an environment? We asked ourselves how we could rethink time and space in our school to provide students with a chance to dive into one particular project that spans many skills. In our Intensives, they spend 50 hours—close to the amount of time of a regular year’s course—immersed in their work in this one area.

Consider ways your school schedule can “play” with time. We dedicate ten full days, five hours a day, working with the same group of students on one project that culminates in a public exposition. Start small and consider a once-per-week “genius hour” or a double-period block to intensify in just one grade band. If there is a start of school week or “after exam” week where students need a lift of engagement, this might be the place to start!Mix Them Up!

As a grade 6–12 secondary school, one of the great benefits of Intensives is mixing students by grade level and allowing the learning, skills, and passion to shine through. Rather than a focus on age or grade band, students are able to share their knowledge, expertise, and lens to strengthen the work and final product.

In any case, when was the last time you saw a team at Google organized by age? Teams in all sectors of business are arranged by employees of all ages and levels with a common purpose and shared goal, just like our Intensives!

Skill, You Say?

Students are assessed on skills—not grades—across assignments, providing them multiple opportunities to work on the same skill in a variety of ways. Skills are transferable across content areas in the real world, and, therefore, fit seamlessly into our Intensives.

One Really, Seriously, Creative and Dedicated Village

Our team is at the heart and strings of making Intensives a part of the culture of our school. Because of Intensives, our students have been authentically challenged and exposed to potential careers. Concurrently, our teachers have transitioned to be more project-minded and student-centered, fostering authentic learning each day. Teachers dig into their creative Mary Poppins-style bags and pull out all the things, “I wish I could do, if I just had a little more time”

Show Me the Intensity!

Take a deeper look at this Intensive on Food Sustainability Intensive. And here’s how a sample Intensive course for podcasting is described:

Everyone is listening to podcasts these days! A podcast is an audio file or story that you stream or download and listen to on your computer or phone. There is a podcast about almost anything you can imagine: pop culture, sports, food, fashion, technology, politics, etc. In this intensive, you will plan, produce, publish, and promote your own podcast. You will also visit a recording studio and talk with several producers and podcasters to ask about their process and receive feedback on your own creation!

To identify topics, brainstorm with your teachers and staff during your next professional development meeting. Here is one possible prompt: What if you had a lot of time, very few restrictions, and could share a passion with students—what would you want to do?

This blog is part of NASSP’s Virtual Tour Series. Be sure to visit NASSP’s Facebook on December 11 at 10:00 a.m. (ET) to participate in the live tour. Allison Persad will also be leading the #PrinLeaderChat on Twitter on December 15 at 9:00 p.m. (ET).

Dr. Allison Persad is the principal and lead learner at The Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria, NY, and one of the 2019 NASSP Digital Principals of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@apersad).

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