Into the woods: Two principals explain what students learn by getting out of the classroom

Students from the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, a public school in Queens, on a four-day trip to the woods. (Photo: Stephen Smith)Students from the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, a public school in Queens, on a four-day trip to the woods. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

This essay is part of the larger radio documentary Beyond the Blackboard, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

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“I hate nature,” declares a sixth-grader named Uchechi.

She’s sitting on the grass in an open field at Sharpe Reservation, an outdoor camp in Fishkill, New York, about an hour and a half north of New York City.

Uchechi is from Queens. She loves the city. Spending four days in the woods is not her idea of a good time.

But this trip is required of all sixth-graders at her school. It’s called the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School. It’s part of a network of public schools in New York that use a school model called “Expeditionary Learning.”

Uchechi, a sixth-grader, reflecting in her journal while on a trip to the woods with NYC Outward Bound Schools. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Uchechi, a sixth-grader, reflecting in her journal while on a trip to the woods with NYC Outward Bound Schools. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

The sixth-graders from MELS are hiking and camping and learning how to cook for themselves. They also do a high ropes course.

They get all harnessed up so they won’t get hurt. Then, one at a time, they climb about 30 feet to a big log suspended between two trees. Next, they walk across the log.

That’s the idea anyway.

“Just getting teenagers to spend four days without cell phones is a pretty jarring experience for most teenagers now.”
–Damon McCord

But the kid who confidently volunteers to go first, a boy named Justus, kind of freaks out when he gets up to the log.

“Oh my God!” he says, looking down at his peers below. “I’m coming down.”

“No, no! You can do this,” yells Uchechi. “Go back up there!”

But Justus can’t be convinced. Slowly, he comes back down.

Uchechi is up next.

“You nervous?” asks the instructor.

“Little bit, little bit,” says Uchechi.

Uchechi is quick and nimble, standing up without hesitation and walking across the log with purpose and grace.

Up in trees on one of the high ropes courses at Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill, New York. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Up in trees on one of the high ropes courses at Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill, New York. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

“How’s the view?” the instructor yells up at her.

“Amazing, actually,” Uchechi responds. She’s looking out over forested hills. The sky is bright blue. It’s a beautiful day.

Maybe nature’s not so bad after all.

All the kids do the ropes course. Some freak out a bit the way Justus did, but with cheering from their classmates they all get across, greeted by delighted shrieks and pats on the back when they get back to the ground.

Justus is watching all this. He tells the instructor he wants to give it another shot.

“Go Justus! Go Justus!” the kids all cheer.

Justus climbs up to the log. He stands up, looks down …. and decides he’s going to scooch across on his butt. Eventually, he makes it across to the other tree.

Justus makes it across the log by scooching across on his butt. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Justus makes it across the log by scooching across on his butt. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

“Oh my God,” he says, shuddering, as his classmates use the ropes attached to Justus’ harness to belay him back down.

Justus says he’s glad he tried again.

“Now I can say I did it,” he says with a smile.

The hope is that — out here in the woods — kids will learn some things about themselves that they might not learn in a traditional classroom.

Maybe like Uchechi they’ll learn that the view is amazing up there in the trees, that there’s something to be said for getting out of your comfort zone.

Maybe like Justus they’ll realize that they can accomplish things that at first seemed scary and impossible.

The people who run the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School believe that American public schools aren’t focusing enough on helping kids learn these kinds of lessons.

Co-principal Pat Finley says schools have become too focused on teaching a narrow set of academic skills, the kinds of skills that can be measured on standardized tests.

“For years, the people who’ve been driving the [education] agenda have been pushing that good schools get good results and those results are tests,” he says.

Students and teachers look on as a sixth-grader from the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School conquers a high ropes course. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Students and teachers look on as a sixth-grader from the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School conquers a high ropes course. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Finley believes in the value of tests. He says the problem is that the intense emphasis on standardized testing has pushed a lot of American schools to focus almost exclusively on academic skills, cognitive skills.

But there’s a wide body of recent research that shows there are a whole bunch of “noncognitive skills” that are really important too. The term “noncognitive skills” refers to a range of abilities, personality traits and attitudes. Some people call these social and emotional skills. Others call them character.

