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Experiential Learning: An Essential Part of a St. Mark's Education
Experiential Learning: An Essential Part of a St. Mark's Education
My leadership of St. Mark's has been highly influenced, since the 2011 adoption of our strategic plan, St. Mark's School: 2020, by the list of educational outcomes the plan asks the School to prioritize.

My leadership of St. Mark's has been highly influenced, since the 2011 adoption of our strategic plan, St. Mark's School: 2020, by the list of educational outcomes the plan asks the School to prioritize.The outcomes are organized into three categories that seem eminently logical for a school:

Intellectual Development

• Capacity for collaborative problem-solving

• Critical thinking and analysis

• Written and oral communication

• Intercultural knowledge and competence
• Creativity and interest in knowledge for its own sake

Character Development

• Ethical integrity

• Courage, confidence, and self-advocacy

• Resilience and adaptability

• Consideration and care for others
• Appreciation of personal and cultural differences
Leadership Development
• Leadership through collaboration and teamwork

• Leading by example

• Ability to elicit excellence and cooperation from others

• Commitment to serving others
• Responsibility to make a positive impact on the lives of others
The list contains the skills and habits of mind that the Trustees envisioned serving as a reference point for the innovations that would make the intellectual vibrancy of the School's educational program even greater while retaining the School's traditional emphasis on character education.

The existence of the list, which emerged from extensive research by a Strategic Plan Steering Committee, has prompted a commitment at St. Mark's to experiential learning. Given the importance of experiential learning in the St. Mark's educational program, I would like to explain how that commitment came about and how it is being manifested in our School.

Very quickly, upon contemplating the implications of using some or all of the educational outcomes as a reference point, a number of faculty observed that we needed to create conditions so that students could learn differently in certain parts of our program. On the one hand, if we were to ensure that outcomes like critical thinking and analysis continued to be achieved, we needed to retain a traditional classroom setting for much of our work. On the other hand, many of the outcomes, like commitment to serving others and appreciation of personal and cultural differences, could be achieved most effectively if the educational program added features that prompted students to engage with each other in a larger variety of ways and that supported more student learning beyond the boundaries of our campus.

So, the list of educational outcomes has served the School well over the past eight years. Both explicitly and implicitly, the list has guided the development of a variety of new programs and the refinement of a variety of existing programs, all toward the objective of preparing our students to thrive and make a positive difference in the world they will enter. Accountability for fulfilling this list of outcomes has prompted all of us at St. Mark's to think hard and productively about what aspects of our educational program are as relevant as ever to prepare students to lead lives of consequence, and what aspects need to be refined or need to be phased out in favor of new features that are right for the times.

A major innovation spurred by the recognition that we needed to create conditions so that students could learn differently has been a more flexible approach to the use of time: time in the day, in the week, and in the academic year. Our program now features two 80-minute blocks for every Monday-Friday course, stand-alone two-and-a-half-hour Saturday courses that change by term, and a two-and-a-half week Form-based curriculum, Lion Term, that closes the academic year. The primary educational setting for Lion Term is the world beyond our campus. Our current VI Formers have the distinction of being the first class to experience all three of these innovations for their entire St. Mark's career.

This more flexible approach to time, especially St. Mark's Saturdays and Lion Term, creates the opportunities that so many faculty members have identified as necessary in order to achieve all of our educational outcomes: allowing students to engage with each other in a larger variety of ways and providing more extensive learning experiences outside the classroom. In particular, these two programs have allowed St. Mark's to incorporate the important feature of experiential learning much more fully into the education St. Mark's offers.
Experiential learning, at its core, is simply learning by doing. The foremost educational theorist associated with the concept is John Dewey. Starting in the early 20th century, Dewey's writing has inspired the creation of a number of new schools, and new school programs, that immersively expose students to the "real world," sometimes in nature, sometimes in urban areas; sometimes close to home and sometimes very far away.

To a certain extent, experiential learning opportunities have existed at St. Mark's since the School's founding. However, as we have taken seriously the charge provided in the strategic plan, we have employed that educational philosophy in an increasingly sophisticated and intentional manner.
Proponents of experiential learning believe that learning by doing, drawing lessons from activities in the setting about which you are learning, is especially relevant and therefore stays with you especially deeply. The maximum benefit of experiential learning only comes, its advocates note, if the learning involves context setting for the participants before the immersive experience, if it involves the opportunity to reflect on the experience in a structured manner while the experience is taking place, and finally, if the learning includes a debriefing opportunity once the experience is over.

