Sitting down with Christine Miller to talk about what it means to be an Expeditionary Learning (EL) school, it doesn’t take long to realize that the St. George School is not a typical K-8 educational institution. For one thing, Miller, who is the school’s Instructional Coordinator, has a job that involves responsibilities that many school principals would recognize—among them facilitating instruction and focusing on curriculum and performance—but the St. George School doesn’t have a principal.
“We went to a shared leadership model [when we withdrew from Regional School Unit 13],” Miller explains, “so we don’t have a principal anymore. To have the teachers working in teams—K-2nd grade, 3rd-5th grade, 6th-8th grade, unified arts and special services—and being trusted with the freedom to collaborate with each other to figure out how to do what’s best for their age group is definitely not common.”
Miller adds that, unlike with the usual principal’s role, the unique piece of her role is that she has the opportunity to work with students more directly and with teachers more directly. “I don’t have to worry about things like the budget—that’s the superintendent’s job.”
That the school’s superintendent—and not its principal—is responsible for its budget is also unusual, Miller points out. “It is not really common for a school to be its own Municipal School Unit, so it is very rare to have a superintendent full time in the building. In addition to carrying out his administrative responsibilities, Mr. Felton is in classrooms and working with kids and is very involved in everything.”
Choosing to become an EL school also sets the St. George School apart from other schools. “There are only a few EL schools in Maine and only one other elementary school,” Miller notes. The St. George School is now in its second year of the five-year process involved in getting certification as an EL school.
If the “expeditionary” in Expeditionary Learning sounds like this type of education involves pith helmets and adventure, that is not far off the mark. EL, in fact, is a nationwide organization that started with Outward Bound, the outdoor education organization which aims to foster personal growth and social skills in young people through challenging experiences.
“EL works well for us because we are trying to be innovative and to think about learning outside of the classroom,” Miller notes. She cites last year’s 2nd grade class and its “expedition” on lobsters and lobstering. “They looked at lobstering in our community, at how our community depends on lobstering, on what we can do to keep lobstering here. They went to Herring Gut to study the lobsters, they monitored a web cam placed in a trap, they talked to lobstermen, they produced a video about lobsters and lobstering, they created placemats about lobstering and sold them to local restaurants.”
Unit teaching, Miller admits, is nothing new, but she says EL is more focused and concentrates on specific standards appropriate to the topic. In the case of the 2nd grade lobster expedition, that meant teaching the students how to convey information about lobsters and lobstering through writing, how to read informational material, and how to use math and science skills when collecting scientific data at Herring Gut. The students even read a book about lobstering in French during French class. Most important, Miller emphasizes, the EL experience makes learning “authentic” because it is rooted in meaningful, real-life enquiry and has a goal of coming up with a valuable final product that can be shared with the community. “The kids get an understanding of why they need to know how to write, of why they need to know science.”
Given the Outward Bound genesis of EL, it is also not surprising that a key feature of the EL approach to education is that students are expected to take strong ownership of their learning.
“In just about everything our students are self-assessing their learning,” Miller explains. “So rather than parent/teacher conferences, we have student-led conferences. The students know what is expected of them, what the learning targets are and the steps to take to become proficient in meeting those targets. They know that they all won’t necessarily be able to ride a bike the first time they get on a bike, that it takes multiple opportunities to try riding, that it takes practice. So for the student it is more about what can I do as a learner—I may not know how to do this but I can try in different ways and if that doesn’t work there are multiple opportunities to try again. We’re focused on teaching perseverance and a ‘growth’ mindset across the school.”
In this regard, the thing that most obviously reflects the St. George School’s perseverance and growth mindset is that no student becomes pigeonholed as, for example, an “A” student or a “C” student. Instead the students are evaluated in terms of “meeting standards,” “exceeding standards,” “partially meeting standards” and the like. Everyone, Miller says, is expected to meet the standards, but it’s not that they have just one shot, just one test in which to do so. “We have multiple measures of what success looks like. And no matter where our kids are we have good data to support that they are growing. Meeting kids where they are is what we do.”
For the school’s teachers, meeting students where they are, along with working collaboratively in teams and focusing on interdisciplinary “expeditions,” presents a significant challenge.
“The teachers all had to buy into this goal of becoming an EL school,” Miller stresses. “We all had to say we know it’s a lot of work—it’s a new way of looking at the way we’ve always done things. It’s incorporating all the content areas together for different lengths of time rather than just saying math is from 9am to 10am, writing is from 10am to 11am. It’s collaborating with other teachers, whereas in the past teachers were used to just being in their classroom with their class. This is more interdisciplinary, which takes more time to plan, to find the time to get with other teachers to discuss learning objectives and goals.”
Miller says there is also a lot of extra professional development involved. “Each teacher chooses two professional goals each year. An example might be learning how to incorporate technology into their literacy instruction. My job is to help them find professional development opportunities or to find resources for them or to support them by coming into their classroom and doing an observation to give them feedback. The teachers have to be willing to constantly change and improve. What we ask the kids to do we have to do ourselves.”
In some ways, Miller adds, teaching today is different than it used to be. “Maybe we are more aware of needing to meet the needs of the whole child. I think that is something we’re really doing well here. Our school is small and tight enough to feel that we really know the students well. We are very in tune with the whole child in front of us.”
Miller, who grew up in St. George (a Jacobson, her great grandfather came here from Sweden to work in the quarries), also believes it is not possible to talk about how the St. George School’s innovative approach to education is benefitting students without acknowledging the support the larger community provides. “There’s something about this community that we really care about one another. The school has an open campus in a way—we get extra support from the town’s Recreation Department, the Jackson Memorial Library, Blueberry Cove Camp, Herring Gut Learning Center, math camp and sailing camp in the summer. And the kids just eat it up!”—JW
PHOTOS: Top, Julie Wortman, bottom, courtesty Herring Gut Learning Center