They include things like persistence and self-discipline and getting along with other people.

Turns out these kinds of skills are as important as cognitive skills — perhaps even more important — when it comes to things like graduating from college and doing well in the workplace.

There is a growing interest among American educators in finding ways to explicitly teach these kinds of skills in school.

It’s something Expeditionary Learning schools have been trying to do since the school model was developed in the early 1990s.

There are now more than 160 Expeditionary Learning schools in the United States.

MELS was founded in 2010 by Finley, along with co-principal Damon McCord. In this interview they talk about why they wanted to start an Expeditionary Learning school and how the approach to education is different from other schools where they’ve worked.

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Emily Hanford: What is expeditionary learning?

Damon McCord: It’s a school model that embraces a set of core practices focused around learning by doing, getting kids experiencing and interacting with the world, a focus on character, a focus on reflection and self-discovery.

EH: How and why did you become leaders of an Expeditionary Learning school?

“We want kids to be whole human beings, not just receivers of information.”
–Pat Finley

Pat Finley: The two of us were assistant principals in the South Bronx. We each had separate offers to become school leaders, but we decided we wanted to start a new school together instead.

DM: We looked at various school models. We met with a number of different organizations. One of them was the New York City Outward Bound Schools, a network of public schools in New York that uses the Expeditionary Learning model. We decided Expeditionary Learning was perfectly in line with what we wanted to accomplish. It was very much in line with my personal philosophy of education.

EH: What is your personal philosophy of education?

DM: That kids shouldn’t be just forced to sit at desks and be receptacles of information from teachers. It always resonated with me that the most formative learning experiences in my own life weren’t somebody telling me something or a test I took, but actually experiencing something.

PF: We want kids to be whole human beings, not just receivers of information.

EH: You send all of your sixth-graders on a four-day wilderness trip. How is sending your students into the woods different from the kind of experiences you can create for them in school?

DM: I think once you send kids to the woods, it removes a sense of security and familiarity from their lives that some students depend on. Just getting teenagers to spend four days without cell phones is a pretty jarring experience for most teenagers now. There’s something about getting out of your comfort zone, being removed from your day-to-day life, that opens your eyes to new experiences and to things you didn’t know you were able to do.

EH: What’s so important about getting students out of their comfort zone?

PF: We work with adolescents and they’re trying to get a sense of their identity and grow. And I think the way growth happens is to help students see a bigger world. The more exposure they have, the more opportunities for new experiences, the better they are at figuring out who they want to be

EH: At Expeditionary Learning schools, there’s a lot of focus on character development. Why is character so important to you?

PF: We want our students to go out and be successful. We want students to develop lifelong skills, so when they go off to college and are at their job, they will be able to react, respond, and work with other people in a way that’s going to help them for the rest of their lives.

DM: I think unfortunately in the conversation around education right now we try to compartmentalize things, so that there’s academics on the one hand, and there’s character on the other. People very rarely talk about how they’re all connected and play off one another and impact one another. You might be a genius, but if you have some struggles in terms of your character or your habits of work, or you have some emotional issues that you can’t overcome, even the academic genius is going to struggle.

EH: Before founding this school, were you thinking about the importance of teaching character in schools?

DM: Yes, I was thinking about character and social and emotional development before, when I was a teacher. But when I became an assistant principal, I didn’t quite understand how to make that kind of learning happen for a school. We would try to get some character initiatives off the ground in fits and starts, and it wasn’t until Pat and I really took a look at Expeditionary Learning and the comprehensive approach to character development that it that all made sense. Expeditionary Learning provided the guidebook for us.

EH: How is the Expeditionary Learning approach different from the approach in schools you’ve worked in before or from what you see as a more typical approach to public education in the United States?

PF: A lot of schools right now are focused on producing a number. I understand why tests and assessments are important; they give part of a picture about students. But I think the way Expeditionary Learning is different from what’s going on at many other schools is that test scores are not the end-all, be-all. We don’t see students as reaching a certain score and they’re done. There is still a climate out there that values tests and testing as the number one indicator. School needs to be about more than tests.

