Interview with Emily Breite, Upper School Head of Learning and Innovation and Meg Brown, Director of Interim Term at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

What is the Interim Term program?

EB: Mount Vernon Presbyterian School’s Interim Term focuses on inquiry, innovation, and impact. Launched in 2010, the goal of the program is to create globally competent leaders. It allows every Upper School student to engage in a week of off-campus learning in their local, national, and global communities. Activities include internships, local learning experiences, or travel in the US and abroad. Mount Vernon has  hosted trips to South Africa, Australia, and they’ll be heading to the Galapagos this spring. To enhance learning, the MVPS faculty has designed a pre-experience curriculum, post-experience reflections, a rubric, and an assessment framework.

MB: Every year, we sit down with the upper administration and make sure that Interim Term is providing a range of learning opportunities internationally and domestically. We change programs often, but recycle some trips every few years. 

MB: In addition to the travel program, Interim Term offers an internship program to the 11th and 12th graders. We speak with many school parents about what their job entails and how they can be a resource for the program. Students in this program shadow their mentors for a week, and walk away with new perspectives. 

MB: We also offer the C.O.R.E. (Collection of Relational Experiences)  program. They range from our students challenging themselves with a leadership experience, studying forensic science with a teacher on campus, participating in a scavenger hunt around Atlanta, or studying photography, to name just a few. These experiences are proposed by teachers but created with student interests in mind. 

Why is it important for students to get this kind of learning outside of the traditional classroom?

MB: As a school, we believe that learning happens outside of traditional school walls. It’s relational. We’re not just following the standard curriculum. We have a concept called the 'Mount Vernon Mind.’ It describes a mindset that’s woven into every single classroom. Our goal is to shape students who are ethical decision makers, communicators, collaborators, and innovative thinkers in every class or program. For our Interim Program, we have a rubric - which we call our ‘power rubric’ - that makes sure students are becoming active leaders and making connections with each other through shared experiences. True learning means that our students are able to engage in any environment, listen to outsiders, and gain different perspectives. 

EB: Creating globally engaged citizen leaders is part of our imperative at a school. We fulfill that mission by connecting the world outside the walls of our building with learning that happens within. If we’re trying to prepare students for a life full of meaningful contributions to society, why don’t we make school look more like that life? We try to blur lines between 'real life' and school. We do that by getting students into communities, testing out ideas, and making connections. 

EB: Measuring impact is also very important. After students return to campus, we ask them to write a written reflection, whether they spent the week in Australia or Atlanta. We ask students to reflect on their experience. The reflection is loosely based on the "I used to think... Now I think" model. What’s the difference between the 'local you' before interim vs. the 'global you’ informed by your interim experiences? We question them about their preexisting biases and assumptions. How has their understanding been broadened by collaboration with a different culture or field of expertise? It’s essential that they understand the importance of contributing outside of their daily environment.  

How do you manage risk with so many different programs?

EB: With most Upper School students off campus during a week in February, MVPS and our partner, World Leadership School, have thought carefully about how to manage risks. MVPS is working to implement a few key blocks of risk management: accepted practices for key risks, clearly stated faculty expectations with safety guidelines, and an Analyze-Manage-Prepare (AMP) protocol as a structure for having conversations about risk and learning with students, teachers, administrators, and parents. We’ve discovered that we can improve risk management in everything from highway travel for athletic competitions to international flights. 

EB: World Leadership School led workshops at MVPS around risk management. I specifically liked that they didn’t tell us what to do, but rather they taught us how to think through some of our questions. They gave a two-day workshop and spent one day with faculty, who are routinely the ones taking kids off campus. Next they did a workshop with the administration, who set the learning goals and often act as trip leaders. They helped administrators develop strategies for how to react helpfully when receiving calls about issues that might arise on trips. World Leadership School helped us think through what kind of protocol we want to have. 

What’s the most important first step to creating a program like this?

EB: It’s really important to first look at the mission of the school. It would be wonderful if there were “cookie cutter” solutions for these programs, but the documents and guidelines should be informed by your school's own program, history, context, and goals. During my presentation on this topic at SAIS, an audience member shared a fascinating insight. This school used to send their students on international trips and switched to regional trips. They felt that they were able to make learning most meaningful when they connected students to their own backyards. This isn’t our story, but it clearly spoke to the mission of that school. At MVPS, we’re looking to extend experience in all contexts. That said, it’s important for our mission that we connect all experiences back to learning in the classroom. We want to avoid creating experiences that feel siloed and disconnected from rest of learning experience. 

How has this program changed over time?

MB: This is my fifth year running the program. Even in that time, we’ve come so far. Five years ago, all aspects of the program were completely run by teachers. They planned, booked, and ran all of the classes and trips. Historically, students registered for three indoor ‘core classes’ that were two hours each day during interim. But those experiences weren’t breaking down our walls to expand their learning. 

MB: One of the biggest gifts we’ve been able to give the faculty is partnering with third party vendors who are experts in the field. Now our faculty have time to focus on their relationships with the students. These partners are able to create itineraries for us and ensure that we get where we’re going on time. They are right there to walk us through every step. Our partnerships give us the freedom to educate without worrying about the details.

MB: At the same time we work closely with our partners to make sure they are providing value to the students. We are engaged, asking questions throughout the process. Every year, we conduct surveys that ask students what we’re doing well, and what we can improve on. We make it a priority to always learn from our failures and make changes that reflect that learning.