Tuesday, June 6, 2017

This Thing Called Pirate Term

Over the course of the last several years, our Pirate Term has become something that students in grades 7-11 look forward to annually. Indeed, it is a capstone experience to our school year that many school districts are trying to emulate. Modeled after what colleges and universities describe as 'May Term' or J-Term', at its inception we envisioned a learning experience where teachers could work with a group of students for an extended period of time on an in-depth learning experience. Originally scheduled to occur between first and second semester, that plan was scrapped when the teaching staff advocated moving it to the end of the year. Primarily, they argued for more planning time and suggested that if it were moved to the end of the year, it could provide for even greater flexibility with students due to the fact the weather was more favorable. Unforeseen to us were other tertiary benefits of moving Pirate Term to the end of the year. For example, the level of student engagement remained quite high. An extraordinary feat considering that the last thing typically on a youngsters mind in late May is attending school!

Hudson Students Learning to SCUBA dive
We proceeded to give our secondary teachers the task of creating a five day unit of study that was tied to; and connected to the Iowa Core Academic Standards. When planning the unit, they had to keep in mind they would have a group of students all day long for the entire five-day period where they would do a deep dive into one topic or content area, were required to create and demonstrate learning objectives that were tied to the Core, and they had to assess students on those objectives. Financially, our goal was to operate this endeavor on a shoestring. Each teacher was given a $100 budget with which to execute the project. This was partly out of necessity because at the time we started Pirate Term the district wasn't in the best financial condition, but also because we wanted our teachers to work with our local community partners and businesses. The fact that we are located a stone's throw from a regent university, and a hop skip and a jump from our community college needed to be leveraged. Lucky for us, both institutions saw the reciprocal benefits of this endeavor and eagerly agreed to a partnership. In the intervening years, those partnerships have expanded to include many businesses and social service agencies in the Cedar Valley. 

This May we just completed our fifth year of Pirate Term! I can hardly believe it has been that many years since this concept has become a reality! Indeed, something wonderful has happened as these units of study have grown and matured. Strong alliances have been formed with our community partners. Teachers have added new concepts to their curriculum and strengthened alignment and assessment. Some of the early units have since been reformatted or replaced with new ideas. 

Over the course of the week, I make an effort to get out and see the learning that is taking place. Along with Mr. Dieken, we find ourselves all over the Cedar Valley. On one day we might be at the pool at UNI watching our kids learn to SCUBA dive. Another day we might be at the Cedar Valley Sportsplex where our students are getting a lesson on careers in the fitness industry. But the highlight of the week happens on Day Six, which happens to coincide with the final day of the school year. On this day we have the Pirate Term Showcase, where each group of students and teachers give a brief presentation on their week and what they have learned. 

I am not sure if it was the fact that we are really starting to hit our stride with this experience, but there were some quite remarkable projects, learning, and fantastic experiences for our students this year. I could likely go on for several more paragraphs, highlighting countless examples of our students and teachers doing extraordinary things, but I will limit my commentary to just a couple.

Remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice
The first is our Pirate Term that was titled 'Military Exploration'. Designed as a unit to explore military strategy and learn about the armed forces, these students have an opportunity to eat military rations (MREs), participate in an overnight visit to Camp Dodge in Des Moines, and go through a portable obstacle course and climbing wall. Most of the students describe the experience as action packed and exciting. However, the most poignant event of this Pirate Term had to be on the Friday before Memorial Day. On this particular day, I found the students at the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Waterloo placing flags at the grave sites of our Veterans. This service learning experience tied in very nicely to the theme of the military exploration unit that was being studied. It also served as a great reminder that serving in our armed forces sometimes requires our service members to pay the ultimate sacrifice. These students took great care in clearing the markers of Veterans that had become overgrown. One student remarked to me that they wanted to make sure these Veteran's were remembered. On a personal note, as we were leaving the cemetery I noticed a marker of a Veteran that was born in 1947 and died in 1967. It was clear to me this young person had made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in Vietnam. And was not a whole lot older than our students who were there that day.

Sorting food at the Northeast Iowa Food bank
The second point I would like to make has to do with the natural evolution of these Pirate Term experiences. As the years have gone by, it seems that a service component has organically become embedded in the fabric of the week. That has everything to do with the work and commitment of our teaching staff. For starters, we must make no mistake: planning and executing a Pirate Term is a lot of work! Our teaching staff has to make plans and contingencies that ensure students not only have a great learning experience but are kept busy! This isn't something they can pull off in just a few short weeks! In many cases, the planning for Pirate Term consumes months of planning and coordinating. Case in point was our seventh and eighth-grade teachers. They really wanted to focus their efforts and entire week for that matter on service learning. These students spent each day of their Pirate Term working at and learning about the many social service agencies around the Cedar Valley. Agencies like the Northeast Iowa Food Bank, and Salvation Army are but a few of the agencies where our students spent their time.

As I traveled around to visit our students in the community during the last week of school I couldn't help but feel a great sense of pride. Pride in the planning and coordination our teachers embarked on to ensure a smooth and highly educational Pirate Term. Pride in the conduct, empathy, and genuine care our students showed in service to others. Pride in the Hudson Community School District. It's great to be a Pirate! 

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