A Look Into Its Past, Present, and Future
Throughout the history of AJA high school, Minimester has been brought in and out of the calendar. Minimester is a period of time in the school year where teachers pause from their typical classes, and instead offer a variety of short courses in one of their outside specialties or interests. According to Mrs. Catherine Brand, a High School science teacher who directs Minimester, it provides “a golden opportunity in life: [to] learn about something that we don’t normally get to cover in a high school curriculum, just for fun,” Though the length and make-up of Minimester has fluctuated throughout the years, Mrs. Brand explained that it consistently provided a time for teachers to introduce unique material to students and “break up the day to day monotony of school.”
Minimester began in 2014, in Mrs. Brand’s first couple years working at AJA. Originally, she explains that the idea of Minimester came as “a suggestion [from] a student.” According to Mrs. Brand, this student believed, “We ought to have a week out of the school year where… we learn for the sake of learning.” Additionally, Minimester would allow students to learn skills and subjects not normally taught in the AJA high school curriculum and provide a break from regular classes for students to explore subjects they’re passionate about.
This idea was accepted, and the administration formed a committee of teachers to organize and plan the very first Minimester. A couple years into Minimester, General Studies Instructional Leader Mr. Joel Rojek requested that Mrs. Brand join this team, which Mrs. Brand recalled she “was happy to agree to,” and as the original teachers moved on to other jobs, Mrs. Brand singlehandedly ran Minimester.
However, after the Minimester of 2019, when teachers concluded that students took advantage of Minimester’s liberties, it was discontinued for a short period of time. One reason for this was that teachers feel, “students [think] that they don’t need to invest in the class because it is Minimester and not graded,” as a teacher explained on a faculty feedback survey. Mrs. Brand identifies this as the difference between “the student perception of Minimester and the teacher perception of Minimester.” She finds a student might “look at Minimester” and exclaim, “I don’t have to take my normal classes. I’m free as a bird, nothing matters!” In contrast, a teacher sees Minimester as an opportunity to prepare a few lessons that dive into something they are “passionate about” without the normal stresses of a classroom such as assessments.
This year, the administration decided to experiment with Minimester once more to see if students would take the experience seriously. However, AJA brought back Minimester with some changes from previous years. Mrs. Brand identified “the largest difference” this year is the length of Minimester. Minimester usually lasted three to five days; however, Minimester this February only took place over two days. Additionally, although in the past outside volunteers taught classes as well, this year, Mrs. Brand decided to limit Minimester teachers to AJA faculty. She made this decision largely for “practical” reasons, considering the uncertainty of COVID-19 vaccination status rules and the unfamiliarity of the current student body with Minimester (the Senior class was the only grade to have ever previously experienced Minimester). For an outside teacher volunteering their time to offer a Minimester course, it can be disheartening when students “don’t take [their] class seriously.” Mrs. Brand’s goal is to return to bringing in off-campus teachers when “the school as a whole [is] familiar” with Minimester and fully invested in it.
To choose the topics for Minimester courses this year, Mrs. Brand “sent out the initial survey to the students saying, ‘What classes would you like to see offered?’” She then compiled these classes into a list that she approved with Mr. Joel Rojek, General Studies Instructional Team Leader, and Rabbi Allan Houben, Judaic Studies Instructional Team Leader. Once Mrs. Brand tweaked the list with the administration’s feedback, she informed High School teachers of the plan for this year’s Minimester and asked them to choose the courses they would teach. While students’ requests provided a base for the Minimester courses, teachers “had the ability to choose” their classes. For instance, Moreh Eilon Kapach decided on teaching the “Carpentry Crafts” class, Dr. Corrie Stephenson focused on “Weird Historical Superstitions,” and Mr. David Byron taught his “Rock Climbing” course.
When Mrs. Brand finished compiling the list of classes, she began the process of assigning students to a course for each time slot. She sent a form to students asking for their first, second, and third preferences for each time slot. Mrs. Brand then went through the responses starting with upperclassmen and finishing with lowerclassmen, considering that if Minimester becomes an annual staple, classes might be offered multiple times, providing “chances in the future” for lowerclassmen to get their top picks. Therefore, senior Miriam Lynn explained that she overall got her preferred classes due to her seniority.
Mrs. Brand also kept note of the amount of Judaics courses students took to fulfill the minimum requirement of two Judaic classes. Therefore, if, despite the warning, a student did not choose at least two of their seven Minimester classes as Judaic courses, Mrs. Brand had to “arbitrarily pick them,” even though she explained, “I don’t want to do that.” Freshman Noa Geller saw in hindsight that she did not select “enough Judaics” courses and received a class she “didn’t really want to be in,” although she was fine with her placement in the end.
One piece of feedback that interviewed students shared is that the options could have been more balanced between the periods. In the feedback form that Mrs. Brand sent to students, one student pointed out that many of the classes they expressed interest in “were grouped into the same periods, so I was forced to choose between all of them and miss out on some.” Miriam faced a similar problem and suggested sending out an initial form to assess the popularity of the classes that will be offered. This would allow Mrs. Brand to spread out popular classes throughout the day and avoid that conflict.
For teachers, many struggled with attendance during Minimester. Some students showed up late, others left early, and some went to a different class altogether. On the teacher feedback form, three teachers rated attendance levels as a three or below on a five-point scale, while the majority rated attendance as a four or five. However, interviewed students recognized that this struggle was the students’ responsibility, not the teachers’. Junior Donny Frances added “that some of the things that made [Minimester] unorganized were just the students,” because “the teachers definitely have stuff under control.”
Despite the few pieces of negative feedback regarding this year’s reintroduction of Minimester, Mrs. Brand found that the feedback has largely been positive. For students who responded to the statement “I really liked my Minimester classes this year” on the feedback form, all but two students answered with a four or five out of five. The same number is true for teachers responding to the statement, “Overall, this Minimester was highly successful. Don’t change a thing!”
Many students enjoyed specific classes throughout Minimester, which followed the general format of a seven-period school day. One Minimester class that interviewed students enjoyed was watercolor taught by Dr. Bobby Portis, which had a total of 19 students. Noa enjoyed this class as a “chill” time to freely paint. Dr. Portis agreed, and thought water color was his favorite Minimester class because he enjoyed “seeing the kids make their artistic expression in [an unfamiliar and unique] medium.” Miriam also enjoyed the variety of “chill” classes, such as “Color Me Calm and Other Relaxation Techniques” with Dr. Mason, which she found to be a “relaxing” option, “especially in the middle of the day.”
Looking into the future of Minimester, Mrs. Brand explains that student investment plays a significant role in whether or not it continues. With the shortened amount of school days due to Jewish holidays, teachers “already have a very limited window of time, especially AP teachers, to cover what [they] are required to cover. Nonetheless, several students asked to extend Minimester to at least three days in the future, and Mrs. Brand herself believed that three days is most optimal. Miriam explained that “if you want to really learn about a subject that you’re interested in,” two classes does not suffice.
In the long run, Mrs. Brand hopes “to expand and become better in the future” with Minimester. Donny agreed, adding that he “enjoyed it a lot” and looks forward to Minimester “in coming years.” Both students and teachers throughout the feedback form expressed gratitude to Mrs. Brand for her hard work in putting together Minimester. Overall, past Minimesters provided the framework for this year’s rendition, and the feedback and quality of this year’s Minimester will shape how it looks in the future.