Our Practice

  • Curriculum
  • field trip
  • high school
  • PBL
  • Progressive Education
  • Upper School
  • winterim

The Power of Field Trips to Transform Hearts and Minds

by Yvonne Domings, Upper School Director

Field trips provide rich, experiential opportunities that allow students to take in and engage with learning in multi-sensory ways. They have the power to expand the walls of the school and bring learning to life. Instead of only listening, discussing and/or reading, students experience the world. Students take an active role in their learning, doing so in their own way and at their own pace. As such, they experience the joy of exploration and the wonder of discovery. Sparhawk’s Winterim master class is an excellent example of the power of field trips to take learning to a higher level. It is also an excellent example of one of the things Sparhawk faculty do best: they create rich learning opportunities for students that push them to expand their hearts and minds.

In the interim between first and second semester (Winterim), Sparhawk students in grades 8-12 go on many of field trips! They travel locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Four years ago, we enhanced these trips by adding master class. Before this, students traveled for a week to ten days. The experience was wonderful, but the master class has added a rich new dimension by preparing them for what they will encounter and experience.

In a master class, teachers and students study topics of interest deeply all day, every day for the month of January. In contrast to a survey class, which is designed with a goal of achieving a broad but cursory understanding or skill, Winterim master classes are designed with the goal of deep learning in a specific area of focus.

To teach a master class well, teachers must dig in and develop their own deep understanding of the topic area first. Ideas for master classes often come from their past experiences or from their own curiosity, passions or interests. Teachers then guide students to develop a thorough understanding of the topic. The learning is then enriched with a field trip or trips that further expand their minds by exposing them to the world beyond the pages of a book and the walls of the classroom.

The experience of master class promotes growth in students not only intellectually and academically, but also socially and emotionally. And as faculty, we bear witness to this, which in turn impacts us as well. As one teacher describes “Winterim feeds my soul.”

Teachers remark that some of the best parts of Winterim are watching students discover something about themselves they didn’t know. For example, teachers in the fitness Winterim enjoyed working out alongside some of their self-proclaimed “non-athletic” students as the learned that practice and working hard allowed them to improve and excel beyond what they had imagined they could do. This shift in mindset can provide a powerful reminder of how perseverance can pay off in any challenging learning scenario.

Another example comes from teachers of the marine biology class, who were astounded by the power of field trips to teach when they saw how facile some students (who were never exposed to a snorkel before) became at differentiating between similar fish at the species level in a very short time. It is hard to imagine any pneumonic device, flash cards or drills that could achieve the same result.

The concentrated and extended time with a smaller group of our students also allows us to be present for many joyful and poignant “aha” moments (when we believe we see sparks jump and a student’s mind or heart is forever altered). Below I compile a few of these moments from Winterim 2019:

Sparhawk students who studied the history and culture of New Orleans landed and began their trip by helping rebuild houses in the Lower Ninth District of New Orleans. In the classroom, they had learned that homes in this district were largely wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (the year some of the students in the class were born). As a result of their work rebuilding houses, our students discovered and experienced injustice on a very personal level and in a way that is mind and life altering.

The teacher put down his hammer to text me about the “birth of a social justice warrior.” When one student, who lives a very privileged life, met the people of the Lower Ninth Ward and realized they were rebuilding their homes one nail and one board at a time, without any formal government assistance, he looked at his teacher and pleaded “No one is helping them. We have to do something.” As educators, this transformation and deep emotional connection with learning is something we cannot achieve without an experience. It provided students with personal moments with other humans who they come to know. It is our Credo in action: treating others with the kindliness they deserve. These connections impact our students for the rest of their lives.

Another student after exploring the ancient ruins of Rome, seeing Medieval “high rises” of San Gimignano, and many other wonders across Italy, sat staring at Michelangelo’s David in Florence and remarked to his teacher “Oh my God, this is so worth the hype. It is as amazing as they say it is.”

These goose-bump provoking moments are not limited only to students who travel the world. Walking by a math classroom turned woodshop, I marveled at the joy and total engagement of every student in the room. Inspired by local trips to see and learn about colonial architecture, they milled around busily cutting, sanding and shaping popsicle sticks into models, complete with features that they excitedly explained served both form and function.

The students in the mural arts master class, spent the month planning, proposing a mural and then creating, glazing and firing tiles and finally tiling a wall in the school. One day, I witnessed as a mural arts student stepped back from the mosaic work unfolding on the wall before her as she whispered “Wow, this is going to make our school really special.” Oh what a feeling to be, not only reading about their world, but also experiencing and transforming it with their hands before their very eyes! I hope these anecdotes provide another dimension to the picture that is emerging in your mind’s eye of how very transformative Winterim master classes and field trips are for our students.

