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Upper School Blog

Finding Passion - Personalized Electives

March 25, 2023
By Meredith Williams, Upper School Head

The SA Upper School values purposeful preparation for life after graduation. This blog is the third in a series highlighting the many ways the SA upper school’s design successfully launches students into their post-graduation plans.

At the SA Upper School, students have the space and support to design their own electives in their junior and senior years. Most students will use this opportunity to create a year-long course that unites several of their interests. Full texts, primary sources, interviews, site visits, internships, and apprenticeships provide the content for these courses while mentorship by an SA staff person offers guidance. Traditionally, students will demonstrate their learning through a culminating project that shows the breadth and complexity of their work.  

A Competitive Edge

The work students curate in their portfolios from these personalized courses give admissions officers, scholarship committees, and future employers an understanding of the students’ personal drive, depth of interest, as well as their academic and social agility.  

Not only do personal electives give students a competitive edge in obtaining their future goals, but they prepare them to embrace personalized learning opportunities they may find with increasing prevalence in higher education.

Create Your Own Major

Many colleges and universities now offer students the opportunity to create their own major. Most of these programs are referred to as interdisciplinary, individualized, or "design your own majors.”  

Emory University clearly embraces personalized courses and majors explaining: “Gone are the days of only traditional majors. Here, we foster creativity, curiosity, and the freedom that enables a vision for change. That’s why Emory students can create their own academic paths, combine seemingly unrelated studies, and hone in on how they can make the world better through their passions.”

Find additional examples of universities with design your own majors here:

Cornell University - individualized majors are all about you and your passions.

Johns Hopkins University - allows students to combine disciplines in Krieger School of Arts and Sciences to build toward a rich exploration of a clear set of principles or questions.

James Madison University - for students whose interests cross-cut traditional disciplinary boundaries and who are seeking control over their academic career.

University of Washington - allows highly motivated and self-directed students to pursue the questions about which they are most passionate.

Open Curriculum

Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of personalized academic exploration is provided by Brown University’s Open Curriculum model. Brown explains their approach this way:

“At Brown, our students develop a personalized course of study — they have greater freedom to study what they choose and the flexibility to discover what they love…as the architect of their own education, Brown students are responsible for their own intellectual and creative development.”

Brown’s Dean Rashid Zia states, “Our goal is a high one — that each and every one of our students is engaged, empowered and transformed by their education. What’s unique about Brown is that we elevate the role of students in achieving that goal as active participants in framing their own education.”  

The personalized learning made possible through the Salisbury Academy Upper School distinguishes our model similarly to Brown. Personalized electives elevate the role of the student and, consequently, equipped our graduates for lifelong learning and lifelong success.

3-D Learning

March 13, 2023
By Meredith Williams, Upper School Head

The SA Upper School values purposeful preparation for life after graduation. This blog is the second in a series highlighting the many ways in which the SA Upper School’s design successfully launches students into their post-graduation plans.

The traditional schooling instructional model is very linear. One might even say it’s unidimensional:

  1. Teachers give students facts/processes to remember.  
  2. Students practice reciting facts/processes mimicking the teacher.
  3. Students complete assessments recalling those facts/processes.

By contrast, at the Upper School we teach by building ideas and connections so learning takes a three-dimensional shape.  Here’s how:

Dimension 1: Students discover facts and concepts often through real-world experiences.
Dimension 2: Students connect those ideas across multiple contents considering them from many perspectives.
Dimension 3: Students develop new applications or perspectives on the concepts and display this work in their portfolio.

This three-dimensional work is made possible through the school’s downtown location, our intentional cross-curricular work, and assessment through real-world challenges. Not only does the three-dimensional model assure students’ knowledge and understanding is deep and meaningful, but it enhances our students’ critical and creative thinking skills as well!

OK - but is that really what colleges want?

Even though this 3D approach seems exciting and engaging, I’ve often been asked: “Is this really what colleges look for? I thought it was about ACT scores and transcripts.” Or, “3D instruction is nice, but don’t colleges still teach classes in isolation?”

It is true that colleges appreciate a high ACT score and that their courses might still fall under traditional subject area categories. But it is not true that colleges and universities look at learning in isolation.

In fact, most colleges and universities have designed cross-curricular general education experiences for the undergraduates, specifically built on the critical and creative thinking skills they recognize as important in today’s world.  

Specific Examples - Duke and UNC
Take for example this quote from Duke University’s Academic Pillars:

“Duke’s academic philosophy helps develop innovation by encouraging you to shape your own experience, to think way outside the box, to practice what you’re learning outside the classroom, all over the world….Trinity College classes span the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences to encourage you to think deeply within disciplines and broadly across them, with a healthy balance of tradition and innovation”

UNC Chapel Hill recently rebranded their entire undergraduate general education curriculum as IDEAs in Action. UNC’s website states that in the general education experience: 

“No two of you will follow the same path, but each of you will develop the habits of mind and skills that will prepare you to contribute in a fast-changing world as a citizen, scholar, community member and leader”.  

All UNC undergraduates will take an Ideas, Information, and Inquiry (Triple-I) course which addresses 3 dimensional concepts like ethics & public policy or understanding health & happiness. Triple-I courses are taught by three professors, each from a different content area. UNC explains “Triple-I courses demonstrate the power of multi-disciplinary thinking in an increasingly complex world.”

