Using DC as the Ultimate Classroom

Expeditionary Learning puts the fun back into school

Two Rivers PCS students visit the U.S. Capitol Building in May 2014 to meet with House representatives. Photo: Two Rivers PCS

Falling rain splashes against one black and one pink umbrella. Five students in grades 9 to 12 stand in front of the black slab of granite stone, studying the nearly 60,000 etched names of Americans lost in the Vietnam War. On this overcast day in May, the memorial acts as the classroom for the students Blyth-Templeton Academy (921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE).

The students in the Writers Craft class had just finished reading Tim O’Brien’s book “The Things They Carried,” and decided they wanted visual context for the war before writing their own reflection poems. So they took a trip to the memorial to see the names.

“It was emotionally and thoughtfully grounding,” one Blyth-Templeton student said.

Another added: “It’s one thing to write about something and it’s another thing to go see what that writer might have been thinking about. If we can get a visual representation of that, that’s really what we want.”

Experiential and expeditionary learning styles — like the model Blyth-Templeton uses — flourish in DC, said Blyth-Templeton Head of School Lee Palmer. These models are popular with parents who are concerned that test-focused curriculums based on rote-learning, and not teaching children how to think for themselves.

From visiting museums like the National Gallery of Art and the Holocaust museum; to historic sites like the Frederick Douglass homestead; to taking a trip to the Anacostia River Watershed; or building an urban garden, students capitalize on learning from the environment in which they live.

“We know from doing brain research that it’s very important for the students to be exposed to different environments, not just sitting at a desk in a classroom,” Palmer said. Blyth, which opened in September 2015 in the Hill Center, has around 100 high-school students in small classes with a focus on individual learning.

The expeditionary learning education (EL Education) model relies on 10 principles: primacy of self-discovery, having wonderful ideas, responsibility for learning, empathy and caring, success and failure, collaboration and competition, diversity and inclusion, the natural world, solitude and reflection, and service and compassion. The focus on in-depth, applicable learning has proven successful in improving students’ retention in subjects like reading and math.

“Compared with national norms for middle-school learning growth, our results suggest that EL students experience impacts that are large enough to accumulate about an extra seven months of learning growth in reading and 10 months of extra learning growth in math after three years,” according to a 2013 report from Mathematica Policy Research on EL middle schools.

The History of DC: Learning from More Than 200 Years of Change

In addition to taking advantage of the museums and the presence of the federal government, students also explore the neighborhoods of DC. During a 9-12 week unit of instruction,  third graders at Two Rivers Public Charter School (1227 Fourth St. NE)study the history of their own city. Teachers take the students on expeditions to the national monuments, the Capitol building and the Supreme Court. Then they venture to local sites like the Big Chair in historic Anacostia, the fish market by the Southwest wharf and the stores along H Street NE.

The students break up into four research groups and focus on one of the District’s  four quadrants, said Chelsie Jones, a Twin Rivers instructional guide for about five years. They become specialists on the areas’ history and share with their fellow classmates at the end of the unit. 

“They take on expert roles — historians, archeologists, ecologists, anthropologists,” Jones said. “We’d come to places and be that group of kids that’s note taking and stopping in the museum and getting the quote from the guide before we leave.”

This focus gives the third graders a chance to dive deep into the history of a particular neighborhood instead of skating over the broad history of an entire city, state or country, she said. They study the relationship between the federal and local governments, explore the changing commerce along H Street and take in the development along the Southwest wharf.

“Parents are initially surprised by how much their students are talking about school and how much they want to learn,” Jones said. “I truly think parents are happy with the investment their children are making and the joy in learning that they feel.” When learning is an interactive adventure, students thrive.

Learning from the Environment

Two Rivers fourth graders dive into an ecology unit in the spring months that takes the students on a field excursion to the Anacostia Watershed. They set out to answer several questions, notebooks in tow: What’s the history of the watershed? How can the community engage to maintain the health of the river? How does an ecosystem work?

The students go on “field studies” through neighborhoods near the river to study the types of pervious road surfaces, planted trees, housing developments and green spaces that affect the runoff to the river, Jones said.

“We really task them with investigating and learning through visiting,” she said. “They’re so invested. It’s an extension of the classroom.”

At Brent Elementary School (301 North Carolina Ave. SE), students venture outside to learn about urban farming at the K Street Farm on Walker-Jones Educational Campus (111 K Street NW). The .75-acre site gives the children a first-hand look at bee keeping, livestock care and gardening, said Brent early childhood teacher Amy Harding-Wright.

“We spent a few hours finding fruits and vegetables, identifying plants,” she said. “We even hatched chicken eggs in the classroom.”

The experience-based learning helps her preschoolers — ages three and four — explore on their own. They drive their own learning on these visits, Harding-Wright said. The classes also take trips to local famer’s markets, the National Arboretum and of course, the monuments.

In DC, public transportation and the close proximity of these sites make it easy to venture beyond the classroom, she added.

Learning from Neighbors

Once a week, second grade students at Capitol Hill Day School (210 South Carolina Ave. SE) help prepare meals for the homeless at Progress for Christ Baptist Church (501 E St. SE). They learn about the hunger facing others in the community, especially children their own age, said Lisa Sommers, Capitol Hill Day School director of field education.

She remembers one student asking what happens when school finishes for the year and students no longer have access to school-provided meals.

“One child asked if [the church] has a pantry with non-perishables,” Sommers said. “So, they organized an off-school food drive for this summer pantry.”

The Day School teaches pre-kindergarten through eighth graders. The students went on nearly 400 field excursions in the 2015-2016 school year — to study business at We the Pizza and Eastern Market; the government at the Capitol Building; and religion at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation (212 East Capitol St. NE). The school’s curriculum relies on three main categories: academic, social and philosophical benefits of learning. Academically, the teachers want to make their units applicable to the real world. Socially, they want the students to interact with people and communities outside the classroom. And philosophically, they teach students that learning can happen anywhere and at any time during their lives.

“I get feedback from parents all the time when they’re on family vacations that the kids are very engaged and comfortable asking questions of a guide,” Sommers said. “I think this kind of a program taps into the natural curiosity that kids have.”

Blyth-Templeton students also give back through community service, said Palmer. They do attend three periods a day for 45-day quarters each year, but most Wednesdays the students participate in a local project. In March, they helped build planting boxes for urban gardening at the Potomac Gardens (1225 G St. SE). And when an elderly resident needs help with yard work, they step up.

“We are intentionally committed to staying in the neighborhood,” Palmer said.

Blyth-Templeton has a partnership with the William Penn House (515 East Capitol St. SE), which is how they find projects around the Hill, Palmer said. Whether it’s for academic or social learning, her students draw upon their own curiosities to direct their curriculum.

“We say that what we want for our students is for them to be prepared for any door they want to walk through — astronaut, filmmaker, no matter what,” Palmer said.

Students at Blyth-Templeton spend their Wednesday community service time building garden boxes at Potomac Gardens. Photo: Blyth-Templeton Academy
Blyth-Templeton students read the names on the Vietnam War Memorial wall as a part of their study of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Photo: Blyth-Templeton Academy
The Early Childhood learning program on a field excursion to study seasonal changes on Roosevelt Island. Photo: Capitol Hill Day School
Sixth graders at Two Rivers interviewed local farmers from Rocklands Farm in Montgomery County, Md., to learn the differences of local sustainable and industrial food systems. Photo: Two Rivers PCS
Two Rivers third graders traveled back in time and followed the H Street NE Heritage Trail to learn more about the early growth of DC. Photo: Two Rivers PCS