After four years of master classes, this year I believe we have hit our stride. Winterim 2019 Master Classes were awe inspiring! Here are some facts and figures: master classes this year included “deep dives” into Renaissance art and history, New England colonial architecture, mural arts, marine biology, the history and culture of New Orleans and fitness. We did so much: we connected, created, competed, snorkeled, explored, marveled, bonded and got fit. We learned new skills and tried new foods; we mentored; we helped; we laughed, we made friends; we shed tears; we experienced new cultures and we pushed our boundaries. We traveled to local cities like Portland (Maine), Lynn, Lowell, Ipswich, Salem and New Bedford. We traveled nationally to New Orleans and internationally to Belize City, Dublin, Rome, Florence, Siena, San Gimignano and Venice. We collectively clocked around 35,000 miles in cars, buses, trains, planes and boats and walked hundreds more miles on foot.

On January 25th, faculty and staff of the Upper School gathered, as we always do on  professional days, to share breakfast before starting the day. Along with the smell of sausage and waffles, the kitchen was filled with excited voices relating stories, sharing their “aha” moments, joys, challenges and new insights into the hearts, minds and characters of our students. I am proud of the work we do and honored to be part of this community of lifelong learners. I can hardly wait to see what is in store for Winterim 2020. Our vision couldn’t be brighter.

To learn more about the power of field trips to provide access to learning and spur cognitive, socio-emotional, and academic growth read:

Behrendt, M. & Franklin, T. (Jul 2008). A Review of Research on School Field Trips and Their Value in Education. In International Journal of Environmental & Science Education. V3, 3 (9) pp. 235-245. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1031445.pdf

Berer, S. (Apr 15 2015). The Benefits Of Learning Through Field Trips. In TeachThought. Retrieved from https://www.teachthought.com/learning/the-benefits-of-learning-through-field-trip

Green, J. P., Kisida B, Bowen, D.H. (2014). The Educational Value of Field Trips. In (14)1. https://www.educationnext.org/the-educational-value-of-field-trips/

Kulas, M. (n.d.) What are the Benefits of Field Trips for Children? In Livestrong.com. Retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/127612-benefits-field-trips-children/

Meg. (2018) Benefits of Field Trips. In Explorable Places. Retrieved from https://www.explorableplaces.com/blog/the-benefits-of-field-trips

  • clubs
  • robotics
  • team
  • Upper School

Sparhawk High School Robotics Kickoff

by Jennifer Esty & Nate Velluto, Robotics Coaches & Upper School Teachers

Robotics season starts January 5th, 2019 but Carriagetown Robotics have been working hard since July to prepare.  The theme this year is Deep Space.  Our competitions are scheduled to be:

                        March 16-17 at Reading, MA High School

                        March 23-24 at Revere, MA High School

The Software team attended a boot camp one weekend in July and have been getting together every few weeks with local FRC teams as part of the North Shore FIRST Software Alliance (NSFSA).  In December they visited WPI to meet with the FIRST library manager and came away with great insight into software architecture, new tools to help build software faster and of course, a tour of WPI!

The Build team inventoried and organized fasteners (AKA as sort the bolts and nuts) and invited in representatives from NEEF, a local 80/20 supplier.  Their 80/20 cart was impressive and allowed the team to see new fastening techniques and get ideas for this season.

The Drive team has been practicing and testing out software on our new driver training robot.  The goal is to continue to update this robot (hardware and software) so driver training can continue while our competition robot is built.

The Business team has been busy fundraising, finding sponsors and planning finances.  Their success includes funding from Merrimac Tool, Test Equipment Depot, a Grant from FIRST sponsors, Amesbury Youth Services and, hopefully, Analog Devices.  Our fee is paid and we are able to purchase items to build the robot!  They won’t rest though, as they work to secure next year’s fee in the bank!

The Scouting team is working behind the scenes to create a new scouting system!!  It will be tested starting in January allowing Carriagetown the ability to collect data on matches and provide summaries live for the Drive Team!  

Many of our girls attending the FIRST Women in Technology conference at FIRST headquarters in Manchester, NH.  The speakers were inspiring and the panel discussions gave great insight into career options.  One member even decided to change her career path after the day!

