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The World is Your Classroom

Wednesday, February 17, 2016  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

Many schools boast of elaborate science labs, art classrooms with beautiful windows and natural light, and technology labs with the latest and greatest tools, but sometimes, teachers just step away from their classrooms to lead students on a journey of experiential learning – a hands-on, highly detailed adventure to take students out of the classroom, off campus, and into a larger world.

Students at Woodward Academy in Atlanta delve into the business side of art in an 8th grade art class in which they design their own ring. It’s more than art for art’s sake. Students in Paul Vogt’s class at Woodward learn about art production, sales, and more as part of a 3D ring design project. Some students craft some elaborate designs, larger than a human hand in some cases. Others go for more simple designs but all will work within a pre-assigned budget, make schematics, study different types of materials, and try out a 3D printer. Every two weeks throughout the project, students critique each other’s plans and help identify potential complications.

During the process, students register their work with a company to price their ring for production as well as retail. They photograph, present, and market their design to galleries. Vogt supports them throughout but “I don’t like to dictate what they do,” he said.

For students who enjoy art, the project flexes their creative muscle but also opens their eyes and gives them experience outside of the art lab. “They gain practical knowledge as well as new creativity,” Vogt said.

At Whitefield Academy in Mableton, GA, students enjoy overnight field trips that correspond with their academic work, embracing a different type of experiential learning. Second graders, their teachers, and a few parents pack up to participate in the “Night Crawlers” program at Zoo Atlanta for a one-night trip each year to tie in with their science class study of animals. The grade divides into teams and hikes around the zoo on a Thursday night, led by education experts on the zoo staff. They go through the commissary for a behind-the-scenes look at how the animals are fed, observe the animals, and eventually sleep in classroom spaces at the zoo. On Friday morning, they return to school for pickup and have the day off from classes.

The 3rd grade treks to DeSoto Caverns in Childersburg, AL, to study caves and cave formations in a one-night trip, while the 4th grade spends two nights in the “coastal classroom” at the Driftwood Education Center in Saint Simons Island, GA. They study oceanography and marshlands, sleep in cabins, and go on a night hike. When they return to school, the 4th graders write a five-paragraph essay about their experience that is graded. The other grades do not have any assignments associated with their trips.

“It’s very much connected to what they are learning in the classroom,” said Whitefield’s Lower School Principal Jeannie Brostrand. “And it’s about interacting with God’s creation and seeing it first-hand, in a hands-on environment. They are touching snakes, seeing animals, and being asked questions by experts, which also exposes them to different professions.”

While the trips require a great deal of work in preparation, both from the teachers and from the administrative staff, the school receives extremely positive feedback from students, teachers, and parents. “It’s such a growth experience for children to be away from home and get outside their comfort zones,” Brostrand said. “At graduation, kids will often say that a trip was their very favorite part of their school experience.”

All expenses for the trips are paid out of the school budget, which is why each trip includes an academic component. “It’s too much money just to go off and have fun. There needs to be a learning aspect, and teacher buy-in is essential,” Brostrand explained.

Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Melbourne, FL, also takes an academic approach to its off-campus learning experiences. Every grade in the lower school goes on a field study that ties in with classwork. In the 4th grade, students study the history of Florida and visit St. Augustine for an overnight trip, led by a local tour guide. “It’s one thing to read about old Florida but to be out there helps to see things in a different way,” said Lower School Head Catherine Koos, who has witnessed myriad benefits of the field studies.

“Students make great memories so that they remember the experience for a lifetime,” she said. “They get to know their teachers better and they learn a lot about collaboration.”

Students are able to immerse themselves in their work, sometimes literally. The 6th graders perform science field studies, taking advantage of the great Florida weather and the many bodies of water in the area to do water sampling, water studies, and also canoeing and kayaking.

Sometimes school groups are able to access places not open to the general public. The 6th graders at Cannon School in Concord, NC, visit Charleston, SC, where they take the Barrier Island Eco Tour, go on an historical scavenger hunt in downtown Charleston, and sleep on the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier. 

The 5th graders also bunk for a night in an unusual location – the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. After a day of touring CNN, the World of Coke, and Zoo Atlanta, they finish with a tour of the Aquarium and sleep with a view of a Beluga whale or other sea life.

The 7th graders rough it a bit on their class trip to Camp Cheerio in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. They climb a rock tower, go down mudslides, and sleep in cabins.

All of the trips take place in the fall to allow students to bond early in the school year, according to Cannon Middle School Head Carla Moyer. “The timing helps the advisors get to know students and help new students feel a part of things,” she said. “The kids have to be more independent and they have to encourage and help each other.”

These trips don’t necessarily have an academic component nor a grade. Upon returning to school, the 5th graders each select an animal they observed on their trip, research the animal, and write a paper about it. Some classes write a reflection after their trip, but Moyer said they avoid too much work in association with the adventure. “They tend to focus on the assignment and not be in the moment, and that takes the fun out of it,” she said. Team-building and bonding are more important for these experiences.

They set those expectations for students as part of the planning process, which is no small feat in itself. Moyer highly recommends working with an established tour or planning group rather than trying to handle it as a school. For example, they would not want one of their staff members trying to maneuver a bus through the narrow streets of Charleston. For their 8th grade spring trip to Washington, DC, they work with a tour company that customizes the experience for them. They adhere to a no-cell phone policy for all of their trips, other than for the trip leader and chaperones.

Moyer also said it is important to give students and parents detailed information about the trips. “Kids need to know what to expect,” she said. “And don’t underestimate the anxiety of parents.”

Whether students step 20 feet or 200 miles from their classrooms on occasion, experiencing learning in a different environment can make a great impact on how they process information as well as how they behave with their fellow students. Friendships may be formed by partnering new students, while other students may learn a new skill such as rock-climbing. Did a behind-the-scenes trip to an aquarium spark an interest in marine biology? Schools are great places for learning, but when the world is your classroom, even more imaginative things can happen.



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