Brian Beal is the Director of Education with the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board. The board is comprised of approximately 20,000 students and 3,000 staff in 9 secondary and 42 elementary schools. Since 2009, more than 1,200 students and staff from these 9 secondary schools have been involved in a credit-based program, and after a year of preparation and study, have traveled and lived as guests for two weeks in remote villages in Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, India, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. These students spend hundreds of hours in class and in out-of-school learning opportunities, and are worthy recipients of the three high school credits they earn upon completion.
As the Director of Education, I couldn’t be more proud of the incredible young women and men who have taken part in our life-changing experiential learning programs. I’ve been privileged to see the growth of both our students and teachers as they prepare for these incredible experiences, especially thanks to our partnership with EF Educational Tours, WE, and our local Children’s Aid Society. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the growth of these students and staff as they prepare for these incredible experiences. Over the years, I’ve seen our students develop as a team, as they grow in confidence and as they develop their unique voices. Our experiential learning trips have proven to be so successful that programs have also been arranged for two adult groups. In July 2013, 30 staff, spouses, and friends traveled to Kenya and lived in a community for two weeks. Subsequently, 29 adults traveled to the Amazon Basin of Ecuador in July 2015 for an unforgettable, transformational experience. Our experiential learning programs have also reached beyond the traditional secondary school. In partnership with EF Educational Tours, WE, and the local Children’s Aid Society, an incredible team of staff and students, with Crown Ward Status, traveled to Kenya to transform and be transformed!
Here are some of the invaluable things that I’ve learned when implementing a successful experiential learning program.
1) Engage the Students
The success of implementing an experiential learning program is all about student engagement. We know that our students want to make a difference, they want to be heard, they want to be involved, and they want to know that they are effecting a positive change in someone else’s life. Adolescents today are deeply committed to equality, equity, social justice, and need a vehicle to put their passion into action. Students always live up to our expectations when we show that we expect highly of them, and then support them to meet and exceed those expectations. Much is expected of students who are involved with experiential learning programs, and we are constantly amazed by the progress and successes of our students.
2) Community Involvement and Support
Engaging the entire community is key to a successful experiential learning program. We know that we succeed when we work together, that’s why we make sure everyone is involved. Students, staff, administration, family, and community – everyone needs to know the goals, the plans, and the outcomes of the program. Everyone also needs to know that success is dependent upon the support of the entire community, and that the benefit of an experiential learning program is not just for the individual student or class, but that everyone benefits.Our mantra is that it’s not about the going, it’s about the returning. We go as guests, we go as visitors, but we return to make a difference for a lifetime. Our students and staff live in community for two weeks and help build a classroom, dig a foundation, or dig a well, but then they return with a renewed commitment to social justice in our schools, our towns and our country. What’s more, our students return knowing that they are unstoppable. Our students also know that when they return they need to revisit and show appreciation to everyone who helped them prepare for their journey. So, each school and classroom is revisited, service clubs and church groups receive follow-up presentations, and the community is given the chance to hear, firsthand, about the impact on not only the developing country, but more importantly, the impact on the individual student.
3) Top Down, Bottom Up
The most successful programs must be top-down and bottom-up. There must be deep commitment and passion by classroom teachers, students and families. Equally important is the understanding, encouragement, and support from school and board office administration teams. International travel can cause concerns and anxieties for various reasons, and programs can only be supported by administration, central office, and boards of trustees, when there is a good knowledge of the programs, the potential risks, and the measures being put into place to mitigate and manage risk. No activity is risk-free, but everyone needs to know that measures and plans are in place to protect our students – who are our number one priority.
4) Communication is Key
Every successful program must have an incredible communication plan. From my experience, I’ve seen more students sign up for trips when they receive details about the program and what’s expected of them. Similarly, parents support our programs when they know their children will experience something life-changing and powerful, as well as remain safe, and when they know that their fears and concerns as parents will be addressed. Administrators support programs that are well-organized, carefully planned and judged to be a good investment of resources. And if we look towards the broader community, I’ve seen that support comes when people can see the benefit for individual students, and students sign up for a program, when they know the details of the program, the expectations of the program and they see themselves in the program. Parents and guardians will support the program when they know their children will receive a powerful experience, when they know their children will be safe, and when they know that their fears and concerns will be addressed. Administration will support a program that they know is organized, carefully planned out, and is a good investment of a school community’s resources. Finally, the broader community will support a program that they know will benefit the individual student as well as the community itself. Healthy, caring communities exist when there are caring, concerned citizens – our programs help form the citizens our future communities need to thrive.
5) Build Good Partnerships
Building good partnerships is key to building successful experiential learning programs. Never look at your educational travel provider as simply a booking agent. Educational travel companies exist to connect individuals and teams with experiences. The role of the educational travel company is to connect students with incredible opportunities to grow in their understanding of how diverse and how interconnected our world truly is. Work with a travel company as you would with any educational partner – everything done together is to enhance the educational experience of the students. You want to make sure that the travel provider you choose understands your academic needs so that the students may flourish and derive the greatest benefit.
Educational travel is so much more than just booking flights and arranging accommodations. They play a crucial role in student preparation. Students can only fully “experience the experience” when they are fully prepared for what’s to come. The best educational travel providers have access to information that allows our students to reap the greatest benefit of their experiences. We want our students to be as knowledgeable as possible about the places and cultures that they are going to visit. This allows students to completely “dive into the experience” without worrying or being hesitant about what to expect when they arrive. We, as educators, owe this to our students. A travel provider that understands its role as a true educational partner is invaluable and is crucial to the success of the experiential learning program, and it’s something we have been able to achieve with EF.
6) Lead as a Travel Team
When organizing an experiential learning trip, the “lead teacher” should never feel that they must plan alone. There are other adults (like administration, chaperones, parents, and other community members) who are also involved in these programs, and they too must be involved, invested, and committed to the same goals and outcomes. The students need to know these adults as well as they know the “lead teacher”, because as issues and concerns arise while on travel, it is crucial for the students to know that they are surrounded by concerned, caring, and capable adults.
7) Let Students Take Responsibility
Students are not passive participants. They need to be put into innumerable leadership situations so that they can take responsibility for their learning, their experience, and one another. The role of the group leaders should be to facilitate the experience, redirect and refocus as required, but generally to witness the experience unfold because the stage has been set through months of careful planning. Students need to know that they are responsible for their own behaviour, their own learning, and need to commit to taking care of one another. This allows the experience to be as powerful for the adult team as it is for the student team. In education we always seek to provide relevant, meaningful, and challenging learning opportunities for our students so that they may grow and develop academically, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Our students must also be provided with opportunities to grow in their awareness of local and global social justice issues, and realize that they have a voice and are encouraged to use that voice for the betterment of humanity. The future health of our global family rests with the students in our classroom today. There is nothing more exciting than to be involved in education, and it is so rewarding to be able to offer our students and staff learning opportunities both inside and outside of the traditional classroom. Learning takes place all around us, in every encounter, in every situation when we are open to it.
I wish everyone great success on their own educational journey!
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