Inspired by the hit musical, Hamilton, 5th-graders at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC. spent weeks researching colonial history and composing rap songs to explain what they learned about the period. In their EL School, this is how deep learning happens, and the projects leave a mark on students beyond just the content that is absorbed.
EL Education is a New York-based nonprofit that supports 165 schools in 30 states to implement EL’s model. Kate Stringer, writing for The 74, reported on EL’s model, which is grounded in “content, character, and craftsmanship.” EL Schools weave these three Cs throughout all of their students’ learning.
The Hamilton-inspired project, and others like it, are known as “expeditions.” Stringer explains that expeditions are processes, “of inquiry, discovery, and creativity . . . [and that] teachers and leaders say this form of whole-child, project-based learning is the key to the network’s success across geographies and socioeconomic backgrounds, reaching more than 50,000 students last year, and 1 million in its history.
Expeditions provide a singular opportunity for character formation. Stringer says of the projects, “[I]t’s not enough to simply learn about a subject and create a project. EL students are expected to give back to the communities they learn from, so many of the projects are designed as lessons that students can use to share their newfound knowledge.”
In this way the students begin to see how character is a concept that permeates their life. It has an impact not only on their academic work and success but also in the ways that they treat others and contribute to their community.
Ron Berger, chief academic officer of EL Education says, “Once a child finishes her schooling and enters her adult life . . . for the rest of her life she will not be judged by test scores. She will be judged by the quality of work that she does and the quality of person that she is”
In a presentation at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, David Brooks argued that some people find balance in their life through living in “dense organizations . . . some schools are thick and they do leave a mark.”
Dr. Ashley Berner of the Johns Hopkins School of Education delves into school culture in Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, “A strong school culture means something very different from a friendly school, or a high-achieving school, or a school with few discipline problems. Rather, it means a school where the moral vocabulary, rituals, discipline, academic expectations, and relationships align. Such a school can define its mission, hire faculty, and attract students and parents based upon a shared vision.”
EL Schools provide this coherence through their learning expeditions. Students know that they will be judged by the quality of their work, the depth of their knowledge, and their content of their character. This school culture makes all the difference.
Becoming an EL School is a slow process—often taking four to five years—because culture changes take time. But thick cultures leave their mark and can have an impact on students through their life.