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Expeditionary Learning Melds PBL and Common Core

Cheryl Dobbertin, director of professional development at Expeditionary Learning and former high school English and language arts teacher, co-directs an initiative that offers free Common Core-aligned curricula to New York State schools. She talked with Education World about how schools can implement a project-based learning (PBL) structure aligned with CCSS.

Although PBL can sometimes be viewed as "fluffy," Expeditionary Learning is attempting to strengthen their curricula through Common Core initiatives. Dobbertin explained that having clear standards allows teachers to take a step back, making sure they’re incorporating rigorous lessons that encourage “deep brain work” and hit the academic mark.expeditionary learning

“The kids not only have great experiences that they sometimes don’t even see as school, but they’re also able to succeed on standardized tests and other measures.”

She added that different elements of reading and writing—even things that stray away from novels—can easily be incorporated into an approach that builds skills on multiple levels. 

“[We focus on] teaching kids how to collaborate so that there’s a positive learning structure, so that there’s a lot of positive conversation structure, and then a lot of time learning from rigorous, real-world, authentic texts. So you see a lot of primary sources and things like that in our classrooms,” Dobbertin said.

Kids read, talk and create things from what they read—leading to writing a book, producing a video, or solving a problem. Tech integration fits into the program, depending on the school’s current structures.

“The Common Core, in many ways, has been a gift to us,” Dobbertin said. “It's really helped us tighten up our practices, and work deeper and harder [on] what we want to achieve through any one of these projects.”

Expeditionary Learning projects also allow students to apply critical thinking to community outreach and engagement, while building their own character and leadership skills. For example, one school started a city-wide reading initiative that opened local libraries, including one in a local prison. The project demonstrated that academic development and character development go hand-in-hand.

She added, “What's been really exciting about incorporating Common Core into our work is raising expectations for students who traditionally struggle. So special education students, perhaps English language learners, and sometimes urban kids, they’re kind of seen as ‘Maybe this is too hard for them,’ or ‘We shouldn't expect as much from them.’ And the Common Core actually pushes us hard on that. You have to have this level of rigor and expectation for every kid.”

Teachers are seeing the results, and kids in the above situations are “showing the world, ‘We do have this,’ ” Dobbertin said.

Imagine yourself as a teacher in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Rochester, NY area. You have more special education students than all of the other surrounding schools. You've been teaching for 20 years. You see a new curriculum and immediately fear that it just won't work for your grade 3 students…and you go for it anyway.

This was the case for one teacher with whom Dobbertin worked.

“We had this great response from her on two levels. ‘It's a lot harder than I thought my kids could do, and they're doing it,’ and then this part, which I found really heartening: ‘I feel like a better teacher when I’m using [the model].’ ”

Among high schools that heavily implement the Expeditionary Learning model, often 100 percent of kids graduate, and 100 percent of them are accepted into college.

“That's the benchmark we expect in our high schools,” she explained.

A list of schools using the Expeditionary Learning model appears on the group’s Web site.


Article by Jason Cunningham, EducationWorld Social Media Editor
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