Idaho Falls elementary employs ‘expeditionary’ approach

IDAHO FALLS — Jill Rehfield sometimes uses a quilt to quiz her second graders: “How are you a little bit like the threads of this blanket?” she asks the students, who are seated in a circle on the floor.

A few seconds pass. A hand shoots into the air.

“It doesn’t matter what color you are or what you look like,” says student Chloe Ball. “It matters what’s on the inside.”

Rehfield flashes an approving smile, then walks the students through a series of breathing exercises.

“Breathe out fears,” she says. “Breathe in something strong and powerful.”

The activities are all part of “crew time,” a series of short morning exercises aimed at helping students at Sunnyside Elementary School build character and navigate the daily transition from home to school. It’s also part of a current school-wide shift toward Expeditionary Learning (EL), a method that promotes group work, case studies and expeditions hinged on three core areas of learning:

  • Mastery of knowledge and skills;
  • Development of character;

    IMG_0506
    Sunnyside second graders and teacher Jill Rehfield examine a quilt as part of a morning excursive aligned with Expeditionary Learning.
  • Production of high quality work.

Sunnyside teachers are already touting EL’s effectiveness, even amid the school’s years-long transition to the program.

“It’s been a little bit like walking into the unknown,” said third-grade teacher Ashley Campbell. “However, I can tell you I’m much better at teaching the standards and getting students actively engaged because of it.”

But conflict has also accompanied the shift. In 2015, news of Sunnyside’s looming EL program triggered the exodus of veteran teacher Michelle Ball, who left to start her own school — and took dozens of Sunnyside students with her.

Moving toward an EL framework

Up until two years ago, another nontraditional approach prevailed at Sunnyside: multiage, or spectrum, learning. With Ball at the helm, teachers built curriculums catered to students’ abilities, instead of instruction based on age.

Sunnyside principal Lance Lindley acknowledges spectrum’s advantages, but started noticing what he considers a flaw in the multiage approach.

“The core groups that kids worked in were often all they knew,” he said.

As a result, Lindley sought a method more conducive to a variety of student interactions, and says he found it in EL. By 2015, regional EL designer Martha Martin began walking Lindley through the EL implementation process. An EL principal of 15 years, Martin has overseen implementation in several schools, including three in Idaho.

Meanwhile, Ball feared that her multiage model would be utterly dissolved in the wake of the EL transition. So she left Sunnyside, and took 24 of her own students with her. (Ball is now a teacher-administrator at the school she started, Alturas International Academy, one of Idaho Falls’ largest charter schools. For more information about her experience starting the new school, click here.) 

Though Martin says she’s always made it clear that EL and multiage models can work in the same environment, she admits suggesting that Sunnyside focus on implementing EL first, which triggered Ball’s eventual departure.

In 2015-16, the Idaho Falls School District signed a $50,000 contract to begin full implementation of the program. This year’s tab for implementation services is roughly $75,000.

EL progressing at Sunnyside

Sunnyside’s EL program is still in its infancy, and full implementation can take years.

“You’ll still see a lot of traditional things happening at Sunnyside,” Martin said. “But you’ll also see major changes as time goes on.”

As a result of the prolonged implementation, Martin encourages teachers to postpone the full-blown expeditions inherent in most EL models. Currently, teachers walk students through a series of in-depth case studies.

A typical case study can last months, and usually centers on a single topic or phenomenon. According to Martin, narrowing the focus of study helps students tackle EL’s first major tenant — gaining a mastery of knowledge and skills. Rather than glossing over vast amounts of information, teachers train students to develop more thorough understanding of a single topic.

Campbell’s third graders most recently dove deep into a months-long study of bats, from independent research to small and large group activities to Fish and Game experts visiting the classroom.

“My favorite part was learning about bats on the computers,” said student Emarie Cefalo. “I found out that bats pollinate like bees.”

Meanwhile, teachers take a step back. Acting more as facilitators, they align assignments and projects to Common Core standards, roam their rooms and answer questions. Students take the reigns during most activities.

“Parent-teacher conferences were easy for me this year,” Campbell said. “The kids did all the talking.”

During the most recent batch of parent-teacher conferences, Sunnyside students walked their parents through their own artwork, research, essays and assessments revolving around their case study. The regular presentation and display of projects and other assignments ensures that students strive for higher quality work, Martin said. If students know their projects and papers will be presented to their peers and parents, they’ll almost always produce better work.

Principal Lindley keyed in on another perceived plus stemming from his school’s shift toward EL: acceptance and inclusion.

“The other day I heard one student tell another, ‘I understand your point, but I respectfully disagree,'” Lindlay said. “We like that because we want the students to know they can disagree with each other in a productive way.”

Martin says Sunnyside’s case studies will evolve into full-blown expeditions soon, with students assuming more of a “practitioner” role in future work. While working as principal of Pocatello’s Community Charter School, her EL students worked alongside city biologists to help identify and safeguard against bacteria in Pocatello’s water supply.

Martin also pointed to EL’s website, which highlights a series of thorough expedition-based projects from EL students across the country, including scaled drawings of the United States using a statistic other than population, and a topographic representation of the environmental impact of the Portneuf River watershed.

“We’ll start to see more things like that happen at Sunnyside,” she said. “Come to the school next year and then the next year and then the next year, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.”

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