Local middle schools re-engage students in one final unit to balance out tough year

The final two weeks for middle schoolers at Berry Creek and Gypsum Creek were spent exploring and learning about new ideas, all while doing something they loved

Gypsum Creek students from the Solar Rollers M-term wait with their teacher, Katie Lunde, for the sun to come out. The students designed, built and rebuilt solar cars during the last two weeks of school.
Ali Longwell/

The end of the school year can be both an exciting and a challenging time. With both students and staff looking ahead to summer break, keeping students engaged can be a struggle. That’s why two of Eagle County’s middle schools — Berry Creek and Gypsum Creek — spent the last two weeks of school practicing a different type of learning.

The two-week unit — called M-term or May term — is designed to draw on both teachers’ and students’ interests and passions. Over the course of two weeks, students practice and explore different aspects of a chosen, teacher-generated topic, keeping daily logs of their activities and of what they are learning and gaining.

This type of project-based learning gives students autonomy over their education, builds student voice and choice, and allows students to develop mastery over a topic that they’re interested in.

The M-term projects were designed by teachers to ignite or further develop students’ passions about a wide variety of topics.
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The M-terms at the local middle schools spanned topics from arts like photography, theater and music to recreational activities like archery, rock climbing and outdoor adventure. Additional projects explored things like finance, activism, interior design, the search for extra-terrestrial life and much more.

And on Tuesday, family, friends and the community were invited to the schools to witness the students’ achieved mastery and see the work they’ve put in. With everything from displaying homemade baked goods and photography to performing monologues and new sporting skills, the showcases offered a way for the students to demonstrate their passion and knowledge of a topic.

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“One of the very essential parts of project-based learning is making that product public, having a public audience see what you did create,” said David Russell, the principal at Gypsum Creek Middle School.

Gypsum Creek first started doing the M-term during the 2018-19 school year as a way to re-engage students in learning.

“If you think about, over the course of the school year, how hard teachers work and how hard students work in their learning, they have a lot of demands upon them. The last couple weeks of school is really hard for teachers and students to be motivated,” Russell said. “What we have found is that during this time, our hard last couple weeks of school before summer, M-term flips that on its head to where both teachers and students are all motivated, they’re happy and their passion for learning is reignited at the end of a tough school year.”

After a pandemic-related hiatus, Gypsum Creek brought back its M-term and was joined by Berry Creek Middle School, which decided to institute the same two-week unit this year.

“While it seems sort of contradictory to do something even more different this year, to me, it felt like the right thing to do,” said Amy Vanwel, the principal of Berry Creek. “Conceptually, we like the idea because we know there are things we want the students to come away with that isn’t necessarily embedded within a normal curriculum. We believe in playing to students’ strengths and choice and also to staff’s strengths and passion.”

New style of learning

Berry Creek Middle School students in the auto maintenance M-term practiced their new skills on faculty cars, sending diagnostics reports to teachers.
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This idea behind the M-term is not only to re-engage students in learning at the end of the year. Educators say this type of project-based learning re-enforces existing curriculum and teaches students skills that typical classroom learning might skip over.

For example, Gypsum Creek STEM teacher Katie Lunde led an M-term called the Solar Rollers that tasked students with designing and building solar cars. Not only did students learn and interact with some of the topics covered in a typical STEM class, but they learned valuable lessons about what it takes to be an engineer as well as how to collaborate and problem-solve as a team.

“It gets kids outside and critically thinking,” Lunde said. She added that it also taught them about perseverance and patience as the group waited at the showcase, a particularly cloudy day in Gypsum, for their favorite part of the project: “When the sun comes out.”

At Berry Creek, an auto maintenance M-term, referred to as Wildcat Autoworks, put students’ skills to good use, checking air pressure, changing oil and replacing windshield wipers on faculty cars. This type of practice and engagement teaches students to be independent learners, a sometimes difficult task in a classroom.

“Not only did we want to give students these experiences and specific skills, but I think what’s also important is being flexible and stepping out of our comfort zone, both as the adults in the building and as the students,” Vanwel said. “Things like this really do ask them to engage in their learning and be partners in their learning. Teachers obviously are still there facilitating, so it becomes more of a partnership than it does a directed mandate that they have to do.”

Students at Berry Creek Middle School showcase their archery skills as part of their M-term project.
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For Russell, the unit also offered an opportunity to evaluate possible learning loss as well as recoup some of the social-emotional losses after the challenging year.

“We hope that, because it’s built around interests, we’ll get even more engagement in that writing process to get more accurate assessments of where students are at,” he said. “There needed to be a strong focus on the social emotional well-being of students and that connection to each other and to adults in the school. A big part of M-term is building relationships between students and also building relationships with teachers, who all share the same passion or interest.”

And after a year that has asked so much of students, educators and school staff, the M-term offered a way to end the year still teaching students, but in an fun way.

While Vanwel had no way to quantitatively measure the engagement and enjoyment of students in their last two weeks, the staff did notice certain behavioral changes in some students. Not only were kids ready to end lunch early and get back to their M-term projects, but the school’s health assistant noticed a great decrease in the number of students heading to the clinic with headaches and stomachaches.

“I do feel that M-term has combated some of the end-of-year fatigue that we can often feel,” Vanwel said. “In these last few weeks, we were reinvigorated. It was something new, and I feel like it was not only a beneficial way, but a more pleasurable way to end the year; it gave us something to look forward to.”

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