Brian B. is the Director of Education for a school board comprised of approximately 20,000 students and 3,000 staff. Since 2009, more than 1,200 students and staff from these schools have been involved in a credit-based program created by Brian where they have had the opportunity to travel to places like Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, India, Nicaragua, and Ecuador.
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. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of seeing students develop as individuals and also as members of a team through the incredible experiences we’ve been able to offer in partnership with EF Educational Tours.
Here are some of the invaluable lessons that I’ve learned while working to implement a successful experiential learning program.
1. Engage the Students
The success of an experiential learning program is determined by the level of student engagement. We know that our students want to make a difference, that they want to be heard, and also that they want to know their hard work has made a positive change in someone else’s life. Most adolescents today are deeply committed to equality, equity and social justice. What they need is a vehicle to put their passion into action and this is something we as teachers have the ability to provide them. I have found that students always live up to expectations when we show them that we expect highly of them, and then work to support them to meet and exceed those expectations. Much is expected of students who are involved in these experiential learning programs, but we are constantly amazed by their progress and successes.
2. Foster Community Involvement and Support
We know that we succeed when we work together, which is why we make sure everyone is involved – students, staff, administration, family, and community – everyone needs to know the goals, the logistical plans and the expected 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 for the entire community. Our mantra is that it’s not about the going, it’s about the returning. We go as guests and as visitors, but we return to make a difference for a lifetime.
During the program our students and staff live in a community for two weeks and work side by side locals. The hope once they return is that the experience will spark a renewed commitment to social justice in our schools, our towns and our country and that the students feel they are unstoppable. As important as community involvement is for the program before the group departs, the involvement of the community upon return is equally as important. Each time a group returns they are encouraged to make an effort to show appreciation for everyone who helped them prepare for their journey by bringing the experience full circle. Each involved school and classroom is revisited, service clubs and church groups receive follow-up presentations, and the community is given the chance to hear about the impact on not only the developing country, but also on the individual students. Connecting with the community after the program has come to an end is not just a great way for students to reflect on their experience and share their knowledge, it is a great way to continue fostering community support for the program in years to come.
3. Practice Good Communication
The more communication, the smoother your program will run. From my experience, I’ve seen an increase in student enrollments when program details and expectations are made clear from the beginning. Similarly, parents support our programs when they know their children will experience something life-changing and powerful, while staying safe. From an administrator’s perspective good programs are those that are well-organized, carefully planned and determined to be a good investment of resources. Community support comes when people can see the benefit for individual students and the potential to positively impact the school or town. It is important to be able to speak to, and clearly address each involved group’s areas of interest.
4. Build Good Partnerships
Never look at your educational travel provider as simply a booking agent. The role of the educational travel company is to provide students with incredible opportunities to grow their understanding of how diverse and interconnected our world truly is. Work with a travel company as you would with any educational partner. Everything should be done together with the goal of enhancing the educational experience of the students.
Students (and teachers) can only truly “experience the experience” when they are fully prepared for what’s to come. The best educational travel providers have access to information that allows students to be knowledgeable about the places and cultures that they are going to visit so they can dive in and reap the greatest benefit of their experiences. As educators, we 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. This partnership is something we have been able to achieve with EF.
5. Lead as a Travel Team
A group leader 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 group leader. If issues and concerns arise while traveling, it is crucial for the students to know that they are surrounded by concerned, caring, and capable adults who they can go to for anything.
6. Let Students Take Responsibility
Students should not be passive participants. They need to be put in leadership positions so they can take responsibility for their learning, their experience, and for one another. The role of the group leader should be to facilitate the experience and to redirect and refocus as required. Students need to know that they are responsible for their own behavior and learning, and should 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 their awareness of local and global social justice issues so they can realize that they have a voice; one they are encouraged to use for the betterment of humanity.
The future health of our global family rests with the students of 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 setting. If we are open to it, learning can take place all around us, in every encounter and in every situation.
I wish everyone great success on their own educational journey!
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