Part of the Business team our logo and all things visual, Colin Elmer has completed his last logo as a team member.  We are excited to use this on our new “spirit wear” which will debut in January.

Drop in the Maker Space 1/7 – 2/19 to see the progress on this year’s robot!!  Thanks again to our sponsors and supports.


  • cooperative
  • Curriculum
  • PBL
  • Progressive Education
  • Upper School

Project-based Learning and Sparhawk’s Curricular Approach

By Yvonne Domings, Director of Sparhawk Upper School

Sparhawk has a long history of favoring hands-on learning. Hands-on learning becomes minds-on learning as children move from concrete to more abstract thinking. Minds-on learning at middle & high school, takes the shape of driving questions to be answered and problems to be solved.

I’m happy to say that I see the fruits of students’ labors every day as they transfer the skills they are gaining in PBL to other aspects of their lives, in the poise as they talk to adults, the confidence with which they carry themselves, the capacity for working through problems and the skillfulness as they propose and pitch new ideas. PBL is only one of the many facets of Sparhawk’s overall program that seeks to build critical and creative thinking skills in students who can also collaborate and communicate effectively.

At Sparhawk High School, Project-based Learning (PBL) is done in classes throughout the semester, but in addition, we dedicate a large portion of Friday afternoons to PBL with the sole purpose of developing 21st century workplace skills.

Faculty begin the development of “PBL’s” by developing a compelling driving question. Some PBL questions focus on the theme for the semester and others are problems of today or issues being discussed in the news. Since personal choice is the first step toward deep engagement (an important component of good learning), students choose one of those questions during course selection each semester.

Each week on Friday, high school faculty help students hone their 21st century skills as a means of answering the driving question. Students make decisions on the process, on the way it should be assessed and on the product to be developed. They work together, pitch ideas to peers and mentors, develop solutions, iterate products and end by communicating the results to an authentic audience of parents and community members.

As the director, my favorite days at Sparhawk are the days when we, as a school, get ready for the PBL Community Presentation Night. The halls are filled with engaged and active learners as they put the finishing touches on their projects. The afternoons are spent presenting and critiquing.

On November 29th, we held our Fall 2018 PBL Community Presentation Night. If you were in our audience, you saw some polished products, but you also saw and heard students reflect on the process they went through. We feel both are important. Since hindsight is 20/20, students learn as much, if not more, from reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work. So we applaud both successful products as well as good reflections. I’m proud to say that this semester’s PBL presentations were some of the best I have seen in the time I have been here. Below are the courses and driving questions students worked to answer during the fall semester:

Children’s Literature

Driving Question: How do professional authors craft meaningful children’s picture books?

In this PBL, students worked in small groups to storyboard and draft children’s books. Groups chose to teach, motivate, or expose children to bigger concepts and worked to craft their story with that goal in mind. After spending the semester creating their own books, they will take them to the Lower School to test them on young students.


Chad is Sad by Nate Elmer, Atticus Chiasson, and Joseph Shannon

The Problem with Ploos by Sabina McLaughlin, Lauren Rochford and Eunwon (Kiley) Huang

The Adventures of Tee and the Cavity King by Vincent Brogan, Guanshujin (Jarvis) Yang and Clementine Cashmore

Faculty mentor: Nate Velluto

Ancient Sailing and Seafarers

Driving question: How did geographical locations/problems influence advances in technology, navigation methods, and the way different societies solved problems common to water travel?

In this PBL, students looked at how and why seafaring peoples ventured onto the deep blue sea, for trade, adventure, and/or conquest. Teams of students looked at how environments and situations influenced technological advances, navigation methods and more. They considered how different societies solved problems common to water travel: stability, buoyancy, movement, and direction. They also examined the technology and physics of sailing while building their own sail cars that move upwind.


Phoenicia Ancient Sailing & Seafaring by Annika Ainsworth, Natalya, Rowan Brennan,and Yifei (Heidi) He

Ancient Chinese Vessels - Strummer Barr, Sam Dellea, Richard Lally, Chase Sweet and Jonah Smith

Hokulea the Great(Hawaii) by Nora Hickey,Samantha Jordan, Sivan Kotler-Berkowitz, Olivia Riley, and Madi Whitlock

Faculty mentors: Bob DeLibero and Jennifer Esty

Next Stop . . .  

Driving question: Can television be an intellectual medium?

In this PBL, students watched the genre-bending classic The Twilight Zone and analyzed the show through both a cinematic and philosophical lens. They considered how to create compelling, watchable drama while also exploring vast and thorny ideas. Finally, students worked on teams to produce their own Twilight Zone episodes, either in homage or spoof of the source material.


