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OHMS staff offer outlines of trimester program/plan emphasises big themed units
OXFORD — As Oxford Hills Middle School prepares for a two-campus future, its staff are rolling out an ambitious education plan that may overhaul a students' classroom experience.
OHMS teachers and administrators unveiled a preliminary sketch of their plan to the SAD 17 curriculum committee during its meeting April 8.
The intent is to replace the school's quarterly schedule with themed trimester units that emphasize the interrelation between different subjects.
Teachers and administrators hope the new approach will break barriers between subjects and deliver a better learning experience to students.
Last month the SAD 17 Board of Directors voted to approve leasing building space on Madison Avenue in Oxford, allowing OHMS to shift about a third of its students to the new space and get rid of the school's aging portable classrooms.
Splitting the school into a north and south campus gave OHMS staff a unique opportunity to redesign its instruction program, Principal Troy Eastman told the committee.
The plan is to split the student body into three groups that will rotate through different units on a trimester system.
Each trimester will be devoted to a particular theme, Eastman explained – STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), humanities and visual and performing arts.
The school will be split into three themed campuses – humanities at the south campus and STEM and unified arts at north campus.
The intention of recasting instruction into themed units is to encourage students to understand the interconnectedness of the subjects and engage deeply with coursework, Eastman said.
All subjects would be taught during each trimester, but an emphasis would be put on tying instruction to the trimester theme, Eastman said.
"The idea is that we're not teaching in isolation," Eastman told committee members.
Student groups will travel with a teaching team that includes language arts, math and special education teachers, according to the plan.
It is important to provide students with adults they have relationships with, rather than jump to different teachers through the year, Eastman said.
The new OHMS program didn't change the curriculum or set different standards Eastman said – it only alters the form of instruction.
Students would continue to receive a full hour every day of math and language arts instruction, subjects that are evaluated heavily by standardized testing, Eastman said.
At the meeting, OHMS teachers said the process of developing the new program had been exciting and empowering.
The administration encouraged buy-in from teachers and took their input seriously, said Joe Cummings, a humanities teacher.
"It has been very empowering for staff," said Cummings. "Since day one, everyone has embraced it."
Language arts teacher Brenda Mariner said the new approach could improve the classroom experience, especially if students engaged deeply with their subject matter.
"We think this is teaching smarter, not harder," she told the committee.
While the broad outlines of the plan are sketched out, OHMS staff admit details are still hazy and plenty of questions on implementation still exist.
For example, finding obvious ways to integrate mathematics into the themed units has been challenging and the subject could still be taught in isolation, said teacher Steve Shaw.
It is also still unclear how special education will be integrated into the new program or how to flesh out the visual and performing arts unit, explained Eastman and Assistant Principal Tara Pelletier.
Moreover, the administrators said, the changes might require substantial professional development for OHMS staff.
The school is stepping into an unknown – staff believe the new program will be successful, but it is untested and will probably need future tweaking as it is assessed.
Still, teachers and administrators are quick to state the school isn't changing for experimentation sake – they believe this teaching model has real promise.
Eastman acknowledged there was a sense among staff that OHMS was attempting "something massive" and imagining all the ways to connect subjects could get overwhelming.
Still, he marveled at how far the school had come in the short few months, crediting the speed of the program's development to engagement between staff.
"It's unheard of, in my opinion, to start this late in the year and have the positive energy we have going for the amount of change that's coming," Eastman said.