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Expeditionary Learning National Conference

This past week, I (along with a group of my colleagues from BMS and West Bath) attended the Expeditionary Learning National Conference in Baltimore.  Our time was jammed pack with learning, but I’ve attempted to summarize the big take-aways for me personally as I reflect on my own practice and the broader community of RSU 1.

A Day in the Life of a Science-Focused Expedition

I had the opportunity to shed my teacher hat for the day and participate as a student immersed in a “slice” of a learning expedition (in-depth, rigorous study) that explored the local watershed.  Our guiding questions for this expedition were:

  • What is our local watershed?
  • How healthy is our watershed?
  • What solutions can improve the health of our watershed?

A “slice” provides a cross-sectional experience of all the parts of a learning expedition.  These include a kick-off/immersion activity, building background knowledge, experts, field work, and a product.  In our classrooms, this structure is stretched apart like an accordion for typically 6-12 weeks.

Our day began with a video zooming in from space to the Baltimore Inner Harbor.  We then proceeded to participate in a silent gallery walk of various images portraying the local watershed (maps, trash filled water, oil leaks, storm water drains, children fishing, etc.) and were asked to capture our thoughts on a note-catcher for each numbered image under the headings, “I notice” and “I wonder”.  After the gallery walk we then launched into a BBK workshop (building background knowledge).  During this time, students dig into primary articles and text to gather a rich background in the compelling topic.  The mystery video and gallery walk of images with no descriptions left us curious and wanting to know more.  In small groups we read several expert texts using a variety of GREAT literacy strategies.  These included skimming, text-coding, a phased (added new learning after each text/discussion in new color) concept map, completing text-based questions, jigsaw and summarizing our understanding through a quick exit ticket before break.  With each text we were presented with our learning became deeper.  Yes, I knew about the function and importance of watersheds in general, but I knew very little about the Baltimore Inner Harbor and the effects urbanization has had on this watershed.  It is currently not fishable or swimmable and as a result was identified as being impaired by trash under the Federal Clean Water Act.  Additionally, bacteria from pet waste, sewage overflows, and old leaking sewer pipes also flows into the streams and Harbor.

After building a significant foundation, an expert came to present to our class and then engage with us out in the field during field work.  The Healthy Harbor Initiative was formed in 2005 to engage the public in efforts to make the inner harbor fishable and swimmable by 2020.  Their focus is primarily on education and organizing community members to work together to solve water pollution problems within the watershed through cleaning and greening their neighborhoods.  The Healthy Harbor Plan was our first expert text during our BBK.  The director of the initiative came in a presented to us more about the watershed and the work they are currently engaged in.  We collected notes in our science notebooks and asked clarifying questions of our expert.  Many of us making connections with the prior learning we had done that day.  We then all headed  out to do fieldwork in small groups around the inner harbor.  We rotated through these three different fieldwork sites:

  •  Water quality testing of the harbor (pH, temperature, turbidity, and dissolved O2)- collecting real, meaningful scientific data as experts in the field do!
  •  Viewing the floating wetlands installed by the Healthy Harbor Initiative (they float by bottles pulled out of the harbor!!) and learning about their design and the public awareness campaign in conjunction with them.  This was a great connection to engineering!
  • Natural learning stations and scaled map of the watershed outside the National Aquarium- this provided additional information concerning the large size of the Chesapeake watershed (64,000 square miles!), shallow average depth (~20ft.), the species dependent on a healthy watershed, and ways to green neighborhoods/communities by increasing impervious surfaces (for example).

After a sunny and warm (57 degrees) afternoon outside, we headed back in to begin working on our final product.  We would be creating a PSA on the Baltimore Harbor for the Healthy Harbor Initiate (authentic audience).  Together we brainstormed the criteria for what makes a good PSA by listening to some examples.  From this we then entered an independent writing workshop to draft our PSA.  After drafting we paired up a did peer critiques of our drafted PSA.  We used a PQS (Praise- Question- Suggest) format for our feedback.   After critique we then went back to our drafts and incorporated the suggestions into our work.  We finished our day in a circle in which we read aloud our PSA and recorded them to send to Healthy Harbor Initiate.  Each PSA was unique and different.  The work we completed today was relevant and rich.  These are the true marks of a learning expedition!

Science Slice Debrief

During this time, I got to put on my teacher hat as we spent a couple hours discussing our “slice” of a learning expedition the previous day.  We broke down each part of the expedition and then spent time in focus groups on either instruction, curriculum, or assessment.  In these groups we used the Expeditionary Learning Core Practices to create an anchor chart of the Core Practice Benchmarks and our experience in the expedition slice.  I spent the majority of this time with my nose in an instruction core practice entitled, “Delivering Effective Lessons”.  This core practice includes: creating purpose, building curiosity, maintaining focus, using models, reflecting, and ongoing assessment.  This time solidified for me how EL Practices are just for “Expeditionary Learning Schools”, but for all classrooms as they promote best practices for teaching and learning.

Oh, and don’t eat anything out of Baltimore Inner Harbor!

Transforming School Culture Through Mindfulness

This Master class was significant for me both personally and professionally.  As teachers in a high-paced and stressed environment we rarely concern ourselves with self-care or approaching our day with mindfulness.  We spent sometime building background knowledge on the concept of mindfulness (being in the now!),  exploring brain research, and we left the class with strategies for promoting mindfulness in ourselves and our students.  They were pulled from two book resources:  Mindful Teaching & Teaching Mindfulness  and Just One Thing.  This class lifted up the pressing need for me to pay attention to my own needs, but also be more aware of the stress and anxiety many of our students face and concrete strategies for a more whole child approach to teaching and learning.

How schools are implementing mindfulness:

If you have chance watch this TED Talk on Brain Research:
Daniel Siegel’s “Hand Model” of the Brain (start clip at about 6:20 so you can see the whole model)

My take-home strategy:  Stop Before You Start: Mindfulness & Pre-class Routines

One of the first potentially stressful elements of the school day occurs when teachers finish their own activities as students begin to arrive.  My own natural temptation and perhaps yours too, is to eke out every last minute before the school day officially begins in order to get more things done.  The downside is that rushing to finish my multitasking learning me distracted, scrambing for materials, and feeling generally annoyed.  The alternative is to apply mindfulness and stop what you’re doing even slightly before the schedule requires you to.  Purposefully ensuring timely closure for your own pre-class activities is a potent investment in the quality of the incoming class.  As a result you’ll be present, in body and mind, when students arrive.

I gave this a shot today and the copier blew my intention out of the water by jamming in 6 different places, but there is always tomorrow morning at 7:10!

Teaching Character: Moving from Slogans to Student Ownership

The research is clear: not only does the world demand that employees enter the workforce with individual character strengths such as perseverance and self-discipline as well as relational character skills that enable teamwork and communication—these skills are also critical to students’ academic success. However, what is not yet being documented and discussed widely is how schools and teachers can integrate academics and character in ways that give students these skills.  This was the focus of the class.  We approached this topic by examining successful examples of how character can be explicitly supported through curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  Allowing for students to master these skills.

Much of our expert text was student work and videos.  Check out these examples:

Celebrations of Learning: Small Acts of Courage Culmination at King Middle School


Standards-Based Grading: Habits of Work and College Readiness


Student-Led Conference: Kindergarten


Using Data with Students: 6th Graders at Genesee Community Charter School


Instructing to a Habit: 6th Graders at The Odyssey School

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