by Julia Steiny
“Expeditionary learning” sounds deliciously exotic, like maybe what Marco Polo was doing or Dr. Livingston on a scientific exploration of the African jungle. Fact-gathering treks through terrain that requires shots and exotic transportation.
Heaven knows some students have a daily expedition riding Greene’s bio-diesel buses from as far away as Westerly, to the south, or super-urban Central Falls, north of Providence. They arrive at the Greene campus out in Rhode Island’s boonies after as much as an hour-and-a-half each way, but boast an attendance rate above state average. A donor gave the school the buses to support the Board’s insistence on creating a diverse school available to urban students. (The current 9th grade class has 41 percent students eligible for subsidized lunch, up from the 12th grade’s 9 percent. Word has gotten out.)
But Greene’s expeditions are actually classroom voyages through topic areas, although working out in the field, outside or off-campus, is integral to the EL experience. These academic explorations are semester-long, in-depth examinations of an issue that integrate at least two core academic subjects. Greene has an environmental science focus, so one of those two is usually science. (Most EL schools are either science or arts-focused.)
For example, the 9th graders begin their high-school careers studying food in all its complexity. Greene’s Vice Principal, Melissa Hall, says that the students start by reading the The Omnivore’s Dilemma. “They write food journals (recording precisely what they eat); they study mass-produced food products versus local. What does organic really mean? They look at food over the course of time and food seasonality.” Together, kids and teachers draw a 100-mile radius from the school site itself to figure out what’s within that reach. What does it cost to bring local produce to table versus the price of transporting strawberries from Mexico? And what are the trade-offs of energy-intensive indoor farming in wintery New England, where nothing grows outdoors in the winter?
Greene’s EL consultants work with the faculty to backwards-design such projects, so while kids pursue their hot topic, they’re also learning the straight-up academic requirements, specifically of the Common Core. With students lured into questioning the food they generally take for granted, teachers make sure they test well, at least comfortably above state average.
A central idea of this approach is students “owning” their own learning. Every classroom has a copy of the 10 EL Design Principles. Number one, “The Primacy of Self-discovery,” explains that “People discover their abilities, values, passions and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected.” If kids aren’t invested in their own learning, it’s an uphill battle for the teachers. Head of School, Deanna Duncan, puts it this way: “Good teaching happens when the teachers themselves are engaged in learning.” Turning the pages of a textbook is a tedious way to teach and learn.
Demona, an 11th grader from Providence, describes “expeditionary” this way: “They take a large topic and put it in English, science, history and get it to all come together. (The food project) makes you really aware of what you’re putting into your body. I’ve changed my diet.” She adds, “It’s a really rigorous course. I did not feel prepared for the level of rigor here.”
So these expeditions are the ultimate in hands-on learning. The originators of the approach wanted to infuse public education with the best practices of Outward Bound. While expensive, OB has had great success with getting disengaged kids out into the wilderness, where skills and courage they didn’t even know they had rise to the surface. Prospective Greene students too must be willing to go camping, which has been a deal-breaker for some.
The academic expeditions always result in some sort of product that demonstrates — or not — that students actually understand the topic at hand. The food project culminates in an 8-course dinner that the 9th-graders prepare, only with local food, to the extent possible. Kids work with local suppliers, farmers and chefs, bringing the real world to their learning. Preparing the dinner has become one of the week-long courses called “intensives,” learning experiences that happen both in the spring and fall. Intensives give the school a change to support the strong achievers’ pursuit of a big project or personal passion, or to give struggling students the academic help they need to keep up in academically-rigorous classes. The dinner intensive is a plum project that motivates students to get their academic act together.
EL is growing quickly, with 32 schools in New England and many more elsewhere. Two-thirds of the EL schools are regular district schools; the rest are charters.
The Greene Board is thrilled with how EL is working out for their students. The reasons include EL’s approach to school culture and climate, which I’ll discuss next week.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.