Genius Hour Goes Exploring
We just returned from our annual overnight school trip, and it was a fantastic experience. Informal, experiential education has always been part of our school philosophy and since March 2020, we hadn’t been able to fully return to our regular field trips. We knew how important these experiences were for students, and not being able to have one for two years proved to us just how important they were to the fabric of our school.
Since our founding, we have had day trips about six times a year and a two-night trip. The overnight trip is particularly important in the social-emotional development of our students. By traveling together outside of school, they learn flexibility, independence, and social skills that can’t be taught in a classroom. Being away for two nights allows our students to bond and create long-lasting friendships. After the trip the school gels into a true community from this shared experience.
The health and safety restrictions in the 2020-2021 school year prevented us (and the rest of the world) from regular travel, so we didn’t have our annual overnight or any off-campus field trip. We saw the effect on our students. New students didn’t go through the rite-of-passage overnight trip, and the community building, and social connections forged during school outings didn’t take place.
This year, we were determined to bring back the overnight and as the Omicron surge waned in DC and New York, we planned our first overnight trip to New York City for our high schoolers. The experience couldn’t have gone better. As anyone who has chaperoned a group of teenagers on a school trip knows, it is not for the weak, and teens being teens, you know to expect the unexpected. So, I was a little nervous, but excited. It was a resounding success!
At large schools, students travel as part of their extracurriculars, e.g., band, Model UN, and sports teams. The size of our school allows us to take our high school and incorporate informal education as part of our formal education for the entire student body. For our “Return to Travel” trip we had a packed three days. Our trip began early Wednesday morning at Union Station (thank you parents for dropping them off so early!). Learning began for our suburban students at 8 am on Wednesday morning as we boarded the Acela to New York. Being high school students who are building college lists, we could experience “distance from home” as our train made stops in Delaware and Philadelphia. Our students were given a VISA Gift Card with a balance that they would use for half of the meals during the trip to practice budgeting, and the first meal was lunch on the train.
When we arrived in New York, we practiced “walking in the city” which is different from walking in the ‘burbs, dropped off our luggage in the hotel, walked to the commuter ferry (in unplanned sleet) to Hoboken and learned how to tour a college campus. Before starting the tour, we discussed the college, what to observe, and how to reflect on what we would hear and experience. After a phenomenal student tour guide and great presentation by the Dean of Admissions, we had dinner at the dining hall, where we could experience a slice of college life. We made our way to an off-Broadway show, The Play That Went Wrong, which is delightfully funny!
Both mornings, everyone showed up on time to breakfast and was ready to go five minutes before the time we had agreed to leave. We made our way downtown to the Financial District, where we had an informative tour about Wall Street and New York finance. It was personally jarring to me to see how much it has changed since I last spent time there in 1998. In our day dedicated to history, we learned about 9/11, which happened before any of our students were born. As a country, we felt 9/11, but being in New York, where so many innocent people lost their lives, evokes a feeling that can’t be described. Closing the day with Come from Away and the story of the diverted planes on 9/11 to Newfoundland reminded us about the goodness of people.
On our third day, we spent our day focused on Engineering, by visiting the Intrepid and the Empire State Building. After miles and miles of walking, they were troopers and were just so happy to be out with their friends. After great programming at both locations, we made our way back to the train to go back home. The trip felt both incredibly short, and terrifically long. We had so much fun that it went by in the blink of an eye, and we were able to accomplish so much that it felt like we’d been there for one week.
Throughout our trip we received so many compliments from people about how engaged our students were and how polite and clean they were. We knew about them being polite and engaged but being complimented for being clean and organized was new to us! It wasn’t just one person, but so many friendly New Yorkers went out of their way to let us know how great our kids are. Before leaving, we had prepared them as ambassadors of our school, and they all rose up to the challenge. We were able to see them stand a little taller and come together as a group. Kids who normally wouldn’t have talked became friends.
Not having field trips for this long has proved to us the power of informal learning to both engage students in their formal education, but to teach them the critical soft skills necessary for college and for their careers. Next year our high schoolers will not only go on our overnight trip (Boston), but we are launching a new program. The resources in our backyard are tremendous - we live a Metro ride away from Washington, DC, and it’s a shame that as locals we don’t make time to appreciate everything the DMV area has to offer. Therefore, the city will become our classroom.
Think of it as Google’s Genius Hour goes exploring. We will not schedule classes on Friday afternoons, so students are able to go out from noon to 5:15 (or later if needed). Students will plan and organize the trips, and a teacher will be there as an adult. We will get to know the many dimensions of DC, Maryland, and Virginia, and I can’t wait to see what innovation or insight comes out of next year’s exploration!
P.S. Next month, our middle schoolers return to Chincoteague Bay Field Station for their overnight field trip, and they can’t wait!
A few weeks ago, I wrote about research papers and the writing process. Today I will again write about writing, but a different type of writing - writing fluency and finding your voice. Imagine the scene - you need to write something, and nothing is coming out. You stare at a blank Google Doc and there is no inspiration. Well, that has been me for the past few days. Anything I start writing about pales in comparison to the crisis in Ukraine, so I delete it and say a prayer for the people of Ukraine and for world peace.
I can picture teens going through a similar experience as they work on writing assignments that are difficult. Some people love writing, and it comes easily to them, for others it’s more challenging. We are very fortunate to have a high-school English teacher who was trained in the Writing Project, and she has brought her magic to our school. I call it magic because I have witnessed students who struggled with writing for years, blossom in her classroom. I have seen students for whom writing is a non-preferred activity, as well as beautiful, eloquent writers who can manipulate language artistically, become paralyzed as they approach each assignment as if it were an Olympic performance.
In Ms. Anne’s classroom students keep a blog about something that interests them. By giving students a choice to write about something they love and are interested in, they find their voice. Not only that, but they also learn to enjoy writing. Through their blogs, our students identify something that piques their interest that they will write about for the year. Since it is a subject that they know about, the writing is not measuring knowledge, it’s a type of journal about something they love. It’s all typed so their hands shouldn’t get tired. In this way, the focus is fluency, and like anything in life, the more you do something, the better you become at it. The goal is to give students an opportunity to write and write often. Through this practice they will become better writers. All that we ask of them is to give the process a chance and to try to open up on paper. “Talk” to the page (or computer) the way you would to a friend. And if you have a hard time getting started, set a timer, and just write for that period of time. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be error free. There is no judgment, just effort, and it’s about something you like. The objective is to get your thoughts on the page.
I have used this same technique in the Economics class I teach. As I tend to work with 10th and 11th grade students, they have already had Ms. Anne for at least a year. I reserve a few class periods each year for current events. We read an article from the Wall Street Journal related to what we are studying in class, and then we “write a response.” Students are used to having prompts to answer, but I want them to get used to formulating opinions and working in ambiguous, open-ended situations as we mirror what the professional world is like. Usually, the ones who struggle most with this type of assignment in my class are my high achievers, and they want to know the rules in order to do well. My response is usually the same, pretend you are in Ms. Anne’s class, and just write for the next 15 minutes. I just want to know what you’re thinking. We’ll go from there. There’s no right or wrong.
So, for this week’s post, that’s what I did. I have pretended to be a student in Ms. Anne’s class, and I have “just written” for 30 minutes. Next time your child is struggling with putting something down on a page, ask them to tell you about something they love - be it a video game or a friend. As they start telling you about it, ask them to write it (type it) for you for five minutes.
If you’re curious about some of our students’ blogs - here are some of the ones that were published externally:
Juliana Heitz is co-founder of Ideaventions Academy and is very excited to share the thinking behind the Academy.
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