Expeditionary Learning journey hits key milemarker at Glenwood Springs Elementary School | PostIndependent.com

Expeditionary Learning journey hits key milemarker at Glenwood Springs Elementary School

Glenwood Springs Elementary school student Alana Owsley explains her second grade study of beavers to music teacher Emma Leake during a May 26 Celebration of Learning.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent |

Did you know worm tunnels help water get to the roots of trees and other plants? Glenwood Springs Elementary School student Henry Duenas Ramirez, who just finished kindergarten, does.

That was just one of the things he learned during the spring semester kindergarten “expedition” focused on sunlight and how it is critical to the survival of animal and plant species.

“The sun gives us light, and it’s good for the soil,” he said during the recent Celebration of Learning that concluded the school year at GSES.

“We also let ladybugs loose,” Duenas Ramirez said, gesturing to the schoolyard outside the cafeteria overlooking the Roaring Fork River.

The K-5 elementary school adopted the Expeditionary Learning model three years ago, as a way to improve academic achievement and to create more of a draw to a school that had been lagging in student performance.

But this was the first year of actual “expeditions,” where students immerse themselves in the study of a particular topic for several weeks at a time, applying elements of reading, writing, math, science, social studies and the arts.

“We’ve done writing celebrations before, but this is the first schoolwide celebration of all that the students have learned,” said teacher Julie Allen, whose fourth-grade students spent the spring semester learning about the history of mining in Colorado.

“We really want the kids to take ownership of their learning and to celebrate that by sharing it with others. It’s also a way for their families to see the process of their work,” she said.

It’s a key step in the five-year transition to become a full EL-accredited school, explained GSES Principal Audrey Hazelton.

“The goal is to do two or three meaningful expeditions per year,” she said. “Expeditions involve a depth of study, where the kids have to research a topic and answer challenging questions and then share that knowledge with others.”

The early years of EL have been spent in the organizational phase, working closely with school designer Jaime Passchier from the EL Education regional organization in Denver.

“She’s been here at least twice a month leading professional development training, visiting classrooms and coaching our teachers and staff,” Hazelton said. “She really pushes us and has been instrumental in the success we have had.”

For a school of 520 students, 60 percent of whom are Latino and 50 percent classified as English language learners, the increased level of student engagement has been noticeable.

hands-on lessons

The just-completed semester saw the first grade “crew,” as teams of students and teachers are called in the EL model, learning how bridges are built.

And, what better place to learn about bridge-building than in downtown Glenwood Springs, where students took a field tour this spring to observe one of the biggest bridge construction projects in decades under way with the Grand Avenue bridge replacement.

For their part, second-grade students learned about beavers, including a field trip to the beaver ponds in Babbish Gulch above Sunlight Mountain Resort.

“The children got to see firsthand and investigate a real beaver habitat, and we had a beaver expert come in and talk to the kids,” Hazelton said.

Third-graders dug deep into snow and its importance to the region; how snow is formed and how it influences the local economy, along with a field trip to explore the old Red Mountain ski area above Glenwood Springs.

Fourth-graders studied the history of mining in Colorado, including trips to visit the old mining towns of Redstone and Georgetown; and the fifth-grade crew did an in-depth study of geology, including a field trip to the Colorado National Monument.

“I learned about the different tools they used to mine for gold and silver,” fourth-grader Jeffrey Sanchez said of his mining study. “I really didn’t know anything about it until I researched it. That was more research than I’ve ever done before.”

Crew mate Adelyn Newton said she was surprised that children also worked in the mines.

“If their families needed more money, that’s what they had to do,” she said, adding that she was also surprised to learn that coal took 25 million to 100 million years to form.

Madeleine Binion said she learned about the environmental impacts of mining over the years, and how methods have changed to address those impacts.

learning from el

Although the student achievement results of the switch to the EL model are hard to assess at this point, especially since the state in the meantime adopted new academic standards and changed the way it tests students, scores for GSES students have held steady and increased in some areas, Hazelton said.

“We’ve seen exceptional English test scores, and we are starting to see a steady increase in overall achievement,” Hazelton said. “But we can’t really judge yet because we don’t have those comparisons.”

The method has also spread to other schools in the district, which have all adopted the “crew” approach to grouping students in a particular grade level with a specific teacher advisor to monitor their academic progress and social well-being.

Crew is a dedicated time in a student’s schedule designed to build character skills and focus on social-emotional learning, in addition to improving academic achievement.

“The crew model ensures all students have an adult monitoring their academic and social well-being and allows for deeper teacher-to-student and student-to-student relationships that increase feelings of belonging to the school,” according to an explanation on the school district website.

Hazelton said next steps at GSES to fully implement the EL model include increasing “adventure outings” and creating opportunities for community service, which is also a key component of EL.

“Our goal for the end of this year was to have all the foundational components in place,” she said. “Now, we’re excited to move into that refinement phase.”

Other school districts on the Western Slope that are using the EL model include Garfield District 16 in Parachute, where both the elementary and middle schools are at the same stage of implementation as GSES, and grades K-8 in Lake County/Leadville schools.

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