Real World Experiences / Field Experiences Overview

-by Jack M. Jose

canoeing
Students exploring a river on a school day.

Summer 2014, I was walking to a speaking engagement at the Westwood library when a car pulled into the driveway in front of me. Two young men stepped out. Both had been in my class and my songwriting intersession 5 years earlier. The driver, Devon, was the type of student who would good-naturedly accept your correction on his behavior, and would apologize and commit to self-improvement. However, he would then, after an hour or a couple of days, continue right along making the same mistakes. Course failures caught up to him and he dropped out of school without a plan to support himself or continue his education.

When Devon got out of the car, he greeted me heartily, “I wanted to thank you, Mr. Jose.”

I reflected on the ways I felt I had failed him: how I sat through conferences where I pointed out his weaknesses and called for improvement without acknowledging his strengths, how I was unable to figure out how to keep him focused, how I failed to make him to see the importance of education, and the fact that he left the school without earning a diploma. I genuinely felt that his thanks was unwarranted.

“Mr. Jose, you guys never gave up on me, and you let me know I could be something once I put my mind to it. Oh, and remember the song intersession? I think about that a lot. And white-water rafting? I wish school could have been like that all the time.”

Devon’s last comment demonstrates the powerful nature of experiential learning. Years after he left his formal education, he remembered positively two events with us: two spring “mini-courses” that we call intersessions. The songwriting intersession, and a white water rafting and mountain ecology intersession, had created permanent positive associations with school. He successfully completed the kind of academic work in those events that he struggled to complete during the rest of the school year. These intersession activities kept him engaged and motivated, and he clearly required more of that then we could provide.

A thorough education acquaints a student with many disciplines, of course, but it must do more than that. At Gamble Montessori, we incorporate field experiences to deepen students’ understanding of the world outside the classroom. Field experiences are improved by having as many of the following structural components as is practical:

Components of a Successful Field Experience:

  • learning with experts in the field (including passionate teachers);
  • cover sheet / cycle plan that details the “theme” of what students are learning, captures the “big idea” and key questions to be considered during the study;
  • intense advance preparation
    • teaching about what to expect
    • planning details of the trip together
    • providing a complete checklist of all the work to be accomplished
  • related reading(s) and a seminar (formal guided discussion on topics related to the experience)
  • kickoff and culminating ceremonies or activites to add to the sense that this is a special event, set off from other instruction;
  • community service component, preferably related to the focus of the seminar;
  • a cooperative game to help foster a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment among  participants;
  • culminating project – some permanent keepsake / totem (for my songwriting intersession, every student got the “album” of our collected songs).

Jack M. Jose