The Value of Community Connections

By Sarah Swain, Dean of Innovation & Experiential Learning

Engaging with experts fosters intrinsic motivation—helping students drive their learning through inquiry.

In the history of schooling, education has served as a separate preparation for life beyond the classroom. Although examples like apprenticeships or career and technical education (CTE) integrate preparation with real-world experience, “No matter which perspective you consider it from, creating opportunities for community involvement in schools is difficult.” (Anderson, 2019) 

At Keene High School, where I completed my student teaching practicum, students in the culinary arts program ran a restaurant. The students learned budgeting, menu planning, and customer service skills while the community enjoyed tasty meals. The technical school also ran an auto repair shop and daycare where students could practice valuable career skills. However, there were few opportunities for students in core academic disciplines to apply their knowledge and skills to learn about solving problems and making connections with experts in their fields.  

I continuously seek opportunities to bring the community into our classrooms and take students into the world to understand the relevance of what they are learning. I have taken environmental science students to the local wastewater treatment facility, the landfill, a greenhouse CSA, and streams in the watershed. Students assessed their impact on the environment and began to understand the demand for natural resources. Biology classes partnered with doctors at the local university who were researching a new and unusual allergy. This collaborative work allowed students to apply their knowledge of cell structure and function to a novel problem while also learning about the human immune system—real-world learning in action.  

Engaging with experts fosters intrinsic motivation—helping students drive their learning through inquiry. These initial community connections grew into more extensive program development by connecting community partners with students through a variety of courses. I welcomed the opportunity to join Field and help students and teachers connect more deeply with the surrounding community whether it is in core classes, electives, or Intersession. Field faculty and staff developed multi-faceted Intersession programs that more than proved the value of community partnerships in education. Bringing experienced perspectives to our students and taking students outside the school for an authentic experience builds skills that matter through projects with a compelling purpose and community impact. 

Not all project-based learning is created equal. Here at Field, we foster a learning environment that supports projects with compelling purposes. Although projects as a summative assessment at the end of a unit of study add value to understanding, the opportunity to work on projects throughout an experience such as Intersession, or through an entire unit in core courses offers more. Last fall, students in Field’s environmental science course traveled to explore the Anacostia River with local watershed experts to identify indicators of a healthy watershed. They are returning this spring to deepen their understanding, applying additional lessons. Recently, Dr. Michael Nelson, an esteemed environmental philosopher, spoke with the entire junior class via Zoom as a summative experience to coalesce student learning from the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

The Holocaust and Human Behavior course with Jaclyn Zarrella incorporated seniors designing curriculum for the entire school community in preparation for the impactful guest speaker experience of Dr. Al Münzer, a local Holocaust survivor. The end of the unit in this course will bring a live museum to campus featuring the stories of people and events of the Holocaust—all researched, designed, and curated by students after their many interactions with historians and museum experts. 

Having the extended time and space to explore these connections during the immersive Intersession program expanded the purpose and impact of projects. There is a moment in immersion courses where teachers must transition the direction of learning to the students. In 70-minute class periods it is easy for a teacher to control the work being done. When students are allowed to focus on one project throughout multiple days there is a transition to student-directed learning. I witnessed this on the third day of Intersession watching the students in the Lucky Dog course divide into thematic teams to plan, develop, and execute fundraising methods for the pet adoption organization in which they were partnering. Students stepped into strategic and tactical roles to accomplish their goals. 

Another project that transformed throughout the Intersession time was the mural students in the Social Justice in Action group created for A Wider Circle. This project was a small part of the original curriculum but wound up serving as an integral processing tool for what they learned throughout the course and provided an inspiring culmination to both the students and the partnering organization. In social entrepreneurship, students conducted market research for Shop Made in DC which stimulated student-led work that directed their final presentation offering solutions to real problems to the co-founder. Intersession immersion courses took 34 field trips and partnered with 45 community organizations over the two-week period. With intentional programming and training these connections can flourish symbiotically.

Throughout Field’s curriculum and across divisions, both students and teachers are building their muscles for sustained inquiry and well-researched solution development in the journey to understand concepts and gain lifelong skills.