Tag Archive for experiential

Co-curricular Innovation Council

We have launched a “Co-curricular Innovation Council” so that co-curricular program leaders can more easily consult with each other, work together on common projects, and build stronger partnerships with classroom teachers. The committee includes directors of the global education, urban studies, outdoor education, teaching and learning, athletics, robotics, community service, Knight Scholars, and instructional technology programs. These program directors have historically directed their programs mostly by themselves or in partnership with one or two other people. This committee creates a systematic way for program leaders to request feedback from each other and launch projects together.

As co-curricular programs have evolved from mere “activities” to fully-fledged experiential learning environments, it has become more important to coordinate these programs and build stronger connections between co-curricular programs and classroom teaching. Students often refer to outdoor trips, robotics projects, or urban planning presentations as their most memorable learning experiences. Why should they experience dramatically different teaching styles between classrooms with and without four walls?

Organizing program directors together allows us to strengthen what we have in common: a focus on 21st century content domains (global citizenship, environmental stewardship, technology, etc.) and skills (communication, collaboration, creativity, etc.). Facilitating ways from program directors to work more closely with classroom teachers creates potential for more experiential learning opportunities within classroom instruction. Our classroom teachers have been creating terrific experiential learning opportunities for years. Now they get more potential partners and conceptual support for their project work.

Explaining Experiential Learning

It can take some effort to explain to parents and prospective families what the Catlin Gabel mission of learning through experience looks like in practice. This week’s Middle School newsletter focuses on special activities that replace three days of regular classes this week. While Discovery Days represent only a part of experiential learning at Catlin Gabel, departures from the regular class schedule draw special attention. Here are some excerpts from the most recent Middle School parent newsletter.


Next week brings our first experiential days to Middle School life this year. Here are snapshots of what each grade will be doing. Please make sure that your child has any necessarily medications/clothing/gear for these days.

6th Grade Discovery Days

Sixth grade students will be staying on campus both days of Discovery Days, 9/21 and 9/22, but their experiences will be rich, varied, and memorable. Please note that we will be doing an exciting activity involving the honeybees in our apple orchard on Thursday. We realize some are allergic to bees, and every precaution will be taken for safety.

On Wednesday, 9/21, our theme is group trust, friendship, and team building

During the day on morning sessions, students will break into smaller groups and get to know one and rely upon one another while completing several events on our own Catlin Gabel challenge course. During the afternoon sessions, students will again break into smaller groups to complete three rotations outside: painting and drawing with Dale, Tom, and Pongi; survey nature walk with Larry and Len; and event mapping in journals with Ann and Carter. The day will conclude with preparation for our square dance on the afternoon of the next day.

On Thursday, 9/22, our theme is harvest fest

During the day two morning session rotations, students will go to the apple orchard with Len and Larry to harvest and press apples using a cider press.  They will also be in the garden, kitchen, and classroom with Ann, Pongi, and Hen busy winnowing, threshing, and grinding the wheat grown in our garden so that they can then make apple galette using apples from our orchard.  Last, students will be in the garden with Carter, Spencer, and parent volunteers both harvesting salad mixings as well as planting seeds in greenhouse flats that they will raise up throughout the year for the Spring Festival plant sale fundraiser.

During the afternoon sessions, Brian Lacy, a beekeeper who will be working with our team and students throughout the year, will lead the students into a bee tent in our orchard to observe honey harvested from two hives. The students will, of course, be sampling as they go. The day will conclude with Pongi calling a square dance in Tennis Court #1.

7th Grade Discovery Days

Each year Discovery Days afford us an opportunity to get to know each other as a class very quickly and effectively. The 7th grade begins Discovery Days with the Discovery Café; an annual event hosted by the 7th grade teachers. After a light breakfast students and teachers will gather at the Murphy Athletic Complex for a day of cooperative games and group challenges.   Students will work in advisory groups so that these supportive and small groups can build a rapport within the group and with faculty that can carry throughout the year.

On our second day we will head directly out to Sauvie Island to participate in a beach cleanup and then a sand castle building contest. This is a very serious competition with construction taking several hours. The construction is made even more challenging (and fun) by the incoming wake of passing barges and cargo vessels. Judging occurs during a late lunch as students enjoy watching for the bald eagles on the islands across the channel or as they enjoy running off energy during Frisbee or soccer on the beach. By day’s end we know much better how to work together and can see more clearly what we can accomplish by doing so. And we all come home ready for a good night’s rest!