EH: You refer to yourselves as “progressive educators.” What does that mean to you?

PF: One of the tenets of progressive education is to look at the students as a whole, not just their academic growth but their social and emotional growth too. And I think any school that considers itself progressive takes that into account. I think there’s also an aspect of progressivism that asks students to examine the world in a meaningful way. To me that’s learning by doing, experiencing, and then going out into the world and learning about what may need to be changed, and working to make that change. We take pride in being called a progressive school.

EH: As an education reporter and as a parent, the only place I’ve seen progressive education embraced fully is in private schools. I’m curious if you see it that way, or if you think other public schools are embracing a progressive approach to education?

DM: We’re trying to get kids to develop a love of learning and exploring and being curious. I think there are other public schools trying to do that. But it’s hard in the test-driven culture of today.

PF: I think the conversation around public education is beginning to change. I think there are many families who for many years have valued things beyond test scores. They’ve enrolled their children in programs after school and in the summer, and shown the value of how important it is to provide students with opportunities to be well rounded. As more schools and school districts get put in a place where they’ve had to take away those opportunities at the expense of the tests, I think families are starting to speak out more, and I think that’s really important.

DM: Like Pat said, families and parents and schools are starting to feel like enough is enough when it comes to testing. Families, students, schools are starting to make really deliberate decisions about doing something different, tending more to some of those progressive ideals, which gives us a lot of hope.

EH: I’m hearing a lot of educators talk about character these days. But for a long time character was kind of a loaded word, something schools shied away from. Why?

DM: I remember when I first entered teaching, in the late ’90s, “character” was something you didn’t want to touch. It had become this really loaded, right-wing, conservative thing that was getting people in trouble because they were infusing a lot of religious meaning into it.

EH: You’re saying that as a teacher you were afraid to teach character?

DM: Yeah, absolutely. I think that teachers have always taught character, but without labeling it as such. I don’t think any of us can say we never had a teacher who told us the “right” way to do something, or got us to reflect on our actions or think about how we interacted with our world. I think it’s always been underneath a lot of things, but now more and more people are realizing that this character piece is really important to students’ success.

“We want students to develop lifelong skills, so when they go off to college and are at their job, they will be able to react, respond, and work with other people in a way that’s going to help them for the rest of their lives.”
–Pat Finley

PF: I think every teacher is a teacher of character; it’s just the extent to which you’re talking about it and doing it explicitly. At this school we’re really clear: It’s an important part and nobody should shy away from talking about it. I do think there’s a fear that in talking about it, you’re talking about the soft, easy part of education, the touchy-feely part. And I want to be really clear that we don’t see it that way. It’s really hard work: to help students understand how to interact with each other, how to interact with people they don’t know, how to go deal with situations they don’t understand.

EH: Do you try to assess character development in your students?

PF: It’s tricky. We’re still figuring it out. We have our core values and we constantly refer to them. So part of the way you assess how kids are developing is through daily interaction. We observe the kids, their behavior, give them feedback. There’s also a more formal system where we try and provide feedback to students about how they’re doing with our core values. What might your grade look like for this area, what do you need to work on? When our students do student-led conferences, they talk about their academics, but they also talk about our character targets. They reflect and think about, “Am I being respectful? Am I being the responsible person in this school community that I need to be?”

DM: Assessing character is messy. It’s really, really messy. You don’t want to distill a student’s character down to a number.

EH: How do you know you have a quality school?

PF: The data point that people will talk about is the graduation rate. Ninety to 95 percent of our juniors are on track to graduate in four years; we’re not a school that’s pushing students out, we’re trying to move students forward. But more importantly, we’re seeing our students grow as thinkers and people. It’s hard to know how to measure that, but we can see it, in the people they’re becoming. Our goal is for them to go off to college and be able to encounter challenging situations and know how to navigate them. We’ll be keeping track to see how many of them graduate from college. We won’t know that for a while.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity by Emily Hanford.

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This essay is part of the larger radio documentary Beyond the Blackboard, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

Episode: Beyond the Blackboard