WACO Community School District gives students immersive learning experience with J-term

Union photo by Ashley Duong

During J-term, students at Waco junior high and high school dedicate a week to a specific project. Students working the school’s shop built anderonak chairs that will be sold at the weekend presentation.
Union photo by Ashley Duong During J-term, students at Waco junior high and high school dedicate a week to a specific project. Students working the school’s shop built anderonak chairs that will be sold at the weekend presentation.

WAYLAND — Anyone who stepped into the halls of Waco School District’s junior high and high school last week was not be greeted with the usual sight of students sitting at desks or teachers lecturing at the front of the classroom. Instead, they saw junior high and high schoolers building and assembling their chairs from scratch, learning to fix up a car or even creating their own hydroponic system.

The school’s J-term kicked off on Monday, Jan. 6, when students returned to school from break. Instead of immediately re-entering their academic classes, students filled out interest surveys the semester prior and gathered in groups to determine a project to complete together in their first week of their spring semester.

In a letter to parents, principal Tim Bartels outlined the 11 different class offerings, which included various art and design programs, classes focused on agriculture, shop projects, volunteering opportunities and culinary lessons.

Junior high and high school students through the 11th grade were split up into the groups for the weeklong projects while 12th-graders were off-campus doing internships.

Bartel explained that this year’s J-term, the third time the school has done the weeklong classes, is “really student driven.” The groups determined for themselves what their week would look like and what they hoped to learn and accomplish.

“Students and kids get to learn in a different environment,” Bartels said of how the J-term is beneficial to the educational experience.

“They get to apply the things that they learn in science or math … that’s different from just going in the textbook or a lecture or reading about it or watching a YouTube video. This is much more hands-on,” Bartels said.

Maggie Rinner, a 10th-grader, had chosen to join one of the two agriculture sections. Rinner, who lives on a farm herself, explained that in their first day, the class had done simulation activities that analyzed the risks and responsibilities involved with owning a farm. Employees from the local Iowa State Extension Office, including Rinner’s mother, Diane, came to the school to give presentations on agriculture and lead the activities.

“It’s a good break. We’re still learning stuff and we get to choose what we are interested in,” Rinner said.

Kristine Gelfand, an English teacher, lead the section and explained that throughout the week, the 11 students in her section would also visit various farms as well as speak to local vets and groomers.

“They really get to witness a range of things. From caring for small animals to big animals,” Gelfand said.

Jocelyn Fulton, a 9th grader whose group was working on fashion projects and creating outfits with items purchased from Goodwill said the week was “a lot of fun,” and allowed her to explore and do different things she normally wouldn’t get an opportunity to do.

“We learn a lot and it’s fun to reach out and do different stuff and just sort of play every day,” Fulton said.

Art teacher Sarah Peters, one of the teachers helped lead and organize the J-term said the week is meant to be “an immersive experience.”

“There’s a lot of room for experimenting and trials. There’s room for error, which is part of learning,” she said.

“I think it’s really encouraging lifelong learning. I think that hopefully it’s driving them to be more informed about future career options as well. By the end of the week, I want them to have some sort of finished product that they can be proud of that they worked on from start to finish. It was their plan, it was their idea. They did all the problem solving throughout it. I think that’s really important and this week allows for that to happen,” Peters continued, explaining what she hopes students gain from the experience.

To cap off the week, students had an opportunity to present their projects to family, friends and community members. From 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 10, community members roamed the halls to get a glimpse of what local students had spent their week working on.

Ruchel Hiller, whose daughter Grace, was able to take part in an internship at local spa and salon, Simply Spa, explained that she felt it was important for students “to go ... and ask questions.”

Things like where did you go to school and [the students] get to see things they might not think about when considering a career,” Hiller added.

Grace, who was interested in cosmetology before her internship experience noted that she not only learned a lot from her week with the business but that the experience has solidified her desire to go to cosmetology school.

“This made me really want to dive more deep into it ... I like being able to help people look and feel better about themselves and helping them feel more confident with who they are,” Grace said.

For other projects that involved local businesses, representatives from those partnerships also partook in the weekend presentations. Adam Rose, owner of Midwest Body & Frame, worked with 8 students to fix up a Chevy Impala, which the group chose ahead of their week in his shop. Rose, along with teacher Drew Ayrit, picked up the car from Minnesota.

“They don’t have an automotive department at the school, so I’ve always wanted to be able to teach and show kids something that they can’t see at the school. I was really glad to be asked to do it and I would do it again in a heartbeat. My wife’s going to be driving that car and the eight kids really did a good job,” Rose said.