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January is one of the best times at University High School. Instead of returning from winter break and rolling right back into a traditional semester, students and faculty at University embark on a three-week journey where students and faculty immerse themselves in one day-long class. Modeled off the experience a founding faculty member had at Middlebury College, University’s January Term (J-Term for short) asks everyone to look closer, dive deeper, and reimagine what school can be.

In my time at University, we’ve had students study artificial intelligence, forensic science, the evolution of hip hop, and the history of the English language via crosswords and Scrabble. They’ve built bikes and computers, made bread and Kimchi, and welded outdoor sculpture pieces. We’ve sent groups to Rwanda to study mountain gorillas, Mexico to learn about business, science, and cultural aspects of chocolate, Hawaii to observe the effects of undersea volcanoes, and even on a cross-country train trip to explore the vastness of America and our country’s collective wanderlust. Alums of all ages are eager to talk about how a particular J-Term changed their view of the world. 

As educational craftspeople, we’ve often talked about how to translate the wonder and engagement of the J-Term experience into our regular teaching, but this January led me to a kind of ‘aha’ moment that hadn’t clicked for me before. I was teaching a class on Disney World, theme park design, and immersive storytelling. It was my second time teaching the class, and my co-teacher’s fifth, but as we were watching Imagineer Joe Rhode talk about the impact of theme and story on every element of design in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I started to think about teaching as experiential design. 

To explain experiential design, Rhode talks about how the dramatic themes of Disney’s Animal Kingdom — exploration, adventure, and respect for the natural world — manifest in the theming of the park — the actual place and experience brought to life as you visit. Everything from the biggest ride to the tiniest carving on a doorknob has been specifically crafted with drama theming in mind. This practice is what makes a true theme park distinct from its amusement park cousin. As designers and critics Margaret J. King and J.G. O’Boyle state in the essay “The Theme Park: The Art of Time and Space,” “A theme park without rides is still a theme park: an amusement park without rides is a parking lot with popcorn.” 

As our students debated the merit of that analogy, I started to apply this immersive design thinking to our class itself. The dramatic themes of our course were some of Walt Disney’s own thoughts as he started his empire: wonder and optimism and creative storytelling. While we weren’t manifesting a new environment for our students — we were still teaching in a classroom in central Indiana — we were asking them to manifest a different version of themselves. The chief project of our course is having groups of students design their own original theme park land, complete with rides, food, entertainment, and even a place for the bathrooms. In this way, we were asking them to manifest themselves as Imagineers, collaborating, creating, and designing a real plan from their ideas. We were designing a multi-dimensional experience, just like Joe Rhode.

 

As J-Term ended and we rolled into our second semester, I shared my new thinking with our faculty. Many of them were excited to think about J-Terms they had taught or dreamed of in this way. But then I asked them to think about how this type of experiential design thinking could be applied to their regular teaching. If the dramatic themes of University High School are that education is a partnership, that students should have agency in their work, and that they need to be responsible stewards of a diverse community, how might we manifest those themes in Chemistry or Spanish 2, Precalculus or AP English Literature? What environment do we need to create in our classrooms? What roles do we want the students to take on? How will the lessons and assessments we create bring out those roles in our students? This is harder thinking, but it encourages us as educators to think simultaneously about what we want our students to learn, who we want them to be while they are learning, and ultimately what we want them to experience. 

To me, some of the best things about education as a profession, a vocation, and a calling are the infinite possibilities it provides me to keep learning. I am grateful for an ‘aha’ moment in a class I had already taught that we probably could have just put on autopilot and still would have been awesome, and I am excited to see where it leads our faculty in the future.