On a recent morning at Germantown Friends School, teacher Alex Levin called on ninth grader Cole Winicov to demonstrate what he’d learned in class over the last eight days.
Instead of walking to the blackboard, Cole whipped out a deck of cards.
“Pick a card,” he said, then showed off a midair bridge as he summoned an observer to play along with his magic trick. He shuffled some more, slapped a card on the floor — an eight of clubs — alas, not the right one. Ah, but the trick wasn’t over. Cole left the card, then after some one‐handed cuts and other sleight of hand, he directed his audience back to the floor. The card was turned over and — tada! — it’s the correct card, an eight of diamonds.
“I love this so much,” said Levin of his star pupil in a “Games and Magic” class, where the kids learned card and dice tricks from a professional magician and labored to master games such as Jotto and Scattergories.
Across the way in a Quaker meetinghouse warmed by two piping-hot ovens, French teacher Amy Celantano and her 11 students are on their fifth and favorite course of the day. Not an academic course, but dessert, a final blast of chocolate cake, strawberry pie, mousse, and meringues that says la fin to an elaborate French feast.
“I love it,” said senior Sanaa DeBose, who was slicing into Julia Child’s Reine de Saba, a chocolate and almond cake she helped make, as her fellow diners salivated. “After our tests [in December], you’re like J-Term is around the corner, you’re going to make it.”
If it’s a “Bon Appétit” class, this must be January — the month when 400 upper schoolers at the Philadelphia private academy cast aside the fundamentals of English or math for the fun of their brief January term, or “J‐Term.” Kids enjoy short bursts of learning around 79 unconventional topics such as literature about dogs, canoeing, abstract painting, mindfulness, and Alexander Hamilton the man and the musical.
“This is an academically high‐achieving school where students do have a lot of expectations — what the J‐Term does is provide a chance for us to put those pressures aside and engage in experiential learning,” said Matthew Young, director of the Germantown Friends upper school, which has been offering its three‐week January term for five years.
The idea for a January stretch of short, intensive, offbeat classes that break up the academic year originated on college campuses, where they remain popular. But in the Philadelphia region, a number of private secondary schools — with more freedom to experiment with the calendar and curriculum than their public counterparts — have enthusiastically adopted the idea.
Proponents say the one‐ to two‐week mini‐classes give students a chance to try more hands‐on learning or enjoy out‐of‐classroom experiences, presented by teachers who share their passion for a special subject outside the normal bounds of academia. For some schools, offering the classes after the holiday recess is also a creative way to jump‐start the second half of a long academic year.
Some schools, like Germantown Friends, offer the courses for credit. With a three-week break, they say, teachers manage to fit in the second semester curricula with just a slight extension of the school year.
Patrick Sillup, assistant head of academics at Malvern Prep, called the January program “a breath of fresh air, midyear — the little jolt you need” to get energized for school again after the long December break.
But he noted the Malvern Prep program — with classes ranging from knitting to building a digital brand — also was shortened in its second year to one week after feedback from teachers, parents, and students who thought the initial two weeks was too long.
At Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, head of school T.J. Locke said the January term was a popular program for five years but this year the short classes were moved to the end of the academic year in May — in part because of other changes in the school’s calendar and because “we want to try some different things with warmer weather.”
In addition to classes such as building guitars or an architecture session, Episcopal offers students a chance to travel abroad on a service trip — this year to the Galapagos Islands, Haiti, or South Africa. “It’s really allowed our teachers to bring talents we don’t always know about and see,” added Locke, who said the classes are highly popular and “foster love of learning for learning’s sake.”
Last year, Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Gloucester County launched Mini‐Mesters, a week in June after finals when students can try out something new, like culinary arts, digital photography, or watercolors.
“The idea is to try out something they’ve never done before,” said Mary Jane Kinkade, director of marketing and admissions at the 170‐student high school. “We encourage them to step out of their comfort zone."
Which a group did last year, big time, when members hiked the Grand Canyon. They came back exhausted “but on top of the world," Kinkade said.
At Germantown Friends, theater teacher April Tvarok said developing the January class on mural arts that she offers with colleague Ada Cheung was challenging but also a fun way to shift gears midyear and “a great opportunity to meet kids on the campus” who don’t study theater.
Tvarok’s students visited various murals around Philadelphia to get ideas for the 6‐by‐6-foot mural that they then designed to hang in front of the school auditorium. Guided by a computer rendering of their concept — an homage to the artist Keith Haring with colorful silhouettes around two central figures offering a traditional Quaker handshake in front of an open door — students were painting the actual mural onto 36 individual squares.
“Before going to break we have a lot of homework,” said 16‐year‐old Faruq Adger, a Germantown Friends art teacher’s son who said the mural class allows him to pursue his own passion for the subject. “This is a good outlet to pursue something we love and slow down.”
Faruq was also taking classes on botanical drawing, food blogging, and the “Supple Leopard” fitness technique. Classes can last for eight or 16 days and run for a quarter, half or full day, allowing for a mix of serious and more arcane topics.
In another classroom, seniors Noah Weinstein, 17, and Sarah Levin, 18, are using the January class on aquaponics to work on getting their 8‐by‐4-foot growing bed and two 400‐gallon tanks in shape to soon welcome 30 tilapia for the club to raise, along with vegetables, during the spring semester.
“The school gives us lots of freedom,” Levin said. “The worst thing that can happen is we cause a flood. And it’s not that bad.”
While the aquaponics enthusiasts wait for their far‐off harvest, the “Bon Appétit” class was feasting on the bounty that they’d helped prepare — carrot salad, bacon and vegetable quiches, fancy cheeses, and of course the pièce de résistance, the desserts.