Experiential Courses Offer Opportunity to Explore Places

Map of City Semester field projects in New York City.

If you hear the words, “experiential, expeditionary, or hands-on learning,”  “adventure education,” or “outdoor education director” in your school district, it may be an opportunity to present your museum or historic site as a valuable resource.  For decades, schools have focused on formal educational process emphasizing lectures and textbooks, but that seems to be changing according to Jenny Anderson in her New York Times article, “For Bronx Private School, All the City’s a Classroom in an Experiential Course.”  She describes the City Semester: The Bronx Experience, new educational venture by the private Ethical Cultural Fieldson School.  It’s a semester-long program that, “integrates history, English, science, ethics, language, civic leadership and the arts around the study of New York City- through the lens of the Bronx. Like other semester programs, City Semester offers a chance to step outside your everyday routine, have an adventure, challenge your assumptions and grow in new ways.” Each week the class combines classwork with at least one day in the city visiting businesses and historic sites (such as Woodlawn Cemetery and the Louis Armstrong House), interviewing residents and workers, and exploring neighborhoods and rivers to study such topics or questions as, “Is New York sustainable?,” “diversity and mobility,” and “who runs New York?” A sample week shows such activities as:

  • historical mapping project of the Bronx River
  • reading the House of Mirth
  • learning how to conduct oral histories
  • a bus tour of affordable and public housing projects
  • learning about placebooking
  • responding to an art gallery exhibit

According to Patrick Bassett, head of the National Association of Independent Schools, “They are getting great results.  It’s what colleges are looking for.”

Anderson, however, notes some challenges in the ambitious program, including the expense of having 8-10 teachers devoted to a program serving 15-20 students; scheduling conflicts with other classes; and dealing with the complexity of logistics and weather while off campus (e.g., managing rain or losing the canoe holding the lunches). You can find the students’ perspective on the program’s blog, which seems to have started out enthusiastically and then was slowly abandoned as the semester progressed (no surprise here). Nevertheless, teens are rare visitors to historic sites and museums, so the blog provides helpful content to find out what catches their attention and are memorable experiences.

If you are really interested in this new form of education, check out the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (who knew there was such a thing?).  Reviewing their annual institutes, it seems to focus on environmental education, service learning, diversity, and sustainability but hasn’t encountered historic sites or museums (seems this group is strongly affiliated with Project Adventure, a non-profit organization that emphasizes individual responsibility and team-building through challenge courses and adventure camps).