What is a Journey of Discovery at Woodland Community School? Simply put, it is a topic that the students and teachers choose to delve into together. Everyone must agree to the Journey by finding something within that theme that sparks their curiosity. This “something” that is the spark for each child is as varied and unique as the students themselves!
Recently, I had the privilege of observing a Journey of Discovery. The Journey at the time, Survival, was winding down. It was a gray, drizzly day in late October, but inside, the school was full of busy students pursuing a wide array of projects related to Survival. Here is what I saw:
On the floor in the kitchen three of the younger students, Pilot, Harper, and Luca, sit cross legged in a semi circle. Each boy is equipped with a carving knife and a stick and is whittling a wooden "survival knife,” casting shavings onto his lap and the floor around him. Later, when the three decide to change activities, they each take a turn sweeping up their own mess with a brush and dustpan. Next the boys find a large picture book about knives from many cultures. The three cluster around the book, discussing the pictures, pointing and asking questions, and negotiating who should "have" which page.
In the library 13 year old Zoe is sitting at a long wooden table facing the entrance to the room. She wears bright blue headphones, and her eyes scan back and forth across the page of the MacBook laptop before her. When I ask what she is writing, she lights up with laughter, “It’s called The Complex Science of the Parasite!” She is clearly delighted to share her newfound knowledge on parasites and their struggle to survive on their human hosts. Next to her at the table, 5 year old Nina draws in wide arcing lines, turning the paper as she draws, intent on the act of drawing itself. Across the room 11 year old Tye rests a laptop on his knees creating his Works Cited page for his “How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse: Pocket Sized Guide.” He giggles as he shows me the image of his guide on his laptop. His eyes are twinkling with mirth.
Todd and Cole move through the space together, big and boy, deliberate and loud. In the mudroom they don their rain jackets and mud boots, readying themselves to head outside into the rain to find cattails for use in their primitive Boma-style structure. They have collaborated to build this life-sized survival structure out on the “Woods Trail.” In a whoosh, the front door opens and they are off.
In the orange room 8 year old Ani and teacher Carolyn kneel on the floor opposite each other. They lean over a wooden board painted green. Ani is building a lacrosse field. Lacrosse, she explains, was a sport that has survived the test of time! It was a sport made by Native Americans to help them hone and show off their survival skills. Carolyn is showing Ani how to find the center of the board, jumping her fingers down a ruler one inch at a time towards each other. Ani grasps the concept, then tries it on her own. It works! She marks the center. Next Carolyn grabs a compass and demonstrates to Ani how she can make her circle smaller or bigger by changing the angle. Ani takes the compass, makes her angle smaller, places the point carefully on her marked "center" and draws a circle. Carolyn and Ani share a smile of accomplishment. Leader, Ani paints this board and makes goals transforming the board into a lacrosse field. Lacrosse is the oldest surviving competitive sport, having survived centuries of cultural shifts.
9 year old Olivia needs hay for the rooftops of her "Plymouth Town" diorama. Teacher Lily reminds her she is on a farm, and Olivia swiftly heads out to find a handful of hay. When she returns, she binds the hay together into bundles and glues it to the roofs of her houses. Later, when her diorama feels done to her, she kneels next to Lily writing about the Plymouth settlement, which she informs me had only four houses in it that first winter after the Mayflower landed. Olivia explains that many passengers ended up staying on the boat that first long winter, and that many people did not survive.
Teacher Jenny reads Magic School Bus' "Inside a Hurricane" to 7 year old Tyler on the floor of the blue room. After reading about hurricanes, Tyler chooses the experiment "how hot air rises" from the book. The experiment begins with Tyler cutting out a spiral, a task that requires concentration, hand-eye coordination, and finger strength. Tyler tries it more than once before succeeding. By the end of the morning there is a lamp turned on with the spiral suspended directly above it. The spiral spins gently in response to the heat from the lamp, showing physically how hot air rises. Students slow as they walk by it, pointing and asking questions. When it's time for recess, one student protests, "No!"
This is just a small sampling of the work that was happening at Woodland one morning of one Journey. What is most striking is the level of complete absorption each student has in his or her own learning. There is true ownership over these projects. Each student brings so much of themselves to the table. Meanwhile, the teachers are moving about, speaking softly with one student, showing another how best to move forward in a tough spot, and teaching by guiding and encouraging. There is some direct instruction that happens, but mostly the teachers are asking leading questions and acting as resources for the students, supporting a plethora of independent and collaborative student work. There is a sense in Journey that the students can get what they need in whatever way they need it. They can solve problems on their own, get help from a friend, or ask a teacher for help. There is not a huge sense of urgency, yet there is intensity around the work being done.
Later, as I sit to write my observations of Journey that gray morning, the word that comes to mind is "organic." There is no one right way for these children to learn in Journey. They let their genuine curiosities lead them into places of interest, and as a result, the learning that happens has a depth and breadth that is impossible to measure. It also has an individuality that can only happen when each child is honored, when each idea is respected, and when there is time to delve deeply into each student's authentic Journey of Discovery.