Quaker Valley's 'Period X' lets pupils choose

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It's 2:15 p.m. -- time for period X at Quaker Valley Middle School.

On a recent Tuesday, a group of 7th- and 8th-grade girls sat at a table around mounds of soft, pink yarn mixed vibrantly with ruffled turquoise, purples and greens.

Just down the hallway, a group of boys and girls hopped onto spinning bikes and began pedaling. The teacher dimmed the overhead lights in preparation for them to watch the documentary "Super Size Me" on a giant flat-screen television.

The students picked the movie but they weren't all expected to watch it. Some read while others watched the movie, but all were required to keep active the entire time.

In other rooms, students were working with wood, painting, creating pottery and sketching during the 30-minute period at the end of each school day that is a student-driven activity time.

Each quarter of the school year, students select from more than 30 extended learning offerings -- some of which are offered for remediation and enrichment. Others are purely for enjoyment.

During the first quarter, students were able to select among scrapbooking, yearbook, math games and challenges, WordMasters, Xpress video team, history club, basketball, student council, book club and improv and theater games.

Assistant principal Adrienne Floro said many students are "self-selecting" enrichment activities as well as the sports-oriented and recreational choices.

"There is truly something for everybody," she said.

Administrators decided to incorporate the activity period as part of the school day after experiencing success with other small groupings in recent years.

"We talked with a number of other middle schools in the region to learn more about how they were doing activity periods," said principal Sean Aiken.

"We talked and planned extensively over the summer and presented this to staff at the beginning of the year. We asked them to consider options of how they could teach and connect with students in small groups."

At first, the idea was met with some trepidation. "As educators, we tend to do better with structure and order, and this process challenged teachers to consider additional options to teach on a daily basis," Mr. Aiken said.

Mrs. Floro said some staff members were concerned about the "logistics of individually scheduling 350 students among over 30 daily activities five days a week." However, that did not deter them.

She expects each quarter to be "significantly easier and more efficient." Also, "now that we have the buy-in and ownership from the staff, students and parents, everyone has a vested interest in seeing it succeed. Success breeds success," she said.

It's apparent that Period X is a hit with the students. In the technology education workshop, the smell of fresh wood lingered in the air as seventh-graders Nick Theis and Bradley Fadeley worked together to dismantle a large wooden structure. During the past quarter, many of the students in this activity designed projects on a computer and then assembled them out of wood and other materials.

Bradley created a wooden hammer, a bookmark and an iPod case. "This was one of the better activities to choose from," he said. Nick added, "It's really fun."

Down the hallway, in studio art, teacher Jeffrey Evancho said, "you'll find a lot of kids doing a lot of different things here." In one room, popular music played in the background while students sketched and painted. In the other room, students worked on three-dimensional projects.

One girl tried on a bracelet that she had been working on, while another sat at the pottery wheel, creating a pumpkin. Another student was attaching the tuning pegs to a guitar he had fashioned out of paper mache.

Period X is offered for only seventh- and eighth-graders, but the middle school will seek ways to include sixth-grade students on days their schedules allow.

The program is helping to create a positive energy and momentum for the school year, said Mr. Aiken, adding that it "develops very positive relationships between the teachers and the students. Just giving kids the option to learn what they want to learn is huge."

Shellie Petri Budzeak, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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