A dozen faces in a dozen windows, all staring slightly off center in a way which makes it seem like they’re not really paying attention. It’s an experience which has become nearly universal in our ever-lengthening period of lockdown. Zoom meetings are safe in a time when in-person meetings mean danger.
But for the roughly 180 students enrolled in the Expeditionary Learning program over at Lawrence Jones Middle School, safety comes at a cost.
“Distance learning has been really hard on some of the kids because they miss the social aspect,” Tim Coshow, Expeditionary Learning teacher at Lawrence Jones Middle School, said. “When news came of the vaccine, that they might be to go on this expedition, or that expedition—that they might be able to do things again. Their faces lit up. That’s what they signed up for, these adventures.”
After all, that’s the whole point of Expeditionary Learning—to go on expeditions. The program draws from a teaching philosophy which argues a student learns best when presented with a project-based learning structure.
Want to bake a cake from scratch but the ingredients are only listed in metric? Then you need to learn how to convert ratios. Want to plant a garden to produce a certain quantity of crop in a limited space? That’ll require botany, geometry, and basic woodworking--if you want planter boxes. Want to learn history? Time to visit museums and nursing homes.
The goal is to get kids out of the classroom to practice the abstract skills they learned, put them to use in a real-world application.
But Covid-19 threw all of this out the window. Since April this year the Expeditionary Learning program over at Lawrence Jones Middle School has hosted a grand total of zero expeditions. Instead, they’re keeping projects in the home, leaning on Zoom breakout rooms and increased parent involvement.
It’s not ideal, but so far teachers like Peter Menth say their system is holding better than most.
“I’ve been talking to teachers at other schools where they seem to have a problem with attendance. On a typical day I’ll get one-hundred percent attendance. From what I understand that’s unusual,” he said.
Fellow teacher Cal Nelson agreed. “I think one of the things that really helps is that we have the students commit, but the whole family is involved too. We couldn’t do what we do without the parents’ organization and support.”
Part of this is assuredly due to student and parent buy-in. Expeditionary Learning is a voluntary alternative to traditional learning methods, and to join costs money; though each of its teachers made sure to impress that they take great pains in order to accommodate low-income students. This buy-in means the students who make up its program are a self-selecting group, who are capable and willing to contribute for their education.
It’s also a program which depends upon generational learning. Older students assist younger students as they work their way through the program. Eighth graders teach seventh, and seventh teaches sixth; without assistance from older students the burden for basic practices, like packing a camping bag, fall entirely upon the instructors—a daunting prospect for six people trying to teach life skills to a hundred and eighty.
Covid-19 threatens this chain of learning. Lawrence Jones Middle School has no plans to return to in-person instruction until Fall of 2021, which means that sixth graders who entered the Expeditionary Learning program will be eighth graders by the time they return. The burden for helping their younger peers will fall on their shoulders.
“The training wheels are still on for a lot of these kids,” teacher Michelle Yanglin said. “We were fantasizing just the other day that come the spring we could take the kids outside just to teach them basic things like setting up their tent and stove. Even if we could accomplish something like that come spring it would help how we start next year.”