Archive for the ‘Expeditionary Learning’ Category

Student Engagement

This was a comment I posted in response to a blog post you can read here

I just finished my 3rd yr teaching 8th grade Language Arts and have found that finding the balance between engagement and relevance is tricky. The 8th grade team completed our first Expeditionary Learning Unit (See what that means here: and found that engagement was very high. It involved student choice and a fair amount of self-directed work by the students. They produced some of the best work I’ve seen so far from 8th graders (you can see the work here:

I always ask myself questions before beginning a project, why am I doing this: How does it meet my teaching goals? Can the students do what I’m asking them to do, have I done enough to make sure they have the skills required to complete the task? (I will often ask students this question outright when introducing a project – “Does this sound doable? Is what I’m asking you do a reasonable request?” Of course kids don’t always know what they don’t know but it’s a good place to start assessing what they need to know collaboratively.
And secondly (and I think the point of your post) do the students know why we are doing this and will they care? My goal this year was to make sure the students knew why I assigned the work I did, I think it made a difference.

The engagement that we saw in the Expedition was a result of the students personal connection to the work – one student remarked that she felt like the work she was doing was meaningful, and could make a difference. This is why so many students worked so hard.
Of course some kids did need a modified process, that will always be the case; so no, I don’t think it’s a cop-out to think that.

I think that reflecting on lessons and figuring out what went wrong (and what went right) by ourselves and with colleagues is the best thing we can do as teachers to improve our craft.


First day of 2010-11 school year

It is rapidly approaching. I see tweets and blog posts everywhere about teachers and students who have already begun the school year. This will be my third year as an 8th grade English teacher (I’m trying to shift the vocabulary at my middle school to call it English in 8th grade instead of Language Arts, even though LA is a more appropriate title -I haven’t told anyone about my plans yet. More on this as it develops) and I am PSYCHED!  As a third year teacher I feel pretty confident in the content and can really work on my delivery and integration of technology, especially collaborative technology.

The word in the district is that we’ll be set up with Google for Education this year – I’ve been hoping, mentioning this since I started, along with some of my colleagues. This means Google docs – can I go paperless this year? I think that I’ll certainly use less. The blog helped with this goal and Google apps will further it. It will also fit nicely in with my belief that learning is collaborative – real-time collaboration is so effective. The class wiki is good (I use Wetpaint) but real-time collaboration can be tricky when people start saving and exiting the editing tools.

The other exciting thing that is happening in the 8th grade is Expeditionary Learning. You can read this previous entry about how this new model unfolded. We have done the bulk of the planning for a Spring expedition that is modeled after one we saw at King Middle School called Truth and Consequence. The team is on board, the administration is on board, and I’m certain that the students will be on board. I will be blogging about the process once we start in February.

There is also construction going on at the school. We recently changed from a 6-8 school to a 4-8 school and construction should be finished by February break (hey that’s when we’re kicking off our expedition, good unplanned timing!). The hallway to the new addition is going between 8th grade social studies room and 6th grade math room. These two rooms were gutted over the summer. A permanent wall was erected between my room and the SS room where before there was a movable wall. Most of my room is covered in dust and everything is smooshed against the opposite wall. This does have a plus side though, I can put things against this wall now. I think I will change the set up of my room and put the SmartBoard against this new room and make a horseshoe seating arrangement (I didn’t have the space for that before and had seating pods).

I’d love to hear about what you are going to do this year. Trying something new? Changing how you teach a lesson? Let me know!

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A new model

I convinced my 8th grade colleagues, and the administration, that King Middle School‘s model of Expeditionary Learning (EL) is worth looking into and emulating. We visited the school yesterday and everyone is really fired up about it. I think that we’ll do our first expedition next year!

I am familiar with King because I interned there for 13 weeks while completing the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine. (While at King, I taught the Laurie Halse Anderson‘s novel, Speak. You can learn more about that work here.)

If you aren’t familiar with Expeditionary Learning, it follows Outward Bound principles. An Expedition can be many things but at its center is careful planning, an authentic task, an authentic product, and an authentic audience. Notice the focus on authenticity; this drives both student and teacher to excellence. When you know that the public is going to see your work you are more likely to do what needs to be done and a bit more to make sure it is quality.  King’s website has examples of past and current Expeditions and products.

The culture of the school is amazing. We had two 8th grade students give us a tour of the school. Everybody, staff and students, was polite and helpful and excited for us to be there. Teachers waved us into their classrooms and were happy to talk to us. Even more impressive was that while there were 5 new adults in the room who were taking the teacher’s attention away, the students continued working quietly and without issue. We stopped a couple different students in the halls to ask questions and they were thoughtful, well spoken, and happy to help.

Everyone knows that integrating academic disciplines leads to higher student involvement, buy-in, and achievement. Everyone wants each student to be challenged appropriately to do their best, to learn and improve. Expeditionary learning combines all the things that we know about what is best for students and fits them all together. Instead of individual pieces, we have a cohesive whole. Differentiation within an Expedition becomes much easier. I think that it lessens the stigma that still surrounds ‘difference’, especially at the middle school. There is a great deal of structured independence embedded within this model, people work at different paces and perhaps in a different order. This means that it is no longer obvious that one student is doing something different than the rest of the kids. Traditional schools have kids move from class to class, subject to subject with no connections between. But think about it, if each class is working on a piece of a larger puzzle school starts to make more sense, the disconnect between classes is healed and, paired with the authenticity of the learning, students begin to discover the joys of learning and exploration and want to share what they know with others. It makes our job as a teacher more enjoyable and easier – the principal of King, Mike McCarthy, said during our meeting “Engagement trumps discipline.”  This is absolutely true, if kids are interested then they are not going to be a behavior problem.

