Eighth-graders at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park spent April 3-7 in one of eight mini-courses, ranging from international cooking to exploring animation.
In response to the Menlo Park City School District's budget problems, the mini-course week, which had previously been offered to all of Hillview students, this year was available only to eighth-graders. About 100 of the 300 eighth-graders spent the week in Washington, D.C., with five faculty members while the remaining 200 chose their favorite mini-course.
Offerings included: "Hillview's Amazing Race," led by teachers Brian Darmanin and Diane Glasser; "Stir It Up: Cooking Adventures Around the World," led by associate principal Mary Martin and Nima Lele, mother of Hillview math teacher Aruna Dutta; "Behind-the-Scenes Sports," led by Sayre Dolan and Phil Eaton; "Animation Exploration," led by Anna Kogan; "Ocean Odyssey," led by Denise Dowsett; "Art of War," led by David Babington and Mimi Nguyen; "Str8 Shots Table Sports," led by Susan Churba; and "Picture This!," led by Hillview Principal Willy Haug and Mark Schack.
In the "Hillview Amazing Race" class, 30 students divided into teams with a list of tasks including the ropes course at Pacific Leadership Institute at Fort Miley in San Francisco. Teacher Diane Glasser brought in her hobby, geocaching, which relies on teamwork and communication skills, during a field trip to the Stanford University campus.
Teacher Brian Darmanin said the lessons learned in mini-courses go beyond what can be measured through traditional testing.
An example, he said, was a student who began the week with an intense fear of heights, with a goal of mastering it during the week. On the ropes course, she pledged to make it to the second rung of a ladder. However, with the encouragement and cheers of her fellow students, she made it to the next step and, ultimately, to the top.
"I guess I don't have a fear of heights anymore," the student said.
Mr. Darmanin said the extra work of planning and executing the mini-courses is worthwhile. "I know it sounds cliche, but if all I get is one student finding that 'extra gear' within themselves, then the week is worth it," he said.
In the "Stir It Up: Cooking Adventures Around the World" course, students prepared dishes from the basics of "seven ways to cook an egg" to the elaborate cuisines of India and Guam.
Ms. Lele shared her treasured masala spice box. The class toured the commercial kitchen at Lunchmasters, Hillview's new hot lunch provider, where they cooked their own pizza. They took a cooking class at Draeger's Market, and a cupcake war challenge concluded the week.
Principal Haug said he ended the week, as a mini-course teacher and school administrator, with satisfaction.
"Once again, the mini-courses have proven a great success in meeting the goals that we set when we first designed the program," he said. "Students value voice and choice in their education. With the help of amazing community volunteers and the expertise and passion of our talented teachers, students have been engaged in powerful learning around topics they chose, gaining essential real world skills and mindsets."