Four Rivers invests great energy and creativity in developing active learning activities, which are central to the EL education model and an essential strategy for building student motivation and engagement. In their Core Practices document, EL Education explains, “Our approach to curriculum makes standards come alive for students by connecting learning to real-world issues and needs. Academically rigorous learning expeditions, case studies, projects, fieldwork, and service learning inspire students to think and work as professionals do, contributing high-quality work to authentic audiences beyond the classroom.” Expeditions also include working with peers and making positive changes in the students’ communities.
Consistent with the goals of competency-based education, these activities often emphasize application and creation of knowledge, along with developing college and career success skills. They are also well-suited to meaningful, varied, and often performance-based assessments.
Expeditions are key curricular structures in EL schools and can bring in all of the active learning strategies just mentioned, although not every expedition uses every strategy. An expedition on addiction and brain sciences was an innovative collaboration between the 10th-grade biology teacher and the school’s health and wellness teacher. Some of the expedition’s biology standards included “I can explain the functions of the different parts of the brain” and “I can explain the connection between neurotransmitters and feelings of happiness and depression.” The wellness standards included “I can discuss the role of community and human connection in relation to my wellness.”
These and other standards led to a wide range of activities such as a lab on the effects of caffeine consumption on the circulatory and nervous systems; expert talks from people who have struggled with addition, a psychotherapist, and a local physician and addictions expert; and participating in a high ropes course on the campus of a community college that borders Four Rivers. Students completed brief research papers on topics they selected such as “How do drugs like Baclofen and Naltrexone work to stop or block addictive cravings?” and “What has happened to addiction rates and drug use in Portugal over the last five years since they have legalized all drugs?” Students who met the expedition’s standards could go deeper with activities such as identifying relevant scientific journal articles and incorporating them into their research. The expedition ended with an event that involved each student designing and teaching a wellness class to 7th and 8th graders on a topic they had learned about during the expedition and considered important.
Ninth graders at Four Rivers recently completed an expedition focused on immigration and issues related to whether their city would become a sanctuary city. This expedition was also interdisciplinary, carried out collaboratively by the English and history teachers. Students wrote speeches and presented them at town meeting (the local government body in many New England towns). They also made a documentary that was aired on local news. Students enthusiastically described an event where local adults came to the school and presented their different and strongly held views on immigration.
The entire 12th grade (about 30 students) collaborated on an expedition on the natural gas industry that fulfilled academic standards in English, science, math, and social studies. In addition to more traditional activities, students interviewed a representative from the local gas company and did field research in a Massachusetts town 100 miles away where gas leaks and explosions had recently caused deaths and fires. The culminating project was a 40-minute documentary film that aired at the local cinema. The entire effort was led by students, who selected the topic, wrote the script, conducted filming and editing, coordinated with the cinema, and advertised the screening.
Not all expeditions are interdisciplinary. For example, the chemistry class was carrying out a project to try improving a tool for testing arsenic levels in local water. The problem they were addressing is that a common arsenic test kit is not sensitive enough to meet the EPA’s cutoff of 10 parts per billion of arsenic. Students were trying to improve sensitivity by scanning the color-reactive test strips (like litmus paper), identifying their precise numeric color values using Photoshop, and then applying formulas to those values that yield more accurate quantification of arsenic values. The chemistry teacher has been conducting versions of this study with students for five years in collaboration with a University of Massachusetts professor who studies arsenic levels in food and water, and who serves as a consultant, coach, and guest expert. One expedition product is an article about the students’ findings that conforms to guidelines of the analytical chemistry field; the students’ articles become part of a database of studies on this topic that the professor has compiled over time.
Other Active Learning Opportunities
On the day of my visit, students in the 7th and 10th grades collaborated on a science activity that met standards at both grade levels. The 7th graders had built cell models, either plant or animal, and had prepared presentations to explain the different parts of the cell. The 10th graders attended and each served as assessors of two 7th graders’ models and presentations, using a common rubric. The 10th graders were also studying cell biology (at a more advanced level), and assessing the 7th graders was intended to help them prepare for their own upcoming assessment.
The 11th and 12th graders were also preparing for two more individually-focused activities – junior internships and senior expeditions. In 11th grade, students conduct a week-long internship with professionals in an area of interest and complete projects and presentations related to their experience. Students’ plans weren’t fully developed yet during my visit, but some of their sites and plans included:
- Bassett Planetarium at Amherst College, making a video to present to audiences there.
- Franklin Medical Center – Spending three days on an oncology unit and shadowing a doctor for a day. Project not known yet.
- Macneish Field Station, a nearby farm and forest where Smith College students conduct environmental research. Measuring chestnut trees for a study, helping to lead school group tours, and creating an activity for visitors.
- WMUA, a local radio station – Learning how the studio works and helping to develop public service announcements.
In 12th grade, students design and carry out “senior expeditions” that involve an essential question, research and field work, and a culminating product. The Four Rivers Senior Expedition Guide explains that the expedition is “an opportunity to demonstrate your highest level of learning at Four Rivers. Senior expedition is about learning through your interests and building your skills as a more independent learner. It’s about choosing a field and defining a problem, a concern or an idea that is of importance to you, becoming a budding expert in your chosen field, and creating solutions. With guidance from teachers and mentors, you will show your ability to solve problems, do research, be persistent, organize time and resources, communicate well, and reflect on your efforts, skills that are both necessary and useful as you move into the world of college and adulthood.”
Students create senior expedition proposals as part of their first-semester English standards. The project is intended to included mentorship, and in rare cases when an appropriate mentor can’t be found, additional fieldwork is required. One student who wanted to learn carpentry worked evenings and weekends in the shop of a neighbor who was a professional woodworker to design and build a skateboard ramp. Another student wrote a short novel and worked with local writers to get encouragement, advice, and feedback. A third student was interested in environmental art but couldn’t find an appropriate local mentor, even with support from an artist at Four Rivers. However, she conducted an independent environmental art project and traveled to New York to observe the work of a group of environmental artists. All students must develop and present products as specified in their proposals, and the school has a day each May, open to family and community members, where students present the products of their senior expeditions and junior internships.
- Building a Powerful School Culture at Four Rivers
- Empowering Teachers as School Leaders at Four Rivers
- EL Education Core Practices
- Mastery-based Learning Components and Key Look-fors
Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks.