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Schooling, Inquiry, and the Promise of the “St. Mark’s Saturdays” Program

By Nat Waters, Associate Dean of Academics


Schooling, Inquiry, and the Promise of the “St. Mark’s Saturdays” Program

One of the more transformative developments in my teaching practice in recent years has been the addition in each of my courses of essential questions — formulations that, in the words of Understanding by Design author Grant Wiggins, inspire, “deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions.”

In that same spirit, I’d like to offer an essential question for this LEO piece on the exciting new developments in the St. Mark’s Saturdays program.   Begin by thinking of your own high school experience, whether that is as immediate as May 2015, or farther removed than you would care to admit, even in close company:

“Which of the many academic lessons that comprise your high school experience are most memorable, most enduring, and most valuable to life and work in the ‘real world’?”

Chances are, your thoughts quickly gravitate to a project or piece of work that you produced to synthesize and demonstrate your learning.  Perhaps you recall a mentor or peer who challenged you, believed in you, or gave you an opportunity to be an equal participant in sophisticated conversations.   You might remember a presentation that developed into a passion project, a germ of an essay topic that grew into a triumph, or a thunderously difficult course that became your favorite discussion around the table each day.  More than likely, this work involved an opportunity to take ownership of an issue of real consequence in the world beyond the circumscribed high school reality of the cafeteria tables and gym lockers.

At its core, this is a question as aspirational as it is reflective. As befits a true essential question, any answers invite further pondering.  Given our own most durable rememberings:

Which are the core experiences that contribute most significantly to students’ development in their high school years?  How can we think differently about some of our traditional notions of schooling to create space for more of these “deeper learning” experiences?  

At St. Mark’s, we are asking these questions, and applying our answers — both those of our community, and those offered by educational research — to some new curricular initiatives.   Head of School John Warren points to the core of the major developments in his February Head’s Reflection, “Innovation at St. Mark’s School: Reimagining Time.”  In short, to make room for deeper learning, schools like St. Mark’s need to reexamine their assumptions about the structures that shape day to day life on campus.   Author and educator Grant Lichtman offers this essential question about the interplay of school structures and curricular innovation:

“How might we break down the artificial boundary/silos that we have constructed in time, space, and subject area that form the quantum cage of thinking and learning that we call ‘school’?” (“Rapid-Prototypes of Near Classroom Experiential Learning Units”)

Interestingly, as Warren also points out, this type of expansive thinking about school structures is not new at St. Mark’s.   In the planning phases of the SM Saturdays Pilot program, I spoke with school Historian Nick Noble ‘76, who shared some details on the innovative December Week project developed at St. Mark’s from 1973 – 1975 (details which Nick will also share with the broader St. Mark’s community in his forthcoming history of the school, The Echo of their Voices).  December Week engaged St. Markers with a single, week-long immersive course experience aimed at discovering knowledge in all the ways it is manifested in the “real world.”  Topics ranged from orienteering, to the political system, to mentoring in a local community language program, and one of the more intriguing courses, “A Seminar on Death and Dying.”  Clearly, these were meaningful explorations of topics that mattered to students and faculty, and offered the community a chance to step outside of Lichtman’s “quantum cage of thinking and learning.”  Though the December Week experience ended after 1975, I would argue that something of its spirit has persisted throughout the educational DNA of St. Mark’s, and is manifested in our curricular work of today.

This winter, I was proud to be involved in piloting one of the components of what has been a continuing St. Mark’s tradition of innovation in structures and time: St. Mark’s Saturdays.

During the three weeks of the St. Mark’s Saturdays Pilot, students and faculty dug in with the kinds of courses they can expect when the program rolls out next fall — one dedicated Saturday course experience of 2.5 hours taken in each of three seasons (fall, winter and spring), offering a deep dive into topics of consequence in the wider world, and a chance for students to ask questions and actively apply their knowledge.  By definition, these opportunities for authentic learning elide the boundaries between the traditional academic disciplines, cultivating skills essential to success in all areas of high school and beyond — both academic, and social-emotional (Larmer, “What Does it Take for a Project to be Authentic?”).  Consistent with all of these aims, these courses are imagined as opportunities for St. Markers to engage more meaningfully with conversations and systems that shape our surrounding community, our New England region, and our broader connections as global citizens.

It is worth noting that as much as this program represents a change to the shape of some of the work in our school, the bedrock components of our learning community will remain constant.  Through St. Mark’s Saturdays, St. Mark’s continues its commitment as a vital 6-day boarding school with a vibrant residential program, and extends the rigor and depth of our academic programs.

For St. Mark’s students and faculty used to coming to school on Saturdays for three separate 45 minute class periods since time immemorial, the core question is:  “Why teach and learn differently on Saturdays?” The experience of the St. Mark’s Saturdays Pilot has yielded some promising answers for our school community, presented below as key themes, supported by the voices of our students as collected in an anonymous community survey administered at the close of the Pilot period.

