Active learning a success for Grand Valley Middle School |

Active learning a success for Grand Valley Middle School

From left, Grand Valley Middle School sixth graders Breanna Welch, Joel Montoya and Levi Williamson (smiling) were among students and staff at the Friday, April 18, morning meeting, a part of the school’s expeditionary learning approach.
Mike McKibbin/Citizen Telegram |

BATTLEMENT MESA – Every Tuesday and Friday, students at Grand Valley Middle School start their day by sitting on the floor of the school auditorium, sing a song karaoke-style, then watch their classmates get up on stage for a kind of show-and-tell of what they did in one of their classes.

It’s one part of a kindergarten through eighth grade expeditionary learning approach taken by Bea Underwood Elementary and Grand Valley Middle School in Garfield County School District 16 that’s been credited with sharply reducing disciplinary issues at the middle school and improving academic achievement.

“Usually, the sixth graders are terrified of the eighth graders because they’re so much bigger,” said seventh grader Kendra Hock after the school’s Friday, April 18, “morning meeting” that brought the student body together for about 40 minutes before classes began.

“But with this and our crews (small groups of students who conduct monthly community service projects), we have mixed classes with all the grades,” Hock said. “There’s fewer cliques and tension between classes. In fact, most of my friends are in the eighth grade.”

One definition of expeditionary learning is “a model for comprehensive school reform for elementary, middle and high schools that emphasizes high achievement through active learning, character growth and teamwork.”

Hock said students also take field trips to learn about subjects such as natural gas development practices, geology and dinosaurs.

Sixth grade social studies teacher Drew Thompson said the approach has made an “unbelievable” change in the culture of the school.

“It’s really transformed it,” he added. “There’s more work behind the scenes for teachers, but the students get involved by running the morning meetings and show off all the good work they do. It helps break down barriers.”

Sixth grader Bailey Perkins said teachers are allowed to “jazz it up more” when it comes to how they present subjects.

“We get to do more fun stuff, instead of just sit in a classroom,” she added.

Principal Jory Sorensen said this is the second year Grand Valley has taken an expeditionary learning approach.

“We knew we had to improve our academic and social culture,” he said. “How we treat and view ourselves and others is a key to making this work.”

The morning meetings help students who may come to school with “baggage” start their day off in a positive way, Sorensen said.

“It is kind of a reset on the day,” he stated. “You wipe the slate clean. It lets them have direct communication with each other and helps promote kids as leaders instead of just teachers and staff.”

Discipline issues have dropped by 40 percent each of the last two years, Sorensen said, including a sharp decline in bullying, a common problem in many middle schools.

Sorensen said teachers and staff have found the expeditionary learning approach to be highly motivating for students.

“And we found we can gain more ground academically once we put this in place,” he said. “We still teach to Colorado standards, but there’s more focus on how we treat each other.”

Student achievement test scores have increased in the last two years, Sorensen added, while enrollment has remained fairly stable in the last two years, at about 235 students.

To end each morning meeting, students stand and recite the “Panther Pledge,” which Sorensen said emphasizes the “kind of school we are, and that we’re glad that you’re here and want you to treat your fellow students with the same respect you want them to show you.”

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