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Student-Led Learning in Action: St. Luke’s Ninth Grade J-Term

By: Kate Parker-Burgard, Center for Leadership Director
On the morning of Monday, May 2, the doors to the Forese Family Fireplace Commons opened and the ninth graders began their long-awaited J-Term. 

Now completing its eighth year, the annual J-Term is a weeklong, student-led learning experience that encourages students to dig deeply into issues they care about and develop actions to change the world. To provide students with ample time to focus on issues important to them, we remove the structure of the school day (class periods, multiple subjects, etc.) and give them space to collaborate.

Students choose topics to research and are grouped based on their areas of interest. They come up with a list of issues, select their preferences, and then narrow down the list based on the topics most students want to learn about more. 

This year, students focused on women’s rights, violence, racism, poverty, mental health, the environment, and drug abuse.

On the first day of J-Term, students are assigned to groups based on their preferences. To discover their group assignments, students had to find their names on puzzle pieces that teachers scattered around the room. Students then solved the puzzle — a symbolic beginning to their week of problem-solving and discovering how different pieces fit together when figuring out complicated issues.

Once settled in groups, the students chose subtopics to focus on, which included air pollution, depression, gun violence, sexism in sports, hate crimes and police brutality, food insecurity, eating disorders, and lack of access to health care. 

As we moved through the week, which included a scaffolding process to explore topics, the students looked for articles in different media sources, surveyed classmates, and interviewed experts working in the field. The week concludes with the J-Term Showcase, where students present their findings to teachers, peers, and parents.

Based on student feedback, this year’s J-Term was a positive experience. Students were engaged and found the week enlightening, and the showcase was a productive way for them to share what they learned. 
Some student comments include: 

  • “I think it was nice to work on one thing the whole day, more similar to a real job. It was more fun having one project, too, and an obvious goal at the end helped to give us something to focus on.”
  • “I learned to work with a group of people who aren't necessarily my best friends, and I got to hear many perspectives that were different from mine. I also had a lot of empathy, because hearing some of the stories from the interviews we conducted were shocking. I put myself in their shoes to think about how I would feel if that happened to me.”
  • “This week helped me develop collaboration skills. I learned how to compromise, connect, and create ideas that will help me in the long run when working with my peers.”
  • “[Learning how to give and receive feedback] was very helpful because it helped me be more confident with my ideas.” 
  • “J-Term was an exhausting week, but I learned a lot and got to pursue a topic I’m passionate about.”
One student summed up the week by saying, “It was a very enriching and rewarding experience!”

For additional photos from this year’s J-Term, click here

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St. Luke’s School is a secular (non-religious), private school in New Canaan, CT for grades 5 through 12 serving 25 towns in Connecticut and New York. Our exceptional academics and diverse co-educational community foster students’ intellectual and ethical development and prepare them for top colleges. St. Luke’s Center for Leadership builds the commitment to serve and the confidence to lead.