Needless to say, I am very excited about this. I hope that the Administration continues to be fired up about it, that the school board will go see King’s “Celebration of Learning” and that Kittery can follow the shining example of King Middle.

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High Road or Middle Road

At the beginning of the ETEP program, I was certain of my desire to teach at the High School level. During the first semester, we spent a week visiting different schools, after which I said that if I were to teach Middle School it would have to be at KMS or another Expeditionary School. Now that I’m in, and slowly becoming a part of, the school, I am not so sure what level I prefer. It is early in this placement and I’ve not yet seen too many classes. I will begin teaching in the coming weeks and that should provide the necessary experience to determine which I like better.

My thoughts right now about the different levels are:
In High School we can really dive into a text and get our hands dirty – words and language all over them. The conversations are good and the kids have the cognitive ability to make inferences and critically examine and interpret a text.

The Middle School kids, on the other hand, enjoy reading!. Big tip of the scales there. The kids haven’t been stripped of or had their curiosity and enthusiasm for school squashed. It will be interesting to see what kinds of discussions we have surrounding the book Speak. I’ll be teaching literary terms as we read in addition to the heavy topics of Rape, Friendship, High School social structures, and anything else that comes up for the students.

With that said I think I’ll continue my re-reading of the book and making notes for myself. I’ll soon have to start creating lesson plans, ugh. I dislike planning in that way. I much rather have an organic classroom experience, though I see the benefits of having a plan. I’ve just had too many of my plans get thrown out because of how the class was going or how (un)prepared the students were.

Honor the Role

Homework Club/Detention. Students can voluntarily come for help, each teacher has a day that they stay after school specifically for this, I suppose these kids are part of the HW club. Other kids are made to stay after school when they do not have their homework done so that they can complete it, these kids are in detention. I think that it is a weird dichotomy to have. My mentor says that some kids use the time as a quiet time to get work done. Whether kids are in detention or members of the elite HWC the result is the same, kids are getting work done. This was in evidence when, during a house meeting, High Honors ( all grades above 93), Honors (above 85), and effort/conduct (a 1 in every class, one teacher prefaced the distribution of these by saying that it was a great achievement and in some ways more impressive than the ‘honors’) certificates. A large percentage of kids received at least one of these certificates to the applause of their York house-mates.

During the house meeting (just the teachers) Progress reports came up. It was mentioned that many of the students who were on the honor roll were not at the moment. Particular kids were discussed. At this point the Special Education teacher interjected a reminder of a students learning disability and what that meant for the work load of that student, particularly work involving reading. My mentor and the SE teacher discussed possible accommodations, including my mentor volunteering to read aloud to the student after school, to help keep the student up to date.

It is really amazing to see the comradery of the teachers. They support each other in many ways and all seem very invested in the kids, their colleagues , the school, and what the school stands for.

Building a Sense of Community

Today is the third Tuesday of the month, that means Community Service at KMS. The entire house participates. In groups of seven or so, along with a teacher, they were bussed to PROP, Preble Street Resource Center, Ronald McDonald House, Nathan Clifford School, Reiche School, to help out in whatever way they were needed. I think that it is fantastic that the school fosters this sort of community service.
The group I was with went to Preble street and helped organize the clothing ‘store’. They have a room that is filled with unsorted donations and another that is set up like a big walk-in closet with donations that have been sorted. We helped to straighten up and organize the closet portion, this is where clients come to pick out clothes: shirts, pants, coats, hats, gloves, shoes, etc. The kids did a great job, one in particular was really motivated and worked at motivating his classmates too. He and two others tackled the mountain of shoes, matching them up and organized them on the shelves. He stepped up and made sure it was being done right and called out those who were not doing a good job. I was very impressed by this seventh graders involvement in what we were doing.

Lunch room and beyond

During lunch duty on Friday I noticed that the vast majority of tables were grouped by gender. A couple tables had boys on one half and girls on the other but they were not interacting. One table however had two boys and 8-9 girls. There was a boy at each end and the entire table was talking to each other. It was this table that made me notice the gender split. I was not surprised at the majority of students sitting with kids of the same gender, it was this table with it’s two boys that caught my attention.
Back in the classroom: Today was catch up day again. But let me tell you the thrill I had when kids who were finished asked “Can I read now?” and towards the end of class a students suggested “Lets read now!” seriously- goosebumps. What a different attitude about reading than what I experienced at the High School level. I wonder, is it the age group? the environment? these particular kids? Will they lose this enthusiasm for reading? I hope not! This makes me even more excited to begin Speak with them. It also puts pressure on me to make sure that what we do with the novel is exciting, I don’t want to be the one responsible for squelching their love of reading. I have to make sure that my own excitement about reading and this novel comes through during class.

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