Solitude- Jacob Adamsky, Sarah Cox, Richie Labritz, and Jonah Thompson

Live Without -Dyani Monclova, Charlotte Strovink, LiAm Wexelblat, and Lyupin (Sway) Xu

Where am I?- Ryan Brennan, Jackson Musial,Will Tessmer,, and Yuxuan (Kevin) Zhen

Faculty Mentors: Lee Ford and Casey Wright


Beauty of Acceptance

Driving Question: How has the idea of beauty in America changed over the last hundred years? How has it differed for different groups based on lines of race, gender, and class? Who has benefited from these ideals, and who has suffered?

Students will research the roots of Beauty that trace back to ancient Greece, and chart its evolution in American society through the last hundred years. They will apply a critical and intersectional lens to the concept of beauty in order to examine its impact on the individual and society. Students will produce a documentary film that they will present in two showings to a live audience that answers these questions and poses new ones.

Research and Project Team:

Yamilette Espada, Téa Flach, Yifei (Heidi) He, Lydia May-Broyles, Parker Rogers, Anayah Tejada, Anna Tessmer, Huiru (Sarah) Zhang and Yanan Zhang

Faculty mentor: Eric Schildge

Sparhawk Geographic

Driving Question: Can we create a magazine that depicts the nature and history of the surrounding areas?

In this PBL, students spent the semester creating their own National Geographic-type online magazine of the surrounding areas. They picked topics and pitched them to the magazine executives. Once approved students became journalists, editors, photojournalists or designers. They worked on an "editorial team" to edit each other's articles and worked to formulate the final product: Sparhawk Geographic

Article Locales:

Parker RiverWildlife Refuge by Kaiwen (Kevin) Chen, Tianshi (Tony) Li and Chloe Weiss-Curry

Sparhawk School History by Leticia Baptiste, Jacob Foti, and Lyndsay Morris

Arrowhead Farm by Matthew Lichtenberg, Maia Panthera-Allen, Maritza Ramirez

Faculty mentors: Joanna Tomah & Dana Nuenighoff

I’m happy to say that I see the fruits of students’ labors every day as they transfer the skills they are gaining in PBL to other aspects of their lives in the poise as they talk to adults, the confidence with which they carry themselves, the capacity for working through problems and the skillfulness as they propose and pitch new ideas. PBL is only one of the many facets of Sparhawk’s overall program that seeks to build critical and creative thinking skills in students who can also collaborate and communicate effectively.

  • Curriculum
  • PBL
  • Progressive Education
  • Upper School

Excellence in Education - Assessment at Sparhawk Upper School

by Yvonne Domings, Director of Sparhawk Upper School

The purpose of assessment in any form is to look for evidence of learning. It is an integral part of teaching. Yet, in common parlance, the word “assessment” has a negative connotation due to the rise of the use of standardized assessment. At Sparhawk, we believe that assessment should be as varied and dynamic as the process of learning. In one moment or in one day, it would be impossible to measure what we, at Sparhawk, value most: the child’s process of learning how to think both creatively and critically in service of developing themselves. Rather than a snapshot, Sparhawk assessments capture a collage of the learner as a whole, multi-faceted person on a path toward lifelong learning.   

We begin curriculum design by setting the destination of where we want students to end up. In the same way that GPS would be useless if you don’t set a destination before you begin, creative and varied assessments are not effective if they don’t focus on a goal. Teachers ask, what skills do I want my students to gain and big ideas do I want my students to explore? The answer differs for different students at different ages and stages of development. So before designing projects and instruction, teachers ask themselves what “evidence of learning” could look like. It is at that point, that they begin to design clear expectations and guidelines that will eventually be communicated to students.

Like a GPS that continuously checks progress toward a goal and makes adjustments, good teachers are constantly asking questions, checking in and observing their students ability to participate purposefully in class, reflect upon their own process, produce meaningful notes, benefit from a socratic seminar or work on a team to solve a complex problem. These “formative” assessments are like litmus tests that guide the teacher to effectively respond to the needs of the different learners in the group. Formative assessments also keep instruction interesting yet focused on the goal. In doing so, it is easy to give varied learners choice and latitude in way they will be assessed.

