Cross-Curriular Cohort program breaks tradition by encouraging interdisciplinary connections


Courtesy of Miguel Fernandez

The sophomore cohort listens to a presentation during the Nuclear Diplomacy simulation.

Aidan Jones and Cate Langhorn, Features Editor

The Madison Cross-Curricular Cohort program, currently available to students in grades 9 and 10, combines english, history and science curriculum to offer students a unique, project-based, real-world alternative to traditional high school courses. With inspiration from similar programs at other high schools, the program made its debut during the 2019-2020 school year with English teacher Emily Brown, history teacher Marissa Petty and biology teacher Monica Kimbrell. Now, Beth Blankenship and Nicholas Sylor teach the 10th grade Cross Curricular program, and Penelope Panzer and Ginny Keel teach the 9th grade program. Miguel Fernandez teaches history in both grade levels. 

Though the program is only currently open to 9th and 10th graders, many students have expressed an interest in an opportunity to take the program at the 11th grade level. In a survey of 70 out of 98 students in the Madison Cross-Curricular program, 52.1% said that if the program was opened up to 11th grade, they would take it. 

While being a part of the program gives students an overall 0.5 GPA bump at the end of the year without technically signing up for any honors class, many students have said that the courses in the program are much more challenging than honors courses. Despite the challenge, many students prefer the program to more traditional courses, as it strays away from traditional testing and learning styles. 

“I like the way that [the cohort teachers] teach, because it prioritizes understanding over rote memorization,” Rebecca Wu (’25) said. “It makes it so that even if you get some things wrong, you still have a chance at a good score if you show that you really get the material.”

The grading system in the Cross-Curricular program is slightly different from the 4.0 scale used by the rest of the school. The Cross-Curricular teachers grade on whether a student has reached “mastery” or “proficiency” on essential cross curricular skills. These skills include research, writing, community and collaboration, connecting and reflecting, planning, analysis, intellectual risk-taking and creativity. 

The grading scale of mastery and proficiency, however, is not unique to the Cross Curricular program. The rest of Madison High School uses this grading system, but what separates the program from the ordinary grading system is the way in which this proficiency or mastery is presented. Students in both the 9th and 10th grade program will have a student led, one on one conference with a teacher on each different skill in the program where they need to provide evidence of skill mastery to the teacher using specific assignments and out of school projects

The program has been especially popular among students who tend to do better on project-based learning rather than traditional assessments. In fact, one of the program’s main goals is shifting away from tests.

“I enjoy that we don’t have [as] many tests as our summative assignments, instead we do projects which don’t put as much pressure on the student,” Leslie Payne (’24) said. “I also like the leniency and interdisciplinary aspects of the cohort, which improve our learning quality and make it a more enjoyable experience.”

While many enjoy the program and its unique experiences, academic benefits and more, some have discontinued or dislike the program for various reasons.

“There aren’t many bad things about the Cross Curricular Program, but the teachers put a lot of work onto you in a short amount of time due to the projects taking up a lot of class time,” Victoria Spafford (’24) said. ”I feel as though the teachers should try to spread the work for the projects out more.”

A common reason among those who discontinued the program was the difficult choice between enrolling in Cross-Curricular courses and taking AP classes. Students consider that AP classes may appear more prominently on college transcripts than cohort courses.

“AP World History is a whole different beast when placed alongside [Cross-Curricular World History and Geography 2 Honors Cross-Curricular],” Alexander Thomas Antipov (’25), a former Cross-Curricular student, said. “The reading [for AP] is insane. It is 20-30 pages of dense reading almost every week. The reading quizzes only look like they are written in 21st century English if you’ve taken notes on the reading. The tests are even more insane.” 

A common topic of confusion around the program is the way it could translate to college applications. Currently, it would be mostly up to the student to convey to the admissions officer in the essay that they participated in this program, but it will show on the record as an honors course.

“I think teachers are coming around to the idea that if you can de-emphasize grades that it’s better for student mental health,” Fernandez, a freshman and sophomore Cross-Curricular teacher, said. “So I think that’s sort of a good by-product of it, Madison High School in general is doing what they call ‘grading for equity. So all this stuff, the rolling gradebook, the four point scale, they are doing this because they think it’s a fairer way to grade for students. And I think we’re taking it a step further because we also think doing what we’re doing with the mastery and proficiency stuff is a more fair way to grade students.”

The program also approaches interactive learning in a whole new way, with hands-on simulations and experiences. For instance, in October, the sophomore cohort students participated in a nuclear diplomacy simulation where they were split into six groups, each representing different countries or organizations prominent in nuclear diplomacy. All of these groups were from a fictional scenario with fictional countries, but the simulation was based on a real event in history. The sophomore class spent the entire day negotiating between groups with representatives in order to solve the conflict between the “countries.”

“Being with the same people for multiple subjects allows you to see different perspectives on a wide range of issues and concepts, and we get to see first hand how every subject is interconnected and how that impacts us,” Wesley Kang (’25) said. “And I think that’s something unique you can only experience in the cohort.”

In addition, the sophomores had an espionage simulation where they split into their simulation groups and each had to hide an envelope somewhere in the school. Each team then wrote a hint or clue that would be given to another team to find the envelope. The “code” used in this case was the clue being something that only a Madison student or staff would know. When the team found the envelope, there was a decoding sheet from the Spy Museum that required students to decode a series of numbers and turn them into letters to form a sentence. 

After the espionage simulation, the students went to the auditorium to have a presentation from a CIA official on the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. “I was honored to be invited and tremendously impressed by your students and their active engagement and thoughtful questions. It’s a terrific program you and your fellow teachers are running.”

The freshman side of the Cross-Curricular program did a project where they needed to research three aspects of an artifact that represents them, why it is important to them, how it tells their story, how it connects to their past, etc. They then presented the artifact to the class. In their unit 2 project, the freshman will find a fun and interactive way, such as a skit, game, song, etc to present their projects. As all Cross-Curricular projects do, this personal artifact project helps students to make connections between multiple different subjects and incorporates the Cross-Curricular skills, such as research, analysis and connecting and reflecting. 

“Our goal with the program is to provide students an opportunity, an option of a learning experience that is more project-based, connected, and where student curation and creation of knowledge is valued more, or as equally, as the knowledge that we feel like we need to impart to students,” English teacher Blankenship said. “We wanted to create a program where students are truly valued as intellectual creators; we wanted to give students more opportunities and to share their learning with broader audiences beyond our classroom.”