During its annual Week Without Walls, CAC high school students leave the classroom, and oftentimes the country, to participate in experiential learning trips. Assistant Principal Jerry Duggan explained that “the mission of the school is to [develop]…a whole person. We want to develop students who will leave the school and make a difference in the world, and Week Without Walls…facilitate[s] that.”
The trips offered for Week Without Walls encompass a wide range of skills and experiences. During Week Without Walls 2016-17, students travelled to Tanzania and India to participate in community service trips and backpacked in Croatia. Others engaged with classroom topics in more experiential settings, traveling to London, England to learn about business and finance and Tuscany, Italy to work in an art studio. “There is no typical trip because each one is so unique,” Duggan explained. “But, they are structured in such a way that…students have an experience that is outside what they normally could [have] in the classroom and…outside their comfort zone.”
Not all of CAC’s Week Without Walls trips leave Egypt, and this year students stayed in Cairo to learn about food sustainability, photography, and veterinary medicine through partnerships with local organizations. One local trip in particular coordinated by high school mathematics teacher Brandon Zerr-Smith provided students with an opportunity to develop their filmmaking skills not by sending them to Hollywood to work with the experts but by bringing an expert to campus.
While teaching in Qingdao, China, Zerr-Smith met former CAC student (1987-1991) Ryan Blocher, who was producing films for international corporations operating in China. The two became friends and partnered on a variety of community theater projects over three years. This work “[planted] the seed for thinking about people [who] could... make this Week Without Walls experience better,” Zerr-Smith explained. He worked with the high school administration to bring Blocher back to CAC.
Ryan Blocher attended CAC from 1987-1991.
Many alumni have reconnected to the community by returning to the school to share their expertise and experiences with students. “I was a student here for four years,” Blocher recalled. “I remember wishing so much that I would have the opportunity to graduate at CAC… The Pyramids just seemed like the coolest place in the world to graduate… I’m incredibly thrilled and honored to have this opportunity to be here. It is kind of a dream.”
Though their filmmaking course took place on campus, Blocher and Zerr-Smith did not adhere to traditional classroom teaching methods. “I am not delivering lectures on screenwriting. I’m not giving lectures on cinematography, operating the camera,” Blocher explained. Instead, students developed their skills by shooting and editing films through a constructive trial and error process. “When I’m talking to the screenwriter of today’s project about something that happened in the story, the actors are listening in, the directors are paying attention. And, rather than focus on a…top-down model for teaching…, [the students] have a problem, and then we’re trying to solve that problem.”
The week was also enlightening for Zerr-Smith and Blocher as they collaborated to create a non-traditional educational experience. Zerr-Smith reflected, “I’ve learned that when you put something in front of [students] that they are passionate about and you give them agency and you let them make decisions about what they’re doing and what they’re learning, they will run with it. They have shown commitment, and they’ve shown teamwork outside of their friend groups.”
Having a CAC alumnus lead the course added an unexpected dimension of learning to this unique Week Without Walls experience. Zerr-Smith explained that students tend to “think a small range of life choices after high school are acceptable and appropriate…[but] the graduates from CAC have taken extremely different, eclectic paths [in life].” They have also “[developed] different definitions of what success is, and I like kids getting those stories.”