8th Grade Discovery Days

Discovery Days is a time for students to reacquaint and engage in learning experiences beyond the classroom setting. This year, part of our time will be at Helsing Junction Farm near Rochester, Washington. This farm is involved in community supported agriculture and operates with sustainable principles. Students will be working together, gleaning and doing other farm chores. The evening will be spent at nearby Swede Hall and the focus is leadership, food and fun.

We return to campus on the Thursday of Discovery Days. Team building exercises on the Challenge Course and a program designed to deepen student understanding of sustainable living are the focus. Dismissal time is at the end of the normal school day.

Campus Day 2012 – Friday, September 23

Once a year, Middle School students roll up their sleeves and pitch in giving back to our beautiful 54-acre campus by working on various parts of the campus, often on parts they do not usually use or see with any regularity. This work is done in student C & C groups. It’s always a productive fun day. It happens this Friday, September 23, beginning right after our Friday morning assembly and concluding at 11:30.

Mike Wilson, who heads the school’s grounds crew, will come to our Friday morning assembly to help kick things off.  Mike has come to rely on these days, both for the connections he makes with the Middle School kids and the work the kids are able to get done. As Mike has remarked, “The bummer when MS campus day is over is that we have to wait 365 days for it to happen again.”

On Campus Day students need to dress for the weather, and wear close-toed sturdy shoes. Depending on the job, we often ask that they bring work gloves as well.

You should hear more about assignments from your child early next week.  After lunch we will board buses for our afternoon of fun – it’s a surprise!

School Change Through Experiential Programs

Independent schools have increasingly created specialized positions to lead or facilitate new, experiential learning opportunities for their students. Do you have these positions at your school?

Director of service learning
Director of global programs
Educational technology specialist
Urban studies program director
Director of student life
Outdoor programs coordinator
Director of diversity

These programs feature a common thread: experiential learning. Students engage in hands-on activities grounded in an authentic context such as service, the outdoors, global travel, or multiculturalism.

Where do experiential programs live within the school? How do students access them?

One model: students experience two separate courses of study, a “core” of discipline-based study plus a “peripheral” set of experiential programs.

This structure implies an “influencer” model of school change. The school creates new positions for experiential program leaders. Students participate in these special programs outside of the regular class schedule. Most teachers observe from a distance. If the experiential programs are exciting and the program specialists effective at outreach, then teachers may increasingly partner with the programs to introduce more experiential elements into subject-based instruction. Experiential programs only affect the core as much as they influence from a distance.

The contrast of teaching methods may send students unintended messages. Discipline-based classes may use more recognizable forms of teaching: holding classes, facilitating class discussion, assigning readings, and assessing student mastery through papers, presentations, and tests. Experiential programs may take place in the woods, on Skype, or through a blog. They may emphasize student construction of the learning environment, partnerships with local organizations, special events, and interdisciplinary study. Experiential programs may gain a reputation for being optional or less rigorous.

Another model: students experience a “core” program that incorporates experiential components.

This structure adopts a rapid, comprehensive model of school change. The school makes a decision early on to broadly adopt specific experiential learning themes. All teachers are involved, and all courses integrate experiential learning in some manner. If the school creates special program director positions at all, then these individuals are few in number and partner closely with teachers to create student learning experiences. They do not offer separate programs to students. The weekly timetable is organized to facilitate experiential learning opportunities. Students experience a relatively consistent learning experience across the school program.

How may an existing school integrate experiential programs without completely reorganizing itself?

1. Assign experiential program responsibilities to core teachers. Partly discipline-based teachers, partly program specialists, they are more likely to influence their colleagues to try something new.

2. Mandate special, schoolwide initiatives to introduce more experiential learning, supported by program specialists.

3. Facilitate democratic, teacher decision-making processes to introduce specific types of experiential learning into the school program, facilitated by program specialists.

4. Provide program specialists greater access to school change vehicles, such as administrative leadership and curriculum review committees.

Case studies: schools trying different experiential programs

I would like to list these schools now and write short case studies in the future. What other independent schools would you add to this list?

Urban School: Innovative Teaching

Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences

Lick-Wilmerding School: Public purpose

“Leading from the Middle”

A summer institute offered by the Santa Fe Leadership Center