Traverse ’16 – Do We Develop Curiosity? How Do We Know?

by Jen Frickey, Director of Curriculum

I walked away from Traverse ‘15 thinking more deeply about whether Eagle Rock School truly taps into the passion and curiosity of our students. I walked away committed to helping students develop authentic interests and curiosity, and I was left with the reformulation of “Project Based Learning” to “P-Based Learning” (a synthesis designed to include Place, Project, Problem, and Passion-Based Learning). Does Eagle Rock, as an academic institution, have such objectives cemented in across its curriculum? Do we, as a community, keep them at the core of what we do both in and out of the classroom? This P-based learning take away helped me come back to school more focused on explicitly looking at how we were and were not making these opportunities possible.

I was excited!

Eagle Rock is a values-driven school, and we believe wholeheartedly in our 8+5=10 set of school values. These themes, expectations, and commitments, which we build our community off of, intersect and parallel “P-Based Learning” to such a degree, I wanted to reflect more deeply on the number of ways we give our students opportunities to connect with this deeper learning and exposure to authentic learning possibilities. I realized there are two main ways we do this: we are committed to building and advancing existing student “P”s, and by working to enlarge the set of “P”s students are exposed to, interested and energized by. I returned from Traverse with a more focused lens to look critically at where these two types of student interest development opportunities existed in our curriculum.

For instance, at Eagle Rock we believe strongly in exposing our students to place-based learning opportunities, diversity in the adults and environments they interact with, and a wide variety of topics and areas of learning. ERS is a small, tuition-free, residential school with students from all over the US. Despite relatively large amounts of creative freedom and autonomy in curriculum design, our context can sometimes feel constraining. I returned from Traverse 2015 and realized “Explore Week” represents a significant opportunity to enhance the “P-BL-ness” of our curriculum. “Explore Week” is a mid-semester break from academic classes in which students can sign up for a one week interest seminar or trip, and a way to diversify and increase the exposure our students have to learning new things. This has been a part of the Eagle Rock schedule for many years, although it has just been in the last couple years that our new Explore Week co-ordinator started to work more intentionally to look at HOW interests develop in people.

​What is the natural trajectory that interests and passions grow within, and how do we tap into that as a school? This is where Traverse tapped into our need to continually look deeper at all the variables in P-based learning, and a natural place for me to start my deeper examination of student opportunity at Eagle Rock.

When I started to look for ways that we were helping expose students to completely new interest possibilities, two quickly emerged as examples. Glassblowing was an artform completely foreign to one of our students a year ago. Nonetheless, he signed up for the Explore Week class last year with a local glass artist, and was engaged to such an extent he spent the most recent Explore Week engaged in a 1:1 internship with this glass artist, and he is now applying to art school. We’ve also been interested in introducing our students to coding and more diverse learning around computer programming, but we just didn’t have that expertise on staff. In response, last year our Explore Week coordinator brought in two grad students (one an engineering student from MIT and the other a student in Learning Sciences from CU Boulder) to run a week long robotics seminar, with the dual intention of engaging and immersing our students in this learning, while also guiding one of our teachers in how to facilitate learning opportunities in this area. It’s exciting to know that in Fall of  2016 we will be offering a full academic class on coding and robotics because of this work.

As I started to reflect on ways we improve on interests that already exist in our students, I thought about our close knit community and the number of formal and informal leadership roles that students play. We’re always interested in how to deepen the leadership learning and self work our students are doing to best prepare them for their future. Under the guidance of our academic Leadership for Justice team, our teachers worked with our head of school and student services team to create an “embodied leadership” week long seminar for interested students, with visiting experts in this area. Once again, we used this model of student immersion and learning combined with having our staff work with visiting experts to increase our internal staff ability to continue this work even after Explore Week was over. This co-curricular work in embodied leadership and somatic coaching has carried on in and out of the classroom over the past year and we are experiencing noticeable gains in student leadership because of it.

Every school has it’s “yeah but” statements on why things can’t work for them, and at Eagle Rock we’ve also struggled with this in the past. BUT (yes, that’s an intentional use of the word!) here’s my stance as a school leader – let’s focus on what we CAN do in our setting, our reality. Let’s figure out how we CAN adapt to geographical realities, schedule limitations, financial implications. Let’s work on what IS possible, rather than why we can’t do it the way other schools have. Let’s look both inside the classroom and outside, both geographically and through our daily and annual schedule. Explore Week wasn’t our full spectrum of what we do at Eagle Rock, but it was a tangible and practical place to start, and already we are seeing benefits from how a week long exposure for staff and students, can have a ripple effect into a full trimester of learning exploration through P-based learning.

We have realized at Eagle Rock that it is critical for us to continually reflect on how we are offering authentic P-based learning opportunities for our students, and what truly engages them, not just what we as adults think they should learn about. Taking time to truly step back and think about how authentic interests develop, and then be willing to be creative with how we expose our students to new opportunities continues to help us get better. As I prepare for Traverse ‘16, I’m really excited to connect with other powerful educators around the country to really think deeply about how we are engaging our students in real-world learning across a school setting. How are we creating opportunities and then ‘getting out of the way’ to really let students dive in and develop authentic curiosity and interest? I look forward to hours of great conversation and learning together as we all come together in Boulder in June!