Principal’s Corner: The importance of expeditions at Sierra Expeditionary Learning School |

Principal’s Corner: The importance of expeditions at Sierra Expeditionary Learning School

Sierra Expeditionary Learning School students participate in fieldwork.
Courtesy photo

This academic year has been an exciting one for Sierra Expeditionary Learning School. We received national honors for our program as a Mentor School by EL Education for our work with new network schools in implementing the educational model we derive curriculum from.

We were also recognized as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education for our high achieving programs.

A key component to our success is our integrated curricular units, called “expeditions.” Expeditions are educational journeys that take place in and out of the classroom and provide the framework for much of our student work. These in-depth, interdisciplinary units allow students to investigate specific and, ideally, locally-based topics. Expeditions are designed using Science and Social Studies standards, are infused throughout with English Language Arts standards, and when relevant and possible, Mathematics standards.

Important components of expeditions include:

Guiding questions: the essential questions which frame learning topics

Case studies: units of study within each expedition

Learning targets: specific goals for students

Authentic experiences: opportunities to use, participate in, and/or see how learning is embedded in human and natural communities (fieldwork); additionally, opportunities to put learning to use, such as in presentations and hands-on projects

Experts: utilizing community members, both near and far, to enhance learning experiences and further connect the learning to their communities

Culminating products: end of expedition assignments or performances which are often service-based and presented to public audiences

Each grade runs two expeditions per year (one science-based and one social studies based); examples include:

First grade: The Art of the Story. In this expedition, students explored the notion that art can tell a story. Studying ancient Mexican art and artifacts, students pieced together the story of how Mayan people lived – their history. Students then began telling their own stories by sketching and painting images of personal artifacts central to their childhood. They discovered how imagery is used to convey meaning, both directly and metaphorically. After touring Reno murals with local expert Erik Burke, students and Mr. Burke created a campus mural reflecting values of the Sierra Expeditionary Learning School’s story and students’ contributions to our community.

Fourth grade: Goldust and Gunsmoke. In this expedition, students discover California history, focusing on the Gold Rush and associated changes and impacts to the state. They travel to Gold Rush areas in the foothills, “mine” at Crystal Peak, and learn from a modern day miner. To better understand mining, students learned about geology and watersheds by reading topographic maps to locate best possible sites. Students were so excited about the ideas, Sierra Expeditionary Learning now has its own gold mining claim! Working with the Donner Summit Historical Society, students have also made interpretive signs for the Twenty-Mile Museum (at Donner Summit petroglyphs and the Old Dairy in town).

Seventh grade: What the Cell? In this expedition, students investigate cells, genetics, and evolution. Learning about life and change over time, they conducted experiments, talked to experts, and visited various laboratories, including Stanford, UC Davis, and UC Berkeley genetics. Studying the Henrietta Lacks story, students also learned about the ethics involved in genetic science and made public service announcement videos on the topic.

The connections provided by expeditions motivate students through engagement in their communities and relevancy in their learning. Projects, presentations, and service provide valuable skills to their growth as academic scholars and community members. Fieldwork and experts ground the learning in real life, allowing students to better understand the value and application of both the academic and skill-building components of their education.

At Sierra Expeditionary Learning Schools we are proud of providing students with opportunities to grow academically and personally. Making learning engaging and relevant is an important component to our success, and expeditions have been an excellent curricular structure in facilitating this process.

David Manahan is the Sierra Expeditionary Learning School principal.

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