Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Expeditionary Learning - an Interview with Marcia Fulton of the Odyssey School

The Odyssey School is a K-8 Expeditionary Learning charter school in Denver, which always has a waiting list and plenty of happy families that were lucky enough to get in. I recently talked to the Principal, Marcia Fulton about what makes this school different.

What is Expeditionary Learning?

The Odyssey School draws its direction and strength from Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound Design Principles. The curriculum is designed around rigorous, purposeful, project-based learning expeditions tied to Colorado State Standards. We describe school success in three groups of synergistic indicators that collectively provide a rich and real-world vision of student achievement and readiness for college and 21st Century work. Our measures include: Academics (content, standards), Character (habits of a learner, motivation and civic- engagement), and High Quality Product (portfolios, projects). We feel that anyone can access content in this day and age and it is not critical or possible to know everything. We value depth over breadth and strive for students to become experts in a topic that is compelling and rigorous. For example, 6th grade students work to answer the question: Is Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion a story of progress? They are asked to research using the Ute tribe as a case study. In science they dig into the study of geology becoming experts in geological timelines, the composition and structure of the earth and rock and mineral composition. They go into the field like true scientists and historians do to explore their topic, gain critical thinking skills, and to see the big picture or big ideas. At the end of their 6th grade year, students take a 12 day fieldwork/adventure trip. As scientists, they do geological site interpretations on their way to the ultimate site, the Grand Canyon. As historians, they are asked to share their historical monologues with the members of the Ute tribe on the reservation as they make their way back home.

There are also the six “Habits of a Learner” that are an integral part of our culture. We want students to be both academically brilliant as well as thoughtful people and life-long learners. In 3rd, 5th and 8th grades students go through a passage process whereby each student must prove in a portfolio and through a panel presentation that they are proficient in our stated “Habits of a Learner”. The six Habits are: Revision, Inquiry, Perspective Taking, Responsibility, Collaboration/Leadership, and Stewardship/Service. These six Habits will serve them well in any setting in life.

I am looking at the huge banner above your desk that reads, “We are crew, not passengers.” Tell me about that.

Everyone at this school has a destination and we are all pulling our weight. We are active in getting to that destination, not passive passengers expecting others to do the work to get us there. No one gets left behind and we all get there through collaboration and hard work. It fits exactly with the Expeditionary Learning model.

What kind of student does well in this environment and what kind does not?

In my opinion, whether or not a child is a fit for Odyssey is more about having parents buy into the entire educational model. Kids are a natural fit; however, as a portfolio school, you have to be willing to do the work. We‘ve had only a couple of kids here that were brilliant kids but not interested in working that hard. They wanted to just take some test to prove they knew a subject and be done with it. The academic standards, the “Habits of a Learner”, the portfolios, the field trips…those all require a lot of effort and perseverance.

How is the role of the teacher different in this school?

We trust and empower our teachers to create compelling content, based on the state standards, each year. Nothing is handed to them. They set up experts in the content areas, field work opportunities, support the adventure program and work to ensure that all students meet the named learning targets. They facilitate learning, rather than lecture. They highlight students’ strengths and are diagnosticians who respond to students’ needs. Because of the nature of this kind of learning, it is never stagnant. They are always developing and refining their craft. They are encouraged to find pathways to grown and learn as professionals and are supported in doing such.

Odyssey is quite successful and the wait list is always full. How do you get enrolled in this school?

We’ve been open for 11 years, though we just now feel like we are hitting our stride because we’ve moved four times in the first five years of our existence. There is a lottery to get in and it is weighted for those who qualify for the free/reduces lunch program. Siblings also receive a priority in the lottery. This year we have 300 on the wait list and there were 20 slots open (including Kindergarten) at the time of the lottery. Real choice for a parent means that they can choose between high performing schools that are in alignment with their values and philosophies. It should not be only about test scores. We do not take three months out of the school year to teach to the CSAP test. We believe that a strong standards-based education means teaching to the test every day. The Expeditionary Learning schools are growing and there are more choices now. There are 15 schools in Colorado, most of them in the Front Range.

After the interview, Marcia took me on a tour of the school, where she greeted each student she encountered by name. Our last stop was the Eighth Grade classroom, where students were working on revising their passage portfolios for the presentations of their “Habits of a Learner”. She asked one student to show me his work. He described the projects he had done and the proficiency he had achieved in each of the six Habits along the way. He was articulate, confident, friendly, and open. I left very much impressed with the students and staff at the Odyssey School.

For more information on the Odyssey school go to:

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