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Journeying to Genesee

Written on December 17th, 2015

[caption id=”attachment_11746” align=”aligncenter” width=”800”]GCCS 1 Note: All Photos in this article were taken by staff members from Heritage Community Christian School.[/caption]

This December, seventy professionals from the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) membership travelled to Rochester, New York, to visit Genesee Community Charter School. The trip allowed teachers and administrators to observe a learning community shaped by a unique Expeditionary Learning (EL) approach to education.

Influenced by the philosophies of German educator, Kurt Hahn, EL schools typically facilitate interdisciplinary, in-depth study of topics and invite students to engage in ongoing projects that involve their local community.

Expeditionary Learning has a unique flavour at Genesee, in large part because of the school’s location. It shares a campus with the Rochester Museum & Science Centre. Teachers and students regularly engage in projects that revolve around the museum’s collections, experts and grounds. Every class has around 30 field trips per year. The school makes room for large interdisciplinary projects (expeditions) that typically take up to 12 weeks. The focus is on process, more than simply covering the right curriculum.

It’s easy to understand why Genesee was an appealing destination for educators and leaders interested in the EL model.

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“Spending time at Genesee Community Charter School was a wonderful opportunity for me to see Expeditionary Learning in action,” said Arn Boonstra, teacher at Calvin Christian School.

At Genesee, teachers introduce students to a wide range of perspectives on a single issue, so that classes can research solutions developed in other cities around the country and the world. Students will typically create a report and share their findings with city officials and other stakeholders.

Boonstra said that he was also impressed by the school’s commitment to building a caring and respectful classroom culture, which serves as the basis for the learning that takes place every day. He saw teachers and students thriving in “a climate where individuals can take risks, as well as support each other”.

Growing in character is an essential part of the culture at the school. Each grade focuses on key school-wide learning targets every year. Teachers are deliberate in fostering traits like courage, responsibility, perseverance, initiative, compassion, integrity, and gratitude.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that such an environment serves as fertile soil for exceptional student-designed projects to flourish. “The school valued collaboration, initiative, creativity and beautiful work,” said Boonstra. “Students were taught the basic skills necessary to carry out project work, and then were given the supports to do the “field study” that became a part of the final product/project.”

Like Boonstra, Guelph Community Christian School Principal, Mike Vanderboor, attended the trip to see Expeditionary Learning in action. In fact, he took his entire staff in the hopes that the experience would allow for an “in-depth discussion around the topic of EL” and offer some clarity around whether the school would further develop its own EL program in the future.

[caption id=”attachment_11749” align=”aligncenter” width=”800”]12301741_10153830803477990_2868419588492145955_n Children at Genesee Community Charter School regularly take advantage of museum exhibits.[/caption]

“The whole staff needs to be on board for us to move forward,” he explained.

Vanderboor and other Guelph Community teachers were impressed by a variety of things at Genesee Community Charter School: the place-based learning, the student led tours, the integration of the arts into other subject areas, and the fact that teachers help one another develop their own programs. They also liked that expeditions at Genesee Community Charter School encouraged students to explore sites in their local community. And, they appreciated the way that teachers regularly bring in guest speakers to share knowledge with students about their areas of expertise. Vanderboor sees both practices as attainable goals for Christian schools to implement, if they aren’t already doing so (many are).

Teachers came away from the trip with a variety of valuable take aways—whether that be a renewed interest in character development, a plan to focus on learning targets, or a stronger desire to make the most of a particular location.

Granted, most of these teachers don’t share a property with a museum, but using the resources that come with a rural or urban setting offer their own opportunities. In many cases, the Genesee approach to learning impressed visitors from the OACS membership not because it seemed timely or trendy, but because it was rooted in matters of timeless importance like relationship, character and community.

Boonstra, for example, was struck by the school’s emphasis on parental involvement.

“The parents did more than just supervise the children, they actually interacted and supported the learning that was taking place while on the trip,” he noted. He was encouraged by the students’ continued and active interest in the history of their local community. “Genesee has made a commitment to working with community members and organizations to enhance student learning. Students were busy studying local history and were highly invested in their communities.”

OACS Director of Learning, Justin Cook, said he had two deep hopes for those involved in the Genesee excursion: That they would feel deeply valued and honoured for the amazing work that they do every day in our schools and for them to be immersed for a few days in another learning community so that they could determine which dimensions of learning were worth emulating. He pointed out that Genesee empowers students in the three dimensions of learning that OACS schools are also committed to: character development, mastery of knowledge and skills, and beautiful work that is developed through authentic community-based projects.

From the sound of it, those two goals were realized.

[caption id=”attachment_11750” align=”aligncenter” width=”800”]12342649_10153830803522990_8921177679862185764_n Part of the building used by Genesee Community Charter School is the ballroom of an old mansion that was torn down decades ago.[/caption]