The first few weeks of school are an exciting time at Odyssey School of Denver, a K-8 public charter school with an Expeditionary Learning curriculum, as teachers focus their beginning-of-year efforts on building “crew,” or homeroom, culture. Students agree on new crew courtesies to support each other, participate in overnight adventure trips to build peer and teacher connections, and begin to understand what’s to come in their learning expedition. This curricular structure of long-term, in-depth study offers real-world connections, inspiring students to produce high-quality, complex work.
We asked several 4th and 5th graders how expedition has impacted them as thinkers, readers, researchers, and writers and to describe what they were most excited about for the new school year. They each jumped at the chance to talk more about last year’s life science work.
This year’s 4th graders had studied the prairie ecosystem, including animal adaptations, interactions, and interdependence that lead to the growth, survival, and extinction of a species.
Miley Rykert, age 9, published a narrative non-fiction piece that she shared at the Plains Conservation Center in nearby Aurora, Colorado.
“We started off learning about prairie dogs and the prairie ecosystem,” Rykert said. The 4th graders also learned about the weather, the type of land, and the prairie dog’s adaptations and how they affect other animals. “We got to understand what made them a keystone species,” she said.
If prairie dogs weren’t there to eat grass, it would get too long and cause wildfires. “And that would make it unsafe for bison to live, Ronnie Weymouth explained, “Also, ferruginous hawks and coyotes would not be able to survive without them.”
This project also gave Odyssey students a chance to learn about each other. Teachers didn’t just assign what animals they’d study, the students had several topic choices from “We got to know each other better while learning new things about the prairie ecosystem and animals, Francesca Burell stated, “It was really fun and it was my longest piece of writing I’ve ever done.”
5th graders talked about a past expedition on the human body where they studied the functions of body systems and how they can be impacted by disease.
“We went to the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical School to examine the human body by looking at human brains and intestines from both healthy and diseased bodies,” Chloe Silverstein described, “Then we completed a survey to choose from a variety of diseases that we wanted to know more about like asthma, diabetes, or obesity, because we may have known someone with the disease.”
Silverstein appreciated having a choice of topic and explained how that helped her stay engaged through a month-long research process. “My brochure was important because I got to teach someone else about my topic,” she said
Silverstein had to interview an expert and put some complicated facts and details into a brochure that would be shared with kids at Children’s Hospital. “It was tough to put scientific words into kid-friendly language that everyone could understand.,” she said.
Our tag line at Odyssey is “leap in, get stuck, push through.” Each year, we get to build on our students’ love for learning and willingness to leap in to new topics just like in the past. Together, we expect that we’ll get stuck somewhere in the process, but we know that we’ll be able to push through. That sense of accomplishment will propel us again to a new subject at the start of a new school year, ready to see what the future has in store for us.