WILLIAM RUTHERFORD: Learning outside the classroom

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Sitting in my office tonight, I have mixed emotions. Have I done everything I can to make this school year amazing for the children who enter our doors? Is the staff trained and motivated to do great work? Are all systems in place to make this school year successful? Have we communicated effectively with parents the focus of our work? Do I have enough energy and passion in my emotional fuel tank to do this work? The answer is a resounding yes!

Starting the school year in an established school is difficult enough, but this year I am leading a school designed from scratch. Northwest Expedition Academy, the newest school in the Coeur d’Alene School District opened its inaugural doors on Sept. 5.

This journey of eight months has been a whirlwind. On a cold and rainy January morning, I meet with the district superintendent and elementary education director at Bakery by the Lake in Coeur d’Alene to discuss the school I might lead if our bond is supported and passed by the voters in Kootenai County. This conversation is passionate, emotional, exciting and scary.

How do we create a school where students learn, that has high rigor, that celebrates diversity and student success, and challenges students to think critically? Can we follow the research on how students learn and create a school where every kid is academically successful, emotionally nurtured and learns how to be successful in the real world? We talk, share ideas, write down thoughts and come to the conclusion — yes we can.

After this January meeting I write my last “Food For Thought” column for this paper and put all of my energy into building this new school. Coming from Fernan STEM Academy, with a focus on project-based learning, I feel a school dedicated to project-based learning that includes expeditionary learning — taking physical and academic expeditions — best educates students of all abilities.

Expeditionary learning and project-based learning break down the walls of the classroom and make the community, state, country and world the classroom. Architects, builders, poets, foresters, bankers, engineers, doctors, writers, scientists and innovative community members come into the classroom and students go into the community to see real work happening. Students ask questions, use scholarly tools to research real-life issues and create projects to solve real-life problems.

The projects students undertake must have an authentic audience. Projects are not simply done for a grade, but are deeply researched, studied, examined and performed to make a difference in this world or to make a permanent, positive change in the child.

An example of a project planned at NExA is the marketing of eggs. Students raise chickens on our campus, calculate and research the correct amount of feed which will produce the best eggs, work with the Department of Agriculture to be certified to sell eggs, create a marketing plan to sell the eggs, go to the grocery store and observe which eggs sell best and interview shoppers on egg preference, create a business to sell the eggs and a business plan to create an authentic business. Students work with the bank to account for the income from the business and an investment banker invests the income from the business. This work will be done by 8-year-old kids.

Most important in our work is student achievement. To be successful in project-based learning, a child must have a strong foundation in math and literacy. These skills are taught using the thinking strategies and the workshop model. Academic rigor is a pillar of our work. Without being mathematically and English/language arts literate, a student can’t do the work in the field. Foundational skills are imperative.

Finishing this column, I think we are ready. My hope is to offer this community an alternative education for students who best learn by leaving their desk and venturing outside their classroom and comfort zone. Challenging students to reach beyond their academic and emotional ability with zest and grit to become whole learners is the goal of NExA. I can’t wait to see the potential of our students.

So, for the regular readers of this column, please forgive me for my hiatus — as you can see, I’ve been busy. For those new to this column, a bit about me. I am an Executive Chef with certifications from the Culinary Institute of America, a psychotherapist in private practice, an Air Force veteran and elementary principal so I write about food, psychology, America and education. I hope you enjoy.

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Send comments or other suggestions to William Rutherford at bprutherford@hotmail.com or visit pensiveparenting.com.

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