Experiential Education School Models

Last week I had the great pleasure of visiting four different schools modeling experiential education in action. I came away so inspired about what is possible and all the different ways this kind of learning serves students. I was in Washington, DC with my friend Madhu Sudan who is exploring ways to encourage experiential education in India, so we set out to connect with educators I know and look at a few schools.

unnamedWe started with Mysa School, a micro school in Bethesda, Maryland started by my friend Siri Fiske last fall. Eighth and ninth graders spend mornings on a menu of individualized lessons depending on their needs; some may be advancing algebra skills while others work with a writing tutor, take a martial arts class nearby, or explore scientific concepts with an NIH researcher. In the afternoons and for one full day a week, they engage in project-based learning using Washington DC and the surrounding area as their classroom. Combining individual skill-building with group learning and an emphasis on community makes for a lively and engaged student body. The school has done so well even in its first year that they are planning to add an elementary campus in Georgetown.

unnamedOur next stop was Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA where my friend Jeremy Goldstein runs the Washington program. Episcopal is a very traditional school with a sprawling campus and beautiful buildings, excellent teachers and engaged students. The program Jeremy runs gets students into DC every Wednesday afternoon to add an experiential component to classroom learning by engaging with political leaders, NGOs, museum educators, and service learning providers. They even managed to continue a tradition of taking the whole school to the Presidential inauguration this year, adding an alternative experience at an elder care facility watching the Kennedy inauguration and interviewing residents who were present at his. Faculty members have the opportunity to create connections with what they are currently teaching, and students are exposed to real world issues more challenging to encounter from their campus. Many find summer opportunities based on their experiences, and when it comes time to plan their senior spring month long “externship,” they are well informed and eager to commit to an area of interest.

Our third stop was a meeting with Noah Bopp who created and runs a semester program for high school juniors called the School for Ethics and Global Leadership. Noah is from Seattle and went to Lakeside School, my alma mater, so I had heard about the school for a long time and wanted to learn more about it. Most other semester schools are in remote locations and focus on wilderness experiences, but these 24 students each term spend time engaging with issues on all sides of the political spectrum, examining the concepts of ethics and leadership in depth, meeting with high level officials and wrestling with complex and fascinating topics. After being exposed to a number of people and issues, each student has the chance to work independently on one specific thing and create a policy brief which they actually present to a panel of experts. They end the term with both a broader and deeper understanding of how government works and their role as citizens.

unnamedFinally, we visited a public elementary school called School Within School. My friend Marla McLean is an art teacher and one of the originators of what started as a program in a school 23 years ago, and is now a full-fledged Pre-K to Grade 5 school in southeast DC. At the beginning, four classrooms began collaborating and used an Italian educational model called Reggio-Emilia which is teacher-run, relies heavily on art, reflection and documentation of student work, and has ties to the world beyond the classroom. The program was so successful they eventually moved into their own building, agreeing to add medically-fragile students and those on the autism spectrum to their ranks. The school is a lively learning center and you can feel the loving community the minute you walk in the door. There are two art studios, each staffed by an Atelierista who connects art to everything happening in and out of their classes and engages the students in deeply meaningful and enjoyable learning. I had the opportunity to observe one of their other programs more closely, as a volunteer in the kitchen classroom. Here a master chef runs Foodprints, essentially a farm to table experience each class gets to participate in on a weekly basis. The day we were there, second graders tested the soil in the school garden beds for nutrients, created pictures of seeds, tubers and bulbs to learn the difference, and, in small groups, made a delicious lunch of four vegetarian dishes which were eagerly consumed by the class (and volunteers!) at the end. The school partners with organic farmers for the produce they can’t grow themselves, and teaches environmental stewardship along with cooking and dining etiquette. The teachers, parents, and students work hard to find funding for what is not covered by the district; it was incredibly inspiring to see what is possible in a public school when values are aligned with action and everyone is committed to what is best for children.

I came away from the visit convinced more than ever that experiential education is the most transformative form of learning, as it engages the whole self, involves reflection, connects to the world outside the classroom, and is so much fun! It was great to see a variety of examples of it, led by committed educators making a difference, one students, one classroom, one school at a time.

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