Rooted in Adventure

By Anne Brakob • Sep 04, 2018

At Jane Goodall Environmental Sciences Academy (JGESA), our motto is, “Out of the Classroom and into the World.” We promote the ideal of a limitless classroom rather than a confining one. Our community of students is served by staff that work to provide an educational model that promotes growth of the whole person.

Educators who work in teacher-powered schools like ours do so collaboratively, developing a shared purpose. As lifelong learners we reap inspiration from one another. As professionals we enjoy the sense of control we have in realizing our mission while continuing to connect with students, the biggest of these advantages.

Our team has a special bond that allows us to trust our colleagues as educators and fulfill this ideal. Yet we can be so entrenched in the day-to-day school work we do—with students and in our accompanying duties as administrators—that sometimes we miss out on the great things our colleagues encounter. We often fail to pause and think of the changes that have taken place in the students themselves. Doing so can be startling and transformative.

Pack your bags. Charge up the GoPro. Destination: Florida.

My colleague Ms. Haag had started communicating with leaders of a defunct camp in Florida and, as she puts it, they said, “bring your school down here.” She and another teacher, Ms. Paulson, brought students together to plan a student-led trip to Seahorse Key. The trip’s destination, a research outpost used by the University of Florida, was all the students knew of when they joined the project.

Planning for spontaneous learning

The students met each week to plan, delegate responsibilities, and make critical decisions. The planning of where to stay, how to travel, what to cook, what equipment to bring, and what research projects to engage in was all taken on by students. They also decided how to budget the money they raised for the trip. Our advisors are comfortable with students not knowing everything they need to know as they encounter new, real-world tasks like these. How many young people are able to have this sort of experience?

Ms. Haag observed that the students struggled to hone in on what they wanted to study as they planned the trip. Part of this may have come from their own lack of experience in this form of inquiry, so they found it difficult to envision they would do when they got to Florida. So the students gathered together a loose plan to keep them grounded in research. Haag observed as they traveled and met Captain Kenny, the boat driver for their travel around the Keys, that the students, “broadened their interest and began to see the trip as an interdisciplinary adventure. [Captain Kenny] was especially helpful in providing local history and a firsthand account of the rise of aquaculture, a farming technique for shellfish.” The students all expressed interest in studying aquaculture on their return trip next year.

“The students were able to see both the benefit of planning and being open to being flexible to changes in plans, accepting new learning opportunities as they came about,” Haag said.

With support from Ms. Haag, students formed a partnership with another environmentally-focused school, Academy of Environmental Science.

When students decide to learn something, we do our best to “make it happen,” said Haag. That’s where she sees the power in teacher-powered: allowing teachers to make decisions in the best interest of their students.

Trusting in perseverance as a valued trait allows students a chance to explore

Our school values learning how to work together and plan for a common goal, like taking a trip. Most school administrative teams would not want to relinquish power and allow those kinds of decisions to be left to students. But our staff embraces these experiences and recognizes their value as training for adult workplace skills. We found that allowing students who meet certain academic and behavioral criteria freedoms such as these creates a fervor in others to work towards meeting those criteria. Being able to gain genuine real-world experience can provide the best learning experience of all: success after failure and self-actualization.

Our staff believes in allowing students this control and allowing them time to share their learning with the community. Through these peer-to-peer examples students learn from each other to see the connection between how they act and communicate, and the influence it has on those around them. At a teacher-powered school, we can set the stage for student involvement and we can influence students to lead.

Inspiration to continue

Ms. Paulson, a veteran of 38 wilderness trips who has led and mentored students groups on trips with JGESA, has seen this inclination to leadership in students take hold. “The students who went last year have asked to take ownership [of] planning usually left to wilderness guides in their twenties.”

Advisors like Ms. Paulson and Ms. Haag share their passion for wilderness adventure with students. It’s a mutual exchange made possible by working in a teacher-powered school. One student remarked after a recent trip, “I was a little worried because I didn’t know how I would do in the woods for five days…but I felt compelled to it and like I needed it, and now that I’m back I know that it was exactly what I needed.”

Inspiration to continue these initiatives comes from our students and from these passionate educators taking learning, “Out of the Classroom and into the World.”

About JGESA:
Jane Goodall Environmental Sciences Academy is a project-based, teacher-powered school located just outside the town of Maple Lake, MN. It has 300 wooded acres as its campus on the shore of Cedar Lake. Its 100+ students reside in neighboring counties, some traveling nearly fifty miles to school each day.

About the author:
Anne Brakob began teaching as a result of volunteering in schools. She enjoyed interacting with students and saw firsthand what worked well for students. Anne says she is lucky enough to work in a school that values her observations and enables her to collaborate with her teaching colleagues to create a dynamic learning experience for their students.