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A Standards Movement in the Spirit of Expeditionary Learning

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    Lauren Parent

Teams of REALMS students measure stream health by classifying aquatic invertebrates into groups based on their pollution tolerance levels.

On the banks of tumalo creek outside of bend, oregon, Sarah and her teammates extract and identify macro-invertebrates in a tub of water. Their classmates stretch a measuring tape along the bank of the river as they prepare to measure vegetation growth. These eighth-graders have been monitoring the health of the Tumalo Creek watershed for over five years, sampling and testing water quality, and planting and monitoring the growth of streamside vegetation. Like all students at REALMS Charter School, they are engaged in long-term intensive fieldwork, collaborating with local professionals as they build their understanding of and connection to our “home waters.” 

REALMS has always prided itself on creating strong fieldwork projects in which students are involved in authentic, ongoing studies of local habitats. These kinds of projects were central to our school’s founding mission, and over time they have become the driver of much of our curriculum. We engage students in the hands-on work that professionals in the field engage in, knowing that these kinds of authentic projects lend themselves to high-level learning.

However, unlike many schools, the starting place for our planning has always been the fieldwork, rather than the grade-level curriculum standards. We have always approached curriculum development by first thinking about what kind of real work our students would be doing in the field, and then moved to the content and skills they would need to understand in order to complete that work. Over time, the teachers at REALMS have wrapped these fieldwork projects in rich lessons designed to help students build background knowledge, make sense of the data they are collecting, and then communicate their new knowledge to the larger community in the hopes of making a difference. What started as “science projects” has evolved into interdisciplinary expeditions where middle school teachers of science, art, math, and humanities collaborate to develop rich curriculum that bridges the gap between the classroom and community. Despite the richness of these experiences for our students, the process for us was in many ways backwards—develop the fieldwork and then
surround it with curriculum.

Responding to the Common Core

The transition to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has changed things for us. We can now build our curriculum around the standards because they support the kind of work that we believe is best for kids. The standards give us a nationwide directive that encourages us to go deep, not wide, moving us beyond memorization and toward meaningful application. Finally we have a standards movement in keeping with the spirit of EL.

At REALMS, we have always taught students how to work in collaborative groups to solve problems. We have always looked for ways that students can apply their classroom learning to real-world problems. Now as we weave Common Core standards into our existing curriculum, including the instructional shifts required in literacy and math, we realize that there is great synergy between what we have built as an EL school—with our focus on fieldwork—and what we must build as we prepare our students to be college and career ready.

Developing high-quality fieldwork projects, connecting students with experts, building background knowledge, and finding audiences and authentic opportunities for students to “make a difference” is already intense and time consuming work. Adding more opportunities to grapple with complex texts, develop evidence-based writing skills, and ensure students are thinking critically about the content in conjunction with this kind of fieldwork is, for sure, asking a lot. However, it is the kind of work our particular school needs most. Students at REALMS are learning and experiencing things that most middle school students never get to experience. Implementing the CCSS holds the potential for creating citizens who care about the earth, care about each other, and care about learning—and have the skills to make a difference as scholars.

Roger White is the director of Rimrock Expeditionary Alternative Learning Middle School (REALMS) in Bend, Oregon. He has been a school leader at REALMS for 10 years and was a teacher for 16 years.