Having benefited from experiential learning myself, and having seen the benefit for each of my children, I am an enthusiastic proponent of experiential learning, as an integral part of a comprehensive educational program. In 1976, during my sophomore year of college, I spent six months studying in West Berlin, an immersive experience that included living with a family and making my way around the city every day. Long conversations over meals with my host family, performing routine tasks like getting the resident card I needed to legitimize my stay, and seeing the contrast between a largely rebuilt West Berlin and the remaining World War II scars in many uninhabitable buildings in East Berlin, enlarged my cultural perspective immeasurably. My son and daughter each spent a semester of their junior years at experientially oriented semester programs, The Mountain School and Maine Coast Semester, respectively. Their time spent working on each program's farm (a part of the curriculum) has left a lasting impact on their decisions about food and resource use.
On the other hand, I also remain an enthusiastic proponent of the type of education that carries the label "traditional." I know from my personal experience, and from what I observe in St. Mark's classrooms today, the benefit that comes from the knowledge and skill building that comes in every academic discipline under the guidance of a skilled teacher. Shakespeare continues to have a lot to teach a student in 2019 about values and choices, and the discipline of developing a sound mathematical proof, formula, or equation continues to provide essential training in logic and attention to detail.
I care deeply that the St. Mark's educational program incorporate experiential education to a degree that allows its unique benefits to be realized and retain a traditional educational focus to a degree that allows its unique benefits to be realized too. I believe, along with my St. Mark's faculty colleagues, that an educational program which features both kinds of learning allows the strategic plan's educational outcomes to be realized more fully than a program that only emphasized one kind of learning.

As befits any educational innovation, we are still refining our approach to experiential learning. In the St. Mark's Saturday program, for example, we are assessing whether our students benefit most from having more terms when they can select their own Saturday courses or whether they benefit most from having more terms when the Saturday program is a set course, providing the same developmentally appropriate content to an entire form. Up to now, one term of Saturdays for each form has been set, with V and VI Form, for example, focused on the self-discovery of the college process. This year the VI Form will have a second required term, focused on preparation for their independent or small group Lion Term project. We imagine a second required Saturday course for VI Formers addressing a Lion Term challenge we have identified: students needing more guidance, before Lion Term starts, so that they can develop and carry out the most meaningful Lion Term experience possible as the capstone of their St. Mark's career.

We will continue to refine our approach to experiential learning, assessing what parts are indeed providing deep learning in a manner that would not otherwise be possible and what parts do not yet meet that standard. Just as our students are learning here at St. Mark's inside and outside the classroom, we are also continuing our own learning as a School about how best to organize our educational program.

The time innovations over the last four years, and the thorough commitment to experiential learning, have brought about many distinctive impactful educational experiences for our students. I know that many more are in store. Here are a few of those positive learning experiences.

First, an example from the Saturday program. A few years ago, Samantha Sarafin '17, took a Saturday course oriented around independent research which allowed her to learn American sign language. Having developed a deeper appreciation for how members of the Deaf community experience the world by immersing herself in this language, Samantha then petitioned to teach her own Saturday course on American sign language. English teacher Maggie Caron helped Samantha develop the course also learning American sign language from Samantha, and Maggie has carried on that course, now teaching it with Director of Library Services Jonathan Golden.
"In designing her own Saturday course," Maggie told me," Samantha modeled for me what a successful experiential learning could look like at St. Mark's. Her course was fun, student-driven, relevant, socially conscious, and appropriately challenging. I strive to make current and future iterations of the course as successful and intellectually vibrant as Samantha's original St. Mark's Saturday course." As Maggie reflected on the course with me, she noted that "my favorite part of the experiential learning in our American sign language course is that the students know that we are learning together. When I do not know the answer to a question or the sign for a word, we investigate and learned as a group. Experiential learning is teaching our students to ask their own questions and find their own answers. I love that they take it upon themselves to learn on their own and teach me new signs in ASL."

As for Lion Term, many of the students and faculty who have participated in the IV Form program, Community Engagement, have praised the student learning that results. IV Form Lion Term connects small groups of our students with community organizations in the Metro West area (of which Southborough is a part). Communities are very complicated entities, containing a far wider range of people, occupations and activities than a student would be aware of simply by spending time on the St. Mark's campus or by coming to and from our campus as a matter of course. Becoming immersed, even briefly, in a nearby community organization provides a unique window into a community, and that experience, along with comparing notes with classmates who spend time at other community organizations, broadens our students' understanding of the community they are part of and the communities they will be part of in the future.
My advisee, Julia Cotter '21, spent her IV Form Lion Term at Friendly House, a neighborhood center for underserved and under-resourced families in Worcester that helps those families integrate successfully into their local neighborhood. [1] Listening to Julia reflect upon her time at Friendly House demonstrated that the experience provided just the sort of learning we had hoped for. "The experience was eye-opening for me," Julia related. "I had a chance to think about how I grew up in ways I never had before. Some of the kids asked me, for example, why I did not eat dinner with them at Friendly House. 'I will have dinner at School,' I told them. I learned, however, that for some of these kids Friendly House is the only place they can get dinner."

