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The Expeditionary Learning Charter Schools of DC

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It is always refreshing to hear first-hand information from trustworthy sources – especially with good news! Over the Winter break, a colleague who is the Principal of a thriving NYC Elementary school in a predominantly immigrant community (Mexican and Central/South American) planned a visit with several members of her staff to Washington D.C. There, in the aftermath of Michelle Rhee’s devastation of the Public Schools, they spent three days at a Charter School (Yes, you read that right!) which is part of the Expeditionary Learning Charter organization.

She came back to NYC brimming over with excitement at the work they had seen, and strategizing on how, within the limits placed by current DoE mandates, she could implement some of their engagement, joy and high standards.

According to our discussion, the biggest contrast lay in the open-ended, hands on nature of the learning. All of the children were committed to their projects, everyone had an investment in the tasks they created, and everyone participated, from the administrators to the youngest students. Compare that with classes following enforced, lock-step curriculum modules in which teachers have very little creative input, and in which far too often the students are neither at, above or below the level of materials being presented, but simply alienated.

The “Inquiry” method of learning was once a respected fixture of Elementary Schools. The advantages are that every year, the teacher is able to take the students s/he has and based on their specific interests and dynamics, guide them through various investigations, thereby giving them not just the bare mechanics of the 3 R’s, but a reason to use all of them in meaningful and transcendent ways. The concept of lifelong learners becomes real, and learning is not a drudgery to be escaped as soon as the doors open at the end of the arduous day! At the same time, competition and zero/sum metrics are replaced with collaboration, in which everyone learns from each other and everyone has value.

In order to describe what is taking place and how fundamentally it differs from the way education “reform”attempts to control our students’ work, here is the description from the Wikipedia website, and also a link to the Expeditionary Learning website. Pay special attention to the 10 Principles, and consider how they would impact your classroom or those of your children and fellow citizens.

http://elschools.org/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expeditionary_learning_schools:

‘Expeditionary Learning Schools are models of comprehensive school reform based on the educational ideas of German educator Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound. Expeditionary Learning Schools exist in more than 150 schools in 30 states and the District of Columbia. They are exemplified by project-based learning expeditions, where students engage in interdisciplinary, in-depth study of compelling topics, in groups and in their community, with assessment coming through cumulative products, public presentations, and portfolios. The model emphasizes high levels of student engagement, achievement, and character development.[1][2][3]

The following design principles serve as a moral and cultural foundation for each Expeditionary Learning School. They express the core values and educational philosophy of Expeditionary Learning.[4]

  1. The Primacy of Self-Discovery states that learning happens best with emotion, challenge and the requisite support. People discover their abilities, values, passions, and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected. The primary task of the teacher is to help students overcome their fears and discover they can do more than they thought they could.
  2. The Having of Wonderful Ideas places emphasis on fostering curiosity about the world by creating learning situations that provide something important to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.
  3. The Responsibility for Learning argues that learning is both a personal process of discovery and a social activity. Therefore, every aspect of an Expeditionary Learning school encourages both children and adults to become increasingly responsible for directing their own personal and collective learning.
  4. Empathy and Caring believes that learning is fostered best in communities where students' and teachers' ideas are respected and where there is mutual trust. Older students often mentor younger ones, and students feel physically and emotionally safe.
  5. Success and Failure states the fact that all students need to be successful if they are to build the confidence and capacity to take risks and meet increasingly difficult challenges. But it is also important for students to learn from their failures, to persevere when things are hard, and to learn to turn disabilities into opportunities.
  6. Collaboration and Competition positions Expeditionary Learning schools as integrating individual development and group development, so that the value of friendship, trust, and group action is clear. Students are encouraged to compete not against each other, but with their own personal best and with rigorous standards of excellence.
  7. Diversity and Inclusion believes that both diversity and inclusion increase the richness of ideas, creative power, problem-solving ability, and respect for others. Schools and learning groups are heterogeneous.
  8. The Natural World helps create a direct and respectful relationship with the natural world, which refreshes the human spirit and teaches the important ideas of recurring cycles and cause and effect. Students learn to become stewards of the earth and of future generations.
  9. Solitude and Reflection argues that students and teachers need time alone to explore their own thoughts, make their own connections, and create their own ideas. They also need time to exchange their reflections with other students and with adults.
  10. Service and Compassion places emphasis on strengthening students and teachers through acts of consequential service to others. One of an Expeditionary Learning school's primary functions is to prepare students with the attitudes and skills to learn from and be of service.[5]’

This is the way a particular Charter School ministers to the tragically under-funded and under-served Public School children of Washington D.C. There is much to be learned from the effort. There is no reason this kind of example cannot be expanded to regular public schools -the original purpose for Charter Schools – to try out new ideas and to bring the best of them into general use. Never, ever, to take completely untried and experimental ideas with zero input from educators and inflict them upon an entire country with no valid research of any kind!

The suggested articles below provide more detail into these schools, and the Public Charter School debate in general. Please explore further, and subscribe to my page to receive alerts for new articles.

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