Multidimensional Perspectives at Catawba

Catawba College, our partner for dual-enrollment, also embraces the importance of learning concepts from various perspectives. Their general education program requires courses that address learning from historical & social, creative, interpretive, scientific, or non-western perspectives.

The SA instructional design not only aligns with the learning expectations students will encounter in college. - It will help them excel in these spaces of cross-curricular and innovative thinking.

Other college/university programs to explore:

Stanford - General education is addressed through “ways” of doing instead of strict content guidelines.  

Williams College - Instead of minors, they have concentrations, which are “groupings of courses around certain topics that pull from many departments and disciplines (like cognitive science, which has elements of psychology, computer science, philosophy, math, and more).”

University of Pennsylvania - General education is addressed through Foundational Approaches courses and Sectors of Knowledge courses to “tailor your own education in the arts and sciences while gaining valuable knowledge across a broad range of disciplines.”

Elon University - offers a core curriculum of connected courses because “Success in a rapidly changing, interconnected world requires the ability to think broadly, critically, and creatively across many disciplines.”

Purposeful Preparation: Strategically Building Study Skills

March 07, 2023
By Meredith Williams, Upper School Head

The SA Upper School values purposeful preparation for life after graduation. This blog is the first in a series highlighting the many ways the SA Upper School’s design successfully launches students into their post-graduation plans.

The rhythm of college is usually very different from high school. In a typical high school day, students do the majority of their work under the full direction of a teacher. In college, students spend fewer hours in class and are expected to complete significantly more work independently.

Further, individual college work is typically preparing in advance for seminars. Conversely, high school homework is more about completing classwork or practicing skills from the previous class.

Studying for Success

This dramatic difference in amount and purpose of independent study expectations make a student’s individual study abilities a critical component to college success.

That said, studying is by no means a simple process. Proctor et al. explain: “Study skills encompass a variety of activities, including time management, setting appropriate goals, selecting an appropriate study environment, employing appropriate note-taking strategies, concentrating, selecting main ideas, self-testing, organization, and managing anxiety.”

Purposeful Preparation

The SA Upper School is designed to help students develop and practice complex study habits in a way that prepares them for the rhythm of college.  

Teachers first help students understand the basic components of studying through:

* Weekly advisory time designated for personal academic goal setting
* Embedded teacher feedback on learning progress
* Direct instruction on ways to utilize space and time for studying
* Guided student reflection on their progress towards goals

Upper School teachers then use a gradual release process to help students practice the application of their study skills. Upper School class time is divided between seminar time and lab time (see a sample schedule here). Lab time provides an opportunity for students to study, write, read, create, and practice new skills with their teachers present.

Initially, teachers heavily direct lab time. Over time, as they show proficiency, students are granted more independence within the lab, managing their own studying practices.

By the time they are ready for dual-enrollment courses at Catawba in their junior and senior years, students have developed a strong basis for study habits. Upper School teachers continue to monitor students in dual-enrolled classes and assist them in planning and assessing the effectiveness of their study time.  

This purposeful design allows SA graduates to move comfortably into the college rhythm with mastery of the study skills college requires.

Why Another High School

March 01, 2023
By Meredith Williams, Upper School Head

I have often been asked why we need another high school in the area. The answer is quite simple - we don’t.

The SA Upper School expansion is not another traditional school. Salisbury Academy seeks to provide a new model for 9-12 education that is designed for the needs of learners in the 21st century.


A brief history on the traditional model of 9-12 education

In 1843, amidst the Industrial Revolution, Horace Mann traveled to Prussia and witnessed a model of education organized by age, ability, and subject. Prussia was trying to improve the skills and compliance of their populace to build a more powerful military and was experiencing success. (Learn more here

Horace Mann was inspired by the organized and scalable system of schools for the United States where expanding factories and assembly lines demanded a standardized workforce.

This standardized “factory model” took hold across the country and has remained primarily unchanged for over 100 years!

It worked, until it didn’t

The traditional factory-model system saw us through two World Wars and made America a world competitor, a leader of democracy, and an economic powerhouse.

But, in the second half of the 20th century, “A Nation At Risk” (1983) reported that our schools were now failing to create a competitive, global workforce. The Information Age required more complex skills like critical problem solving, creativity, and resilience. The factory model’s outcomes of compliance and competence are simply no longer meeting society’s expectations.

Enter Salisbury Academy Upper School

Jose Rose (2012) in the Atlantic article How to Break Free of our 19th-Century Factory-Model Education System explains that we must begin “by understanding what it is we want students to be able to do, the measures of success, the resources we have to work with, and our own sense of possibility.”

The SA Upper School’s measure of success is our 5 core graduate competencies of the graduate profile.

The traditional model requires that students “fit” into the system resulting in highly variable outcomes. The SA model, by contrast, is designed to fit the student and thereby ensure consistently high outcomes in our graduate competencies and the content learning that supports them.

Embracing a model designed for the current day - not centuries past - improves daily success, increases joy in the learning, and provides a long-term advantage as students skills carry them forward. This is the model of 9-12 education Salisbury Academy is bringing to the community.

We invite you to learn more by clicking here

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