Classroom in the City: An Immersive Learning Experience for Middle School Students

In November, middle school students and their teachers dedicated a full day of cross-curricular learning to explore Philadelphia’s vast resources, from public artworks and outdoor spaces to museums and institutions. The experience, titled “Classroom in 
the City,” provided students opportunities to visit 
some of the city’s renowned sites—many of them within walking distance of Friends Select’s campus—and apply their encounters to their existing in-classroom curriculum. Throughout the day, students composed object studies, conducted on-site research, explored artistic installations, and investigated the interconnected concepts 
of art, social studies, science, and literature.  

Classroom in the City blossomed from a summer grant experience awarded to middle school social studies teachers Stephanie Demko and Alexis Flack. “We were in the midst of reworking the middle school social studies sequencing and curriculum when Alexis and I heard about the opportunity to apply for a grant to explore the city,” Stephanie explained. “It seemed like perfect timing to approach how to incorporate 
the city into the new curriculum we were preparing.” 

Stephanie and Alexis spent last summer visiting museums and institutions related to their updated programming and quickly realized they were on the verge of a unique idea. Stephanie said, “At faculty meetings last year, middle school teachers often discussed the concept of a day dedicated to city exploration, but our team never moved the concept beyond the idea stage. While Alexis and I were exploring in the summer, we realized ways to incorporate the locations we visited into our curriculum and developed a plan for a full day of learning in the city to immerse our students.” 

For the program’s inaugural run, fifth and eighth grade classes journeyed together to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology to explore the African, Mexico and Central America, and Native American Voices galleries. The older students composed an object study and took on the role of research photographers, and they joined their younger counterparts to develop a case study that illustrated how people interact with the environment and each other. After lunch at Sister Cities Park, they visited the Franklin Institute to view The Sky Tonight in the Fels Planetarium, during which they were able to make connections with 
their science classes on the solar system. 

A few blocks away, sixth grade students spent their morning at the Free Library of Philadelphia to examine the Rare Book Department collection along with samples of early writing systems on papyrus and parchment. Afterward, the class set off for Bartram’s Garden, where they enjoyed lunch and a science-based workshop and program about early Quakers who shaped the historic garden and arboretum as well as Philadelphia. The opportunity allowed sixth graders to study place-based history and the art of urban planning, both resources for the class’s collaborative project to construct a city. The day’s agenda connected students’ work in English class around the novel Seedfolks and expanded on the nature-based experiments they constructed in science, while simultaneously making a connection to the school’s Quaker roots.

The seventh grade class embarked on a visual art-focused walking tour with a visit to Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, where students explored the dynamic mosaic art of Isaiah Zagar. After lunch, the group walked to the Independence Seaport Museum to experience the exhibition Flow, at which they viewed water-based art installations and discussed the creative process with the artists. Their day concluded at Philadelphia’s newly formed Fashion District, which houses many pieces of public art.

Classroom in the City embodies the educational philosophy of Friends Select School and supports middle school students as learners by offering cross-curricular, tangible learning experiences. Alexis said, “This program enabled students to make mental connections between what they’re learning in school and how the lessons extend beyond the classroom.” Additionally, the program connects with the divisional transition from middle to upper school. “Classroom in the City gave eighth graders a chance to be independent learners at the Penn Museum, as they explored objects as researchers, photographers and artists.” Alexis added. “Their teachers were with them and they had learning objectives to complete, but they had the opportunity to make their own choices in regards to which objects they chose to study and spend time with. This kind of scaffolded independence is something we purposefully build into the later years of the middle school experience to prepare students for upper school.”

Friends Select thanks the Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest Endowment for Cultural Programming, which supports learning at cultural institutions in the city.