Before I dig in there, I’ll offer just a few highlights of the Pilot course experience for our students that illustrate the possibilities of this program model:

  • In the Gender and Advertising course, students and faculty examined gender messaging in mass media and culture, and then visited the nearby Natick Mall to look through these new lenses and apply their understandings.
  • Introduction to Archaeology students formed hypotheses about their fellow St. Markers based on items discarded by community members during the week, and later travelled to the Museum of Fine Arts to observe first-hand artifacts from different historical periods.
  • History and Culture of the Barbados students, bound for the Barbados on the Choir trip at the close of the Pilot, engaged in meaningful pre-trip cultural contexting work, and enjoyed a visit from a guest expert on Barbadian culture — all vital aims of our school’s Global Citizenship initiative.
  • The DIY Electronics course connected St. Markers with younger students from the Seven Hills Charter School in Worcester, as an extension of the work of the St. Mark’s Mentorship Association.   Together, the St. Mark’s mentors and the Seven Hills students worked on small electronics building challenges.
  • Members of the school’s FIRST Robotics Team 3566 competed in two regional tournaments, finishing second in the North Shore district event, and qualifying for the FIRST Nationals in St. Louis.
  • And so many more, including: analysis of stereotypes in Disney films in the Exploring Disney course; production of cooking shows in the Art and Science of Cooking; gaining a better grasp of the cognitive dimensions of the teenage experience in high school in the Adolescent Psychology course; designing an entrepreneurial solution to bring Starbucks coffee to campus through the Entrepreneurship Lab course; interacting with leaders from the broader St. Mark’s community in the Leadership Academy; and designing and executing experiments to test the validity of common myths in the Myth Busters course.

At their core, these are richly challenging courses oriented around powerful questions.  As students ask and answer these questions, they discover deeper learning that prepares them for the world.   To wit:

  • “In what ways can we as consumers reject or influence the message of advertisers?”
  • “What does it mean to ‘prove’ something?”
  • “How is spoken language different than written language?”
  • “What constitutes justice as it  relates to our fellow citizens’ access to food?”
  • “To what extent can human behavior or decision-making be modified?”
  • “To what extent are the places we inhabit together shaping our sense of community?”
  • “What legal and moral limits should we place on: science, scientific discovery, and human ‘progress’ (however one defines the term)?”

I ask again, “Why teach and learn differently on Saturdays?”  As much as the experiences in the these Saturday courses offer powerful answers to this question, I have heard student and faculty voices highlighting the following key trends:

Curricular Dimension

Adding this new Saturday model expands the diversity of our overall program, introduces students to new ideas, and allows for more freedom of choice for students who feel as if there are many courses that they “have” to take as a part of their high school course of study.  Students who may feel risk-averse regarding the pursuit of a new subject or skill in a year-long course have the opportunity to gain exposure to these new competencies through the seven week course experiences, and may be inclined to take more academic risks due to the “High Pass/Pass/Fail” grading scheme.   In our Pilot surveys, students also expressed awareness of skill development that can return value to their work in their year-long or semester-long academic courses — whether that is new confidence as a public speaker and presenter, or a new theoretical lens through which to evaluate and analyze course themes.

Finally, students also expressed positive reviews of the courses that engaged them with conversations that matter in their lives and that have bearing on their development (psychology, leadership, gender).  Our program is aligned with the broader objectives of the school as expressed in our St. Mark’s 2020 Strategic Plan, including the cultivation of leadership and character in conjunction with our aims for academic development.   As the full program rolls out in the Fall of 2015, students will pursue a core course for their form in one of the three seasons of the year.  These core courses will engage students with conversations and activities designed to enrich their experiences at St. Mark’s, and allow them to derive greater success through our program:

  • Third Formers will explore key social and emotional tools that they will need to thrive in their first year at St. Mark’s and beyond, including metacognition, stress reduction, and interpersonal skills.
  • Fourth Formers will take on the most complex issues of our time, and use moral and ethical decision-making frameworks to debate just responses to these issues.
  • Fifth Formers prepare for their transition into leadership roles at St. Mark’s, and the upcoming work of the college process by undertaking inquiry that is central to both journeys — developing knowledge of self, and an understanding of the ways in which we interface with others in the broader community.
  • Sixth Formers will engage with a course that provides them with resources and support for successfully navigating their transition to life after St. Mark’s. Understanding the college application process as a component of a student’s larger project of preparing for more self-directed educational inquiry, this course will think expansively about the concept of college readiness, and enrich the work done with the College Office and through the VI Form Transitions program.

Added Points of Contact

Students and faculty have an opportunity to work with others with whom they do not usually interact, resulting in increased community cross-pollination, and stronger cross-campus networks.    Faculty find the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues professionally invigorating, and students see lifelong learning modeled through these collaborations.  Students gain the opportunity to build relationships with faculty members whom they do not have as year-long/semester-long teachers.    Finally, students see new sides of peers, or meet peers for the first time, reshuffling peer networks that can become rigid as the year progresses.  We have seen these courses, and the new networks and thinking they foster, returning value to all areas of life at St. Mark’s.

