For twenty-one years, beginning in 1975, Williston Northampton culture was partially defined by the Winter Session, later called Intersession, program. It was modeled on the January Term programs then popular in many colleges. The “statement of purpose” in the prospectus for the first year read,
“During most of the academic year, the Williston Northampton School is primarily concerned with the very important task of giving its students the best in college preparatory academics. This should and must be our primary task, but often this leaves little or no time for experimentation with new programs and different approaches to learning. Thus, during the school year 1974-75, Williston Northampton has lengthened its overall school year and set aside 25 days in January during which the whole school community will concentrate on programs which tend to be extra-curricular during the bulk of the school year.”
“The emphasis during the Winter Session is on learning by doing. The student will not just read about the Navajo Indians but he will actually go and live among them. He will not just speak French in class but will speak it with and among Frenchmen in Cannes. He will perform in a play; or sing in a chorus; or build a table; or learn to type; or serve senior citizens in the community; or work each day with mental patients; or observe criminal court proceedings; or … the list goes on and on. Student and teacher will be active and involved. The student will not be graded but will be expected to evaluate his own accomplishments at the end of the session, which evaluation together with a verbal evaluation of his work by the teacher will be placed in his permanent file.”
One observes, alas, the use of gender-specific pronouns to describe a program at a school then in its fourth year of full coeducation. But let us overlook that, for the moment; it is symptomatic of a cultural issue endemic to the school for more than a decade after the merger with Northampton School. This has been discussed elsewhere. (See the last part of “Northampton School for Girls – and After.”) Better we should consider the ambitious nature of this fledgling program which, remarkably, achieved most of its goals and established a high standard in that very first year.
Over the next few years the program would grow and evolve. The range of some of the offerings is hinted at in excerpts from the annual catalog, reproduced at the bottom of this article. Students were encouraged to try new things, new approaches to learning — and by the second decade, students were teaching some of the courses. Faculty frequently taught their avocations, rather than their academic specialties: some of the offerings over the years included fine cooking with Alan Shaler (English), carpentry and toymaking from Bob Bagley (Math), wood carving with Ann Vanderburg (Math), home renovation with Stephen Seybolt (English) and Bob Couch (Math and Photography), music and architectural appreciation from Elizabeth Esler (Librarian), “Developing a Comic Character” with Stan Samuelson (Math), investment from Robert Blanchette (French), figure skating with Harriet Tatro (Science).
Other faculty stayed closer to their specialties, but offered mini-courses that didn’t quite fit the regular elective curriculum, or which — Ellis Baker’s and Richard Gregory’s acting and directing workshops, for example — involved students new to those particular pursuits. The Williston Children’s Theater, which presented ambitious performances to local school children until well into the 21st century, began with a Winter Session puppetry workshop.
Opportunities for travel were a special feature; in most years, there were three or four overseas trips. Beyond the “usual” European destinations, travel courses took people to destinations considered, at the time, exotic: Egypt, China (in 1982, when Western tourists were only beginning to be welcomed back), Soviet Asia, the Galápagos. And there was no question that these trips were courses, not holidays. Students were expected to maintain detailed, reflective journals, which were to be turned in to the instructor/tour leader for evaluation before credit could be given.
There was also time set aside for more traditional essentials: offerings included SAT prep and, for those who needed it, remedial academics.
In 1980 the program was renamed “Intersession” and moved to the spring, for two weeks immediately following March break. It continued to thrive and grow. Perhaps growth was the problem. By the early ’90s, there was a sense among some faculty that perhaps Intersession had outgrown its relevance. Simply put, we weren’t in ‘seventies any more. Throughout the school year, there was a greater focus on the traditional academic program while, simultaneously, opportunities for student independent study had been integrated into the full curriculum. Furthermore, many faculty wondered if restoring two weeks of teaching days to their regular classes might not be a better use of class time, particularly as the end of the school year, with AP exams, the rush to graduation, and concomitant senioritis loomed.
And while for many, the spark was still there, other faculty found it increasingly challenging to shift gears every spring. After much discussion, in 1995 Head of School Dennis Grubbs announced that following Intersession 1996, the program would be suspended for a year for re-evaluation. Perhaps something similar might return, with different timing, or possibly a more creative use of Saturday classes throughout the year might be addressed.
For a variety of reasons, that re-evaluation never happened. While there were some personal disappointments, and unquestionably hurt feelings, people mostly moved forward. Denny Grubbs stepped down at the end of 1999, and reviving Intersession seemed not to be on his successor Brian Wright’s agenda at all. Arguably, much of the best of Intersession — independent study, creative approaches to curriculum, collaborative learning, and a strong sense of the world beyond Easthampton — remained, and continue at Williston Northampton today.
What are your intersession memories? Please share them in the comment spaces below, or write or email the archivist. And if you have documents — photographs, travel journals, you’d like to share with the archives, we’d love to have them. Also, we were not always able to identify all of the students in the photographs. Please help! Thank you.
Below are sample pages from Intersession catalogs from 1979 to 1995. Yes, in 1982 we actually produced an opera!