Transforming a School’s Emphasis on Immersive + Engaging Learning to a Virtual Setting

Creating a middle school virtual intersession week that encourages students to recharge and reaffirm their excitement about learning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Challenge: Reimagine Millennium School’s long-standing tradition of an intersession week that expands students’ exposure to the world into a creative and engaging virtual experience.

The Outcome: A week of choice-based, hands-on learning that sparked joy and curiosity around new subjects, meaningful discussion and connection — virtually. 

In 2020, Roberto d’Erizans became the new head of Millennium School, in the heart of San Francisco. He began the year in the middle of a pandemic and amidst raging wildfires. The combination of COVID and the fires meant students could not participate in the school’s popular intersession. Instead, the week had to become virtual. d’Erizans reached out to EXPLO for help re-envisioning this beloved program.

At EXPLO, one of our mottos is, “A boring class is an emergency.” Besides our oft-stated desire to create experiences that allow for students to associate learning with joy, we also emphasize student engagement as the primary indication that we have created something successful. We saw an important opportunity to help an EXPLO Elevate member school and their students in a time of need.

The planning

Roberto and his fellow administrator Kate Moriarty met with the EXPLO team to discuss possibilities. Would it be best to have five different experiences – one workshop per day for five days? Or perhaps it would be better to explore a single subject in greater depth – a single five-day class? Would it be better to design the workshop as materials-free as possible, or to make sure each student had the same supplies, and plenty of them? Were the classes to be predominately hands-on, or could discussion make up a significant amount of the time we had together? 

EXPLO ran through the options we could use for the week. Roberto and Kate wanted it to feel more like a break from their typically rigorous schedule and workload. As such, they were inclined towards the ‘lighter’ model we suggested. On Monday and Tuesday, students would take a single course that would stretch over the two days, and then take another course over Thursday and Friday. Each day, the class would last for two and a half hours, with a good break in the middle. To change things up in the middle of the week, we offered a mix of recreational activities and a unique class called “Enigmas.” Enigmas is a discussion-based class that deals with “wicked problems” – complex ethical situations approached through stories and parables that allow students to see all sides of an issue, and suspend judgement long enough to allow for empathy, listening and eventually, consensus.  

“One of my favorite parts was when we disagreed, and then I changed my perspective or opinion.”

– Millennium School student, on their experience in the Enigmas session

Once we established which model was most appropriate for this group, we identified potential course topics that would be good candidates to be developed into the 2-day Millennium course model. We asked Millennium to choose the six that would be most compelling to their students. They chose:

  • Tiny Home Architecture
  • Theater Special Effects
  • Emergency Medicine
  • International Relations
  • Cryptography
  • Drawing + Portraiture

EXPLO’s challenge was to develop classes that would be substantial enough to justify kids spending a week with us, and also entertaining enough that they would compel unfamiliar students to engage with us. In many cases, this balance meant tossing out some of our favorite longer project ideas to fit into the shorter duration of class time. In essence, we were trying to give Millennium students the “greatest hits” – trimming the content but still providing enough substance and depth to allow the students to see why this course of study matters.

When one proposes a “hands-on” curriculum, one has to think about the question of “hands-on what?” Since all of the courses were project-based, materials were another facet of the program we needed to consider. Ultimately, EXPLO and Millennium agreed that Millennium would purchase and distribute most of the materials based on lists and links provided by EXPLO. Some unique items, such as the Cryptography cipher wheels or the treehouse model, were produced by us in our Norwood, Massachusetts headquarters and shipped to Millennium, to be distributed by their team. In planning, we needed to balance what would make the course compelling, while being mindful of the budget and the complexity of the distribution on Millennium’s end.

My advisees were RAVING about the guides and courses on day 1. Many of them called it the best intersession they’ve had so far!

– Kate Moriarty, Director of Student Programs, Millennium School

Challenges heading into the week

Student engagement is a primary goal in our work at EXPLO and it is a valued part of how Millennium thinks about teaching and learning at the middle school level. So one of our biggest challenges heading into this intersession week was figuring out how we could take some of our tangible, project-based curriculum and make it come alive through a computer screen.

How would we fight the passivity that often accompanies learning through a screen? How would we make meaningful connections with students? How would we join our siloed Zoom boxes into an organic making and learning environment — one that mirrors a messy, true, human classroom? One where you can blurt out an exciting discovery you just made, have a one-on-one brainstorming session with a student, or build off of what someone shared in a discussion? Our goal was to creatively eliminate the many barriers that could get in the way of this collaborative approach. On top of that, we were trying to spark connections with students and with new subjects in just a short amount of time (classes met for two days, for two and a half hours at a time).

Pleasant surprises

After working with Millennium School, the experience affirmed for both EXPLO and the school that while teaching online presents myriad new challenges, it is still possible to connect in meaningful ways with students over a screen and it is still possible to see them light up about learning as they create, make, or discuss something new. Many students left these classes with new projects, ideas, or skills that they were truly excited to keep trying. Roberto and Kate generously shared with us that students commented that this was one of the best intersession weeks they had ever had.

How materials played a role

While not all of the classes had materials that were delivered to students, many did. We believe manipulatives add a layer of excitement and tangibility to the work. How can this single sheet of chipboard be cut, folded, and glued in such a way that it transforms into a model piece of tiny home furniture? How can this make-up palette be used in such a way that I age 50 years in a moment? These were some of the transformations that happened on screen, and all students had access to them because they had the same materials with which to create and express.

Thank you for an extremely enriching, fun, and engaging experience for our community. Both the Millennium students and guides were so impressed with the high level of programming. Many students said it was the best intersession that they ever had at Millennium. So amazing.

– Roberto d’Erizans, Head of School, Millennium School


As many educators have experienced over the last nine months, teaching online has its challenges. It is hard to see what students are working on, and to have side conversations to check for understanding, problem solve together, or just to build deeper relationships. There is more nudging that is needed to share work or questions. Modeling particular techniques or skills can be hard to do effectively over a screen. And there is definitely more scaffolding, encouragement, and strategy needed to facilitate conversation.

But succeeding in this structure is not impossible. It requires creativity, a willingness to try new things, and lesson plans that use students’ natural curiosity and drive to be at the center of their learning. We believe that the design of the experience is more important than the medium with which it is explored. Despite the challenges of the pandemic and wildfires, the Millennium School students participated in a virtual intersession week full of engaging, hands-on learning that sparked joy and curiosity around new subjects, meaningful dialogue, and connection.