Sierra Expeditionary Learning School’s out of the box teaching methods |

Sierra Expeditionary Learning School’s out of the box teaching methods

Kelsie Longerbeam

The Sierra Expeditionary Learning School is a charter school in Truckee whose mission is to educate the whole child, focusing on not just academics but also physical and mental wellness. And, to that extent, the charter school has proven to be successful on every level.

“We believe that in this rapidly changing world, students’ character and skills are vitally important to their development as a learner and helpful community member,” said David Manahan, School Director of SELS. “Using numerous character and skills structures, SELS provides students endless opportunities to explore their thinking, reflect upon themselves and the world, work collaboratively with hands-on/minds-on projects, and provide service to their community.”

The SELS program is backed by the idea that no amount of teaching will work unless children are interested in what they’re doing. Their program specifically focuses on critical thinking, collaboration with others, public speaking, and communication skills. The tactic is that if you spend time on the child’s character and emotional well being, the academic skills will follow. Their test scores show this method works, evident in a top-flight award title.

SELS has formally been recognized for their effective teaching programs by the U.S. Department of Education as a 2017 Blue Ribbon School for Exemplary performance, and has also received Mentor Status within the EL Education network of schools for demonstrating readiness and willingness to share their expertise with other schools in its network.

In practice, they have the community meetings every other week, where students are the main presenters. This means each student, ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade, practices speaking with a microphone in front of about 250 people.

Another program that SELS has is their “rock ceremony” program. At the end of every year upon graduation, an eighth-grader presents a rock from the local stream to a kindergartener, with an intention for their school career at SELS, such as “My hope for you during your time at SELS is that you grow as a person, learn many new things, and have great friendships.”

The kindergarteners then carry this rock with them throughout their years at SELS, and each year a counselor goes into classrooms and does activities to anchor into the rocks intentions or goals for the year. This is a powerful ceremony that helps students understand they are not alone in their school years, and helps them to set goals.

The school also has a garden where they teach children about healthy living and wellness, and hosts a “Harvest of the Month” classroom program where parent volunteers prepare food that incorporates a new ingredient, usually a fruit or vegetable, to show how healthy foods can also be delicious. This includes a conversation with students about the benefits of healthy eating.

SELS has a strict no birthday sweets rule.

“If you think about it, when you have 30 something kids in a classroom, that’s a birthday almost every week, if not two. So the kids become accustomed to sugary treats weekly,” said David Manahan SELS Director.

Manahan explained teachers notice a negative impact in children’s learning abilities after they’ve had a sugary treat. They can’t stay still, become distracted easily, and then crash into a bad mood. With so many kids suffering from dietary restrictions, such as lactose intolerance or gluten allergies, it’s an unfair system. Instead, SELS encourages parents to provide other treats for birthdays, such as fun erasers or stickers.

All these programs practiced by SELS work together to create an environment that helps students to grow into the best student, and person, that they can be.

Kelsie Longerbeam is the news, business and environment reporter for the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza. She can be contacted at or 530-550-2653. Follow her on Facebook, and Twitter and Instagram @kelsielongerbm.

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