As a progressive school, teacher and learners often co-design summative or “end-of-course” assessments. These less often include a traditional test of skill and understanding, and more often include measures that provide evidence of growth and development of deep learning. Evidence of deep learning can come in varied forms such as the ability to apply math and science concepts to a complex problem, to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills in a piece of analytical writing, to perform of a monologue or create a piece of new media (video, blog). In the end, teacher and learner reflect both formally and informally not only on the content, but also on the process and the end result.

During the final semester of senior year, students prepare for their final assessment at Sparhawk: Graduation by Exhibition. Graduation by Exhibition is a final reflection on themselves as a learner. Seniors spend the spring semester going through old papers and projects and considering themselves as a younger, less mature learner. They ask themselves: How did I develop into the learner I am now, what worked and didn’t for me and how can I use this information in the future. This can be a challenging process, but one that we value as a means of setting our graduates up well for the next phase of education. Graduation by Exhibition culminates in a review of the portfolio with a faculty of choice and their advisor. The result is an introspective look at who they have become: multi-faceted, competent learners. This is a joyful moment for our students and one that we celebrate as a school as each senior completes the process. This reflection is the ultimate example of assessment at Sparhawk, a dynamic assessment of the learner, by the learner and shared with the entire community.

*Standardized assessment is a large-scale test that measures a student’s understanding as compared to a norm or an academic standard. The widespread use of standardized tests began to rise after the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” suggested that the poor performance of US students on standardized tests when compared to international peers put the US at risk of economic failure.

Experiencing Personal & Team Success in High School Athletics

by Jennifer Esty, Sparhawk Upper School Teacher & Athletics Director

High School level athletics have been offered to Sparhawk students for three years.  The program started with one student in a fall sport and now has grown to six students in all seasons (fall, winter,spring) on teams at three local schools and is growing each season.  Sparhawk provides opportunities to students athletes by joining with other local schools in a cooperative team arrangement through the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA). 

Joining the MIAA was in response to a few students requesting the opportunity to participate in high school athletics however the program has brought many benefits to the Sparhawk community.  In addition to participating in the athletics, Sparhawk has participated in the Student Ambassador program which focuses on being leaders in community service; attended several workshops regarding teen health; provided our perspective in gender issues in athletics; offered leadership training to our student athletes; free concussion training for students and staff and opportunities for scholarships and recognition.  MIAA describes the role interscholastic athletic competition as follows:

"Interscholastic athletic competition is an extension of the classroom and an educational activity that provides outstanding opportunities to teach life lessons.  Through participation in such programs, young people learn values and skills that help prepare them for the future.  Leadership, goal setting, teamwork, decision making, perseverance, integrity, sacrifice, healthy competition and overcoming adversity are inherent in the interscholastic athletic framework and also support the academic mission of schools.  Student-athletes earn the privilege to participate by succeeding academically, and the resulting positive outcomes continue far beyond graduation.  These programs exist to prepare young men and women for the next level of life, not the next level of athletics.  Wins are achieved through athletics by developing successful athletes and teams, but more importantly, wins are achieved through the educational experience by developing successful and responsible students, leaders and community members”.

Woven in the Sparhawk Mission we see similar strands of purpose for interscholastic sports.  A “foundation of academic strength” aligns with data tells us student athletes achieve higher success than those not participating.  "Qualities of character” can be built and tested during athletics training and competition as students overcome personal or team adversity.  An important skill for our high school students is critical and creative thinking.  While this is often consider an academic strength to grow at Sparhawk, it is well tested as students athletes gain the personal skills required for time management and prioritization to balance academic and athletic endeavors.  This all builds a foundation to sustain Sparhawk students throughout their lives.

Fall 2018 athletics had personal and team success.  Richie Labritz greatly improved his cross country times and was able to participate in a Freshman/Sophomore meet where he attained his personal best (PB) of 19.32 seconds for the 5km race.  Maia Esty and the Amesbury girls soccer team have a very successful seaon with 11-3-4 season and are now deep into the playoffs with a game against St. Mary’s in Lynn 11/8 hoping to make it into the North Sectional Finals on Sunday.

In addition to high school Interscholastic athletics, some Sparhawk students participate in athletics in clubs.  We are looking forward to seeing Jackson Musial back on the slopes after a very successful season skiing last year as part of the Attitash Race Team he attended and metaled the 2018 U14 Can-Am’s.  Matthew Lichtenberg swims for Crimson Aquatics and Joseph Shannon with Oyster River, we look forward to cheering them on throughout the season!

If you have any questions or wish to learn more about the program please contact Sparhawk’s athletics director, Jennifer Esty, jesty@sparhawkschool.com