In the two weeks after winter break, frantic talk of upcoming math tests and history essays can be overheard in every hallway of Packer. The collective stress is overwhelming, and teachers endeavor to juggle the anxiety of their students with the work they have assigned. Everyone is hoping to merely get by until Symposium offers them the freedom that they all so miss.
Last year, in an attempt to combat the excessive stress levels expressed by students, Packer’s administration established a “pinch point” calendar, which splits up the final two weeks before the end of each semester to ensure that only certain classes give major assessments each week. The divisions are listed in each student’s planner.
“There were a lot of assessments being scheduled at natural pause points or endpoints in the academic calendar, and, as a result, students were feeling inundated and overwhelmed,” said Elissa Krebs, English Department Head, of the rationale behind the new set-up.
Furthermore, since students are not allowed to have more than two major assessments on any given day, the new calendar aimed to remedy an issue teachers had been facing.
“We were running out of days,” said Upper School history teacher Dr. Ryan Carey. “Irrespective of [the students], we needed some organizational assistance.”
Despite the schedule’s presumed benefit for students, teachers do express some concerns about its effects on their curriculums.
Ian Rumsey, an Upper School math teacher, spoke about the disadvantages of teaching a class that is only able to give assessments during the first week.
“Having the first week can be kind of problematic, particularly if you have a semester-long course, because you’re not sure what to do the second week,” he said.
Conversely, Ms. Krebs acknowledged that the odd setup can actually make teachers think ingeniously.
“If you capitalize on the opportunity, you can create something really special,” said Ms. Krebs. Last year, she designed an ungraded project in which her students utilized a Shen Gallery exhibit to develop abstract characters.
At a point in the school year when stress is up and happiness is down, it can be beneficial to assign ungraded projects, such as the one Ms. Krebs gave. When given low-stakes assignments, students tend to be more inclined to delve into topics they are truly interested in, instead of simply considering what will earn them a good grade. Still, it can be difficult to keep all students engaged when they know that their work will not be graded.
There are undoubtedly problems with the second week as well. Grading assignments in time for the marking period is difficult, and given the number of teachers who accompany sophomores on international trips, the feat is nearly impossible.
The issue raises a controversial question: should Symposium be moved? Symposium was established as a replacement for midterms, which originally took place two weeks after break to ensure that students had ample time to prepare. Now that Symposium has taken the place of those exams, final tests and assignments have been pushed forward. Essentially, the logic behind having two weeks of classes after winter break is no longer applicable.
Teachers and students alike wonder whether it would be beneficial to have Symposium at a different point in the year.
“I’d be interested in moving [Symposium] to the time immediately following break,” said Mr. Rumsey. “That would address a lot of these issues. You’d move the pinch point calendar to the two weeks before break instead, and then final projects wouldn’t be rushed in the final two weeks.”
Students, too, believe that this shift may make the pinch point calendar more effective.
“I don’t like how the first semester continues after winter break because I feel as if everyone forgets everything,” said Anna Simmons (‘20).
Having major assessments the week after winter break can be problematic, as students are forced to transition from relaxation to a bout of intense studying. Shifting everything back two weeks would hypothetically eliminate this issue.
The administration, however, hopes to have Symposium serve as a break from rigorous academics, not a continuation of vacation. Moreover, the current placement of Symposium has scientific backing.
“The reason that things like Winter Session and Symposium are put in place is because studies show, given that we’re in a seasonal climate, that sadness, depression, and emotional lulls tend to happen in January and February,” said Ms. Krebs.
The administration has discussed potential alternatives, but with each option comes unique drawbacks.
“It’s a longer conversation,” said Dr. Carey, “but ultimately, moving Symposium and the pinch point calendar seems to cause as many problems as it would alleviate.”
Although the month of January at Packer is rather unorthodox, its design does address the concerns of the community. The intricacies of the pinch point calendar may not be entirely effective, but it was ultimately created with the intention of making school as manageable as is possible, and, as of right now, seems to be situated at as helpful a time as any.