Active Learning and Play

Some of the main objectives of the program are to encourage students to take ownership of knowledge, to find some room for their own curiosity in shaping the direction of course projects  and to explore deeper learning in different ways.   Through the Pilot, many students embraced the opportunity to immerse themselves in the topic and explore actively. One student commented, “I felt like I was discovering information, which made it much more memorable for me.”

Recently, I have been influenced by the work of developmental psychologist Peter Gray, who delves into the linkages between play and learning, in his book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct of Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students For Life.   In short, we may dismiss play as the frivolous diversion of young children, but as it turns out, “The drive to play is a basic, biological drive” (Gray 5) intrinsic to our acquisition of knowledge.  Our school systems, Gray continues, have, “directly and indirectly, often unintentionally, fostered an attitude in society that children learn and progress primarily by doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own activities are wasted time” (8).

Gray charges schools with nurturing, in Einstein’s parlance, “The holy curiosity of inquiry,” orienting the curriculum around powerful questions, and allowing students the agency to shape the evolution of the discussions and products.  St. Mark’s Assistant Head of School and Dean of Faculty Mike Wirtz, who led the Myth Busters course in the Pilot, described this valuable process in a blog post as “Letting Go.” This sort of inquiry-based learning has great power to reorient traditional school paradigms of student and teacher roles.  In our Pilot surveys, students recognized course aims that sought to take learning outside of traditional classroom structures, to emphasize the “fun” in learning, and to unsettle traditional notions that learning is rigidly organized or teacher directed.   They responded very positively to courses that leveraged personal experience or allowed for personal independence in defining a product that would be the eventual outcome of the course.

So why Saturday?

Through an intensive and multi-year process of design and community feedback, St. Mark’s has developed a program that complements and enhances an already outstanding approach to teaching and learning.    With the advantage of this new framework for our use of time, students and faculty can develop new competencies, and deepen their thinking about the ways that knowledge is constructed in the world beyond our campus.   I hope you will take a moment to navigate the 2015-2016 course offerings, and trust that you will see the diversity and power of the program reflected through what we have developed for our community.

I will close with some wisdom from Tal Birdsey, a teacher whose work and writing I deeply respect.  In his book A Room For Learning: The Making of a School in Vermont, Birdsey describes the journey of founding of the North Branch School in Ripton, Vermont.  As he reflects on the first year of work in the curriculum, a program that aimed to develop greater student voice and ownership in the direction of the learning, Birdsey offers the following:

If I had a prayer to say into a school, to any school, every year and every day and every hour, it would be shoveling coal into the fire that said, Make meaning move.  That is what adolescents had to do.  They came wanting to make sense of where they had been and wanting to claim something about where they aimed to go.  Dynamism, movement and transformation were the essence of their beings.  They craved to be trusted, for their teachers, parents, and mentors to believe that they possessed the power of the gods to weave themselves cloaks of light, earth, sea, fishes, fowl, and their other experiences.  They wanted to make meaning, and in making meaning they moved; then they could say, I am (Birdsey 282).

I am immensely proud of the learners — both students and teachers — who have come together to develop this program, and who will, through our curiosity, our questions, and our discoveries, make meaning move on Saturdays for years to come.

Nat Waters, a member of the St. Mark’s faculty since 2009, serves as the Director of St. Mark’s Saturdays, the Associate Dean of Academics, and a teacher in the History and Social Sciences and English Departments. This winter, Nat taught a Saturday Pilot course on Digital Storytelling, and was proud to see students sharing their experiences as a way of expanding our notions of community and shared space.  A description of the project and links to students’ stories can be found here.  


Works Cited


Birdsey, Tal. A Room for Learning: The Making of a School in Vermont. New York: St. Martin’s
Press, 2009. Print.


Gray, Peter. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct of Play Will Make Our Children Happier,

More Self-Reliant, and Better Students For Life. New York: Basic Books, 2013. Kindle file.


Larmer, John. “What Does it Take for a Project to Be Authentic?” Buck Institute for Education.

24 May 2012. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.


Lichtman, Grant. “Rapid-Prototypes of Near Classroom Experiential Learning Units” The Future

of K-12 Education. 24 Jan. 2015. Web. 5 May 2015.


Noble, Richard “Nick.” “Historical Background on the DECEMBER WEEK Experiment at

SM 1973 to 1975.”  excerpted from The Echo of Their Voices. 2014.


Warren, John. “Innovation at St. Mark’s School: Reimagining Time.” 20 Feb 2015. Web.

  1. Apr. 2015.


Wiggins, Grant.  “What is an Essential Question?”  Authentic Education.  15 Nov 2007. Web.

  1. Apr. 2015.



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