by Marissa Markonish, Head of NYA Lower & Middle School
Yarmouth, Maine, February 3, 2021: When Middle School students at NYA receive their schedules each August, one period is left blank. With a schedule packed with English, math, science, social studies, modern and classical language, visual art, music, break, advisory, Friday Forum, lunch, and recess, that blank block on their schedules really stands out. In the information packet preparing for the new school year, I explain to families that the blank block is the “X-Block,” our Middle School enrichment period. The block is blank on the schedules because students will have the opportunity to choose their courses throughout the year. This brief description does not really capture all that X-Block entails, however, and students are eager to experience X-Block for themselves.
X-Blocks were not always a part of our NYA Middle School schedules. Several years ago, our Head of School encouraged us to look at adding more electives to the curricular offerings. There were already several elective courses in our Upper School program, and the teachers were eager to provide additional options for students. Adding elective options in the Middle School program was not quite so simple, however. Middle school best practices promote a more fixed core curriculum, and our Middle School schedule is carefully designed to meet the developmental needs of students at this age. I set to work, determined to find a way to make the schedule adapt to our goal of adding in enrichment courses. Each of our period blocks are labeled with a letter, A-F. By fine-tuning the schedule, I carved out an extra block in the schedule and labeled it “X”. We now had a spot in the schedule where we could offer enrichment courses and somehow the name “X-Block” stuck.
The format of X-Block has evolved over time. Students sign up online and rank their top four choices. We try to enroll students in one of their top two choices, but some offerings can be quite popular. Priority is given to eighth grade on down. Classes meet once per week on Mondays for 45 minutes. Currently, we are running mini X-Block sessions, each running for four weeks. The short sessions also allow students to try something new without a big commitment. “My favorite part about X-Block is the constant variety. Every 4 weeks we get to change our X-Block to a whole new activity! We’ve only just started the 2nd semester and I’ve already gotten to try out 4 different activities, and it’s not over yet!” (Rafa, grade 8).
Teachers come up with ideas for the X-Block offerings, and we often brainstorm together. One popular course, Create Your Own Canvas Shoes, was inspired by a student’s final project in eighth grade art. Students also volunteer ideas at times, and we recently put out a survey asking for their input. We want to have a mix of offerings that will appeal to different interests. We have had options in music, art, STEM, athletics, culture, and more. Fifth grade students all do Keyboarding for the first semester, but join with students in grades 6-8 for the spring semester. Students love having a choice in which course they will take. Celeste, grade 8, says, “The thing I like most about x-block is that you get to pick from a bunch of fun options of what you want to do, so you basically get to pick a very fun class to ‘take’ for four weeks.” Victoria, grade 7, adds, “I really like how you can choose what you want it to be. It gives you more freedom and gives you an opportunity to do things you wouldn’t normally do in school, but you would like to do. It’s a welcome change.”
One of major goals for these enrichment courses has been to provide some variety and offer students the opportunity to take courses beyond the core curriculum. “The thing I like most about X-Block is being able to do something different while at school. There are always so many cool things that you can do, and none of them are things you would normally be able to do at school.” (Chloe, grade 7). Teachers also love having the opportunity to work with different students and share their own interests. “It’s nice to get to know the students in different ways and to show them some of the things I like to do,” shares Danielle Barschdorf, Lower and Middle School Science Chair.
Some of the X-Block courses are more academic in nature or address bigger societal issues. Popular offerings have included Robotics, Create Your Own Podcast, Techsavvy, Build an Underwater Robot, and CSI/Forensics. One of our most popular offerings has been Debate Team, run by David Echeverria who teaches Civics and Economics and American History. David notes, “I like that [X-Block] allows students to build skills and pursue interests that they might not normally have the opportunity to. Most of the students who join the debate team do not have previous experience with debate. As a result of participating on the Debate Team, students learn to distinguish between fact and opinion, learn how to use facts to back up their positions, and practice speaking in front of an audience.” This year, one of our fifth grade teachers, Maya Burns, has offered Civil Rights Teams with “the mission… to educate students and our community about issues relating to freedom and equality for all.” Maya adds, “I am so inspired by the passion of my students to learn and educate each other about these critical issues and make the world a better place every day. They are so eager to learn and dialogue about tough current events. They are eager to creatively celebrate and honor unsung heroes.”
Other X-Block offerings promote creativity or provide a chance to be physically active during the school day. Some favorites have included Ukulele, Show Choir, Digital Art, Photography, Jazz Band, Ultimate Frisbee, Futsal, Climbing Wall, Gym Games, Ice Skating, and Flag Football. In fact, one of the things that students enjoy most about X-Block is that these non-graded courses provide a break from their regular school day. Brayden, grade 7, says they are “like a brain break” and Harry, grade 7, adds, “They help me calm my mind down.” Jackson, grade 6, shares, “The thing that I like the most about X-block is that is takes your mind off academics. If you have a test or have a lot of homework, it is awesome to take your mind off school and play or talk with friends.” Dylan, grade 6, echoes that same sentiment, adding, “What I like about [X-Block] is it gives you some time to forget about your problems, and even though you are AT school when having x-block, it makes you forget you’re even there.” As we try to teach our students about work-life balance and strive for more balance in our own lives, finding ways to promote this at school takes on even greater importance. X-Block seems to have hit the spot!
Another advantage to our X-Block courses is that it gives students the opportunity to take classes with other teachers and with students in other grades. Mansuk, grade 6, likes “that we get to play with other people outside of our grade.” Nell, grade 8, adds, “I like X-Block because it gives me a chance to hang out with friends I don’t have classes with or [who are] in different grades.” Ivy, grade 6, takes this idea even further, sharing, “What I like about X-Block is getting to know others…X-Block gives me a chance to work on my social skills and I get to meet new friends.” Erika Sahlman, who teaches seventh and eighth grade math and science, adds “I love the opportunity to have students in my class that I don’t usually have and get to know more of our middle school students. It also gives me the chance to see different perspectives of how students can be creative and to build a relationship outside of academic classes.”
X-Block has now become an integral part of our Middle School schedule, meeting all of our initial goals, and more. It is a class that students and teachers look forward to each week, and it provides a bright spot to each Monday. Nathan, grade 6, perhaps sums X-Block up best: “It’s more than just normal school, it’s out of the box.”
North Yarmouth Academy is an independent, college preparatory, coeducational school for toddlers to post graduate students with an enrollment of over 375 students. Since 1814, NYA has fostered integrity, character, and intellect in its students. For more information, please contact NYA at 207-847-5423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.