Pencil and notepad

Pembroke Academy

(a public high school in Pembroke, NH)

A New Way to Do School at Pembroke Academy: Innovation Academy

Dan Morris, Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

Pegi Frostholm, Social Studies Teacher

Megan, Pembroke Academy Student

“This is helping us grow into what we’ll be doing in the future.”

Megan, Pembroke Academy Student


Pembroke Academy is a public high school in Pembroke, NH, with about 750 students. Next year they will be launching a school within their school--Innovation Academy. Why change things? To match high school education with the needs of a generation going out into a twenty-first century world. Jobs of the future require a different set of skills than those of the workers who attended school 100 years ago. The country's school model has not changed to keep pace with our students' lives, and Innovation Academy is one step toward addressing this need. 

Dr. Dan Morris, Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment at the school, explained that Innovation Academy will not be a separate, isolated school--it will remain connected to the rest of the high school. The physical space for the academy is alongside classrooms in the school building, and students will participate in electives, clubs, and other activities that are part of the life of the school. What will be different? Five teachers and approximately 80 students will be a part of this new venture. The students' core academic classes will be with these five teachers. Students will have the opportunity to take charge of their own learning by choosing learning topics in inquiry-based classrooms.

The five Innovation Academy teachers have participated in extensive professional development about this type of instructional model, and have formed a collaborative learning community where they develop units, share ideas, and give each other feedback as they move through this process together. The teachers changed their classroom instruction to an inquiry-based model this year in advance of the academy's opening. Pegi Frostholm, a social studies teacher, and Megan, a Pembroke Academy student in Pegi's class, talked about what this type of transformative way to do school looks like in practice.

What does this look like in the reality of a school day?

If you walk into Ms. Frostholm's class, you will not see her lecturing in the front of the room. More likely you will see students working in groups on projects, with Ms. Frostholm checking in with individual or small groups of students. Instead of silence, there is a productive hum as students are engaged in their work. Students are not involved in the cycle of listening to lectures, reading the textbook, memorizing facts, and taking a test. Instead they are given a broad, overarching question, and they choose a topic and decide how they will pursue knowledge to answer the question. "What they're learning is life-appropriate, not just class-appropriate."


This has changed the way Ms. Frostholm teaches. "I used to have the entire first semester planned by August, everything was all set. I have had to give up that control. It was a little uncomfortable at first, for me and for them." However, now that students have learned how to approach their learning in a new way, they are thriving. "Their historical knowledge and quality of work is much higher than previous years at all levels of learning."

And homework? "There is none. Any homework is self-assigned." In other words, students decide if they need to do homework. This might happen if a student is trying to meet a class deadline, or wants to learn more about a topic they are interested in but have not had time to do so in class.

Examples of essential questions and overarching topics, with some examples of students' self-chosen projects, are listed below:

  • What is an American?

    • The Dating Game: A group of students chose six historical figures and presented information about each one to the class. Using the on-line game-based learning platform Kahoot, they created a game (in The Dating Game format) to decide, "Who is the real American?" (The class's answer was all of them). This led to a lively class discussion about what makes an American an American.

  • Should Americans be optimistic about the future?

  • How does social media impact our society?

    • One group of students created a children's book about how social media affects mental health. Other students created board games and videos.

  • Should we change how we elect our President?

    • One student created a mock election, complete with candidates and an electoral college. This well-researched project included authentic details and left her classmates with a strong understanding of how the election process in the United States works.

  • Climate Change Call to Action

    • Save your Money, Save the World: A student group researched and presented ways that making sustainable choices could also be cost effective.

  • Tracing the sources of plastic in the ocean back to New Hampshire

How has this impacted students?

The students have ownership of what they are learning and they have been filling the gaps in their own knowledge themselves. The class is inquiry-based but also competency-based. Three of the four history competencies involve research, communication, and critical thinking; only one is content. In this learning model students are involved in a constant process of inquiry to answer open-ended questions, using critical thinking and research skills to answer these questions through their self-chosen and self-designed projects. Students are required to be effective communicators when they share their learning with others.

Megan, a student in Ms. Frostholm's United States history class, explains what she has learned:

At first I was nervous about doing well. I'm a procrastinator. In this class I have really learned how to be self-directed. I have learned strategies for getting work done, like making lists, I make a lot of lists. I've transferred this to other classes, too, my research skills, and time management, and critical thinking. I’ve learned to ask a question, break it into its parts, gather information, and then put it all back together into something else. I also have improved my communication with teachers and other students.

Megan explains how last year in a different class she memorized all of the countries of the Middle East and could put them on a map. Now, she explained, she remembers maybe five. She says that what she is learning this year in Ms. Frostholm's class is different, "It’s stuck with me because it’s something that I want to learn versus being told what I have to learn.”

What about assessment?

Assessment is integrated into the learning being done in Ms. Frostholm's class, and is on-going throughout the projects. "The project is the learning." Students are given rubrics (a set of criteria to evaluate assignments) at the start of their projects so they know the expectations of the assignment. The final product is the summative assessment (an assessment that usually comes at the end of learning to see if students have met objectives), but "assessment is constantly being done along the way. It's like the whole thing is a summative" (and she tries to do three projects per term).


Ms. Frostholm has an individual or small group conference with every student at least once per week. She has found that she has a better handle on where students are in term of academic content as well as organizational skills than she has previously had in her classes. "I catch them sooner if they're having trouble getting something done, or they have any misunderstandings about content." This on-going process of formative assessment (assessment for learning, done as a part of the learning process to gauge where students are in terms of meeting learning goals so appropriate supports/scaffolds can be implemented when necessary) with timely feedback has helped her to target areas that individual students need, and has also helped her identify whole class needs. If she identifies a whole class need she can stop and do a mini-lesson to address a topic (A recent subject of a mini-lesson was dealing with bias in the media, and how to evaluate sources and account for bias.).

Finally, Ms. Frostholm says that she is able to teach and assess students' 21st century skills such as research, self-direction, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking in a way that she has not been able to do in a traditional classroom model. She is able to hold her students accountable for their work, and help them to take initiative and responsibility as they are designing and completing their projects.

Students end each day with a self-reflection, which they record on a Google Form. They rate themselves on a ten-point scale, and provide written answers to questions such as: What do I still need help on? What can I do better tomorrow? What went really well today? What questions do I have for Ms. Frostholm? The responses are recorded on a spreadsheet, and Ms. Frostholm has a daily record of how things went in her class, as well as data to use as she plans instruction for the coming days.

What challenges have come up in this model?

Students had been used to learning from a textbook, listening to a lecture, and taking tests, so shifting to a model where they had much more control over their learning was tricky at first. Students had trouble choosing their own topics to go with the overarching questions, and wanted topics to be assigned to them. Many students were used to the teacher supplying them with answers, and had to learn how to pursue the answers to their questions themselves. Ms. Frostholm has provided scaffolding to students in this area depending on student need. For example, one strategy is to have students list all they know about a topic, organize it into a mind map, and then use the map to find a related topic or issue to explore further. When students want her to supply the answers, she says she has gotten good at asking questions to advance their learning.

Another challenge has been students' independent work skills. Students are required to be very self-directed in this type of learning environment, and this comes easily to some students but not others. To address this Ms. Frostholm has helped students create plans for accomplishing different tasks within a project, and to develop time management strategies based on their needs; not all students require the same level of intervention.


Innovation Academy is set to launch in the 2020-2021 school year. Dr. Morris, Ms. Frostholm, and Megan are all optimistic about the new possibilities this will bring to their school.

To read more about the change process Pembroke Academy has gone through, visit