Coloring Outside the Educational Lines: Theme-based Learning Experiences at Connecticut River Academy

  Tara Amatrudo           March 10, 2018 - 1:41pm

Albert Einstein once said, “You have to color outside the lines once in awhile if you want to make your life a masterpiece.”  In an educational climate that is based increasingly on accountability measures and standardized practice, Connecticut River Academy has been committed to fulfilling these expectations within the context of theme-based programming. We believe that doing so promotes the three factors we see as key to academic success: rigor, relevance, and relationships. While we constantly seek to embed theme-related content and experiences into our coursework, we truly shine when we take time outside of the lines of our more traditionally planned curricula to host what we call Magnet Theme Days. We have seen that any time we can create common experiences that fully immerse our scholars into theme-related content, we establish a foundation that supports numerous other learning experiences throughout our scholars’ academic courses as well as in other areas of lives.  

As the principal of a school serving almost 500 young people from close to 50 vastly different cities and towns, I find that these days outside of the classroom -- on the river, in the community, or in scholar-led workshops -- build equity in terms of personal and interpersonal growth and understanding that is unmatched.  Likewise, I find that when our educators, many of them relatively new to the challenges of teaching, are able to fully participate alongside their scholars, their understanding of who their scholars are as people and as learners extends far beyond what they might have otherwise gotten to know. Whether dragging soaked tires out of the Connecticut River, attending a scholar-led session on Muslim stereotypes, feeding our local first responders, or celebrating the gender and ethnic groups that strengthen our community, I have personally found our Magnet Theme Day programming to have left a profound impact on my personal and professional growth.  

It should be noted that creating Magnet Theme Day programming from scratch is not light work. Educators and scholars have spent many hours planning both the general structure and the important details of of these complex experiences that often have multiple moving parts. Differentiation and choice as well as a commitment to scholar input have been crucial to ensuring full engagement on these special days when classes aren’t meeting and there is no formal grade. It really is about establishing a level of intrinsic motivation that can be carried through to other coursework and advisory experiences in the coming days -- not always the easiest task, but well worth it in the end.  

I invite you to take on this challenge of coloring outside of traditional lines of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. It in no way means a lowering of academic standards. It does mean putting on a pair of muddy, hip-high wading boots, rolling up your sleeves, and taking a responsible risk right alongside young people who are doing the very same thing. I promise you will look back at a picture of the experience and see nothing short of a masterpiece.  

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