Julia and her fellow students' learning was deepened by the need to create an interactive display as the final requirement for the program. After reflecting on how to convey their experiences most effectively, the team decided to design a room in the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning that would replicate a space where they worked with the Friendly House kids. "We tried to convey a joyful room," Julia told me, "because we wanted to show—and tell—that whatever the kids' circumstances, we saw happy kids."
The Lions Roam course provides a particularly rich immersive educational opportunity because, thanks to an endowment gift by the Crotty family P'15[2], participants spend two weeks in a country that they have studied during the previous months. Will Appel '20, a participant in the 2018 Iceland Lions Roam course, recounted how he appreciated learning about Icelandic culture from Njáls Saga, a major text for the course. His understanding of this culture, for example their burial practices and beliefs about dwarfs, was immeasurably enriched by what he saw and by what he heard in conversations with Icelanders.
As we all know, normally, the images you carry in your mind from a book are not nearly as impactful as the images you carry from direct experience. What you see can also be more impactful if you have gained a context beforehand. Will gained this impact in just the way those who designed the Lions Roam course had hoped. "When I got to the top of a hill and saw the extraordinary beauty of the plains," Will told me, "the impression was much more powerful because of my memory of the same hill being described in the saga."
St. Mark's students can also undertake experiential learning projects during the summer because of endowment gifts provided by graduates. A few months ago, in the summer between his V and VI Form years, Charles Brookby '20, walked in the footsteps of Martin Luther, thanks to an Anthony A. Jones '59 Family International Studies Grant. Charles took it upon himself to organize an itinerary to visit many of the places in Germany where Luther spent time 500 years ago. "By standing where Luther stood and walking where Luther walked, Luther's thinking became far more real to me," Charles noted. "The time walking also provided an opportunity for me to reflect more deeply on my own faith journey, especially because I was thinking about Martin Luther's faith journey while I walked."
Charles's project employs experiential learning components in just the way that John Dewey recommends if this learning is to have maximum impact. Before embarking upon his travel, Charles had studied Luther's thought in a St. Mark's advanced religion course. During the walk, while spending time in Luther's "places," Charles also immersed himself in Luther's life and ideas. To encourage reflection, Charles journaled during his travel. To help continue that reflection, Charles followed up his trip by designing an independent reading and writing course for the Fall of his VI Form year oriented around further exploration of Luther's ideas.

As St. Mark's continues to use time in innovative ways, the School's approach to experiential learning will become ever more sophisticated. The strategic plan's educational outcomes will be realized ever more fully for each one of our students as a result.

In order to ensure that St. Mark's realizes the full educational potential of experiential learning, we have asked two highly respected and accomplished faculty practitioners of experiential learning to provide leadership of the effort. English teacher John Camp (who goes by "Camp") has taken on the role of director of experiential learning, and English teacher and Assistant Director of Athletics Casey Bates '09, has taken on the role of assistant director of experiential learning.
Camp brings to this position a wealth of experience in implementing experiential learning opportunities both at St. Mark's and in previous schools. Having been at St. Mark's since 2008, he has witnessed—and helped implement—many of the innovations our strategic plan envisioned. "Over the past four years, particularly, experiential learning at St. Mark's has grown robustly," Camp noted, "fueled particularly by our intentional programs of Lion Term and St. Mark's Saturdays." Most rewarding, he continued, are the number of "poignant ramifications of these experiences in students' work: both individual and group endeavors."

Casey's personal experiences as a learner inform her experiential learning leadership efforts: "My student teaching in graduate school, which was for me the epitome of 'learning by doing,' has been my most influential educational experience. I learned how to be adaptable, collaborative, innovative, empathetic, and self-directed." Casey feels keenly the benefit of these experiences in both her professional and personal life.
In thinking of the work that lies ahead, Camp and Casey are committed to listening carefully to faculty and students to gain insights about what has worked very well so far and what needs refining. "Casey and I are excited," Camp told me, "to collaborate with faculty and students to hone the vibrant future of experiential learning as an essential part of the fabric of St. Mark's academics."
All of us want the education that St. Mark's provides to be right for the times. Throughout our history, the School has had the courage to undertake innovations for that very purpose. Continuing that tradition, the strategic plan, St. Mark's School: 2020, identified the principles that would guide innovations to best prepare students for the world we now see and the world we can envision. Integrating experiential learning ever more fully into our educational program—in the day, in the week, and in the year—has been one the most impactful innovations the strategic plan spawned. The knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that experiential learning instills surely plays an integral role in preparing our students to lead lives of consequence. John Dewey and Joseph Burnett would be proud!