Outdoor Learning: Hang Én Cave, Vietnam

Riverside cave camping. Picture: Alesha Bradford.

During my time at the American Academy in Vietnam we developed a series of week-long field learning experiences for each grade level. Students went to Cambodia, Thailand, and various sites around Vietnam. The trips combined outdoor technical skills with cultural submersion and nature education. Luckily for us, during the planning stages the 2nd largest cave system in the world opened up to the public. The Year 12 students went to Hang Én Cave, in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which an UNESCO World Heritage site and is the 3rd largest cave in the world. For students and staff it was a life changing experience learning camping skills, spelunking, and lesson on ecosystems, and geology. However, the biggest lesson for the students was the sense of awe and wonder that one can only experiences in nature. The students now have a great appreciation for the beauty of the planet and a desire to protect Mother Earth.

Senior Trip to Hang Én  Cave, the 3rd largest cave in the world.

Innovation: Cyber Cafe, Mars Robotics Yard, Flight Sim Lab

As the Assistant Principal of Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy, I led the team charged with creating curriculum, integrating technology, launching project-based learning, and designing innovative learning spaces for a newly branded public middle school. The school had recently won a $5 million USD grant to transform the school to a highly engaging STEM program. We developed partnerships with Dell, NASA astronauts, and the Space Foundation.

Authentic NASA flight suit on permanent display at JSAA.
Robotics Mars Yard to teach coding, collaboration, team work, and engineering skills.
The Cyber cafe was open to the school community and was located at the main entrance to JSAA for easy access.

Leading with the Heart

During my time at Knightsbridge we implemented a school-wide positive education program using the Aviva Education platform. One of the topics in the curriculum was the Science and Benefits of Gratitude. Dr. Kerry Howells research on the power of gratitude to build relationships in education starts with the school leaders inspired me to build my practice of gratitude. “School leaders can play a pivotal role in modelling the gratitude needed to ensure their community thrives in a dynamic flow of giving and receiving (Howells, 2013).”

To launch the workshop I wanted to show the power of gratitude. I individually and publicly expressed my appreciation to every staff member. Afterwards, teachers were inspired to take the exercise back to the classroom. They gave gratitude statements to every student in their Advisory class. From that day on, the school climate transformed dramatically to be more kind, caring and of course appreciative of others.

Howells, K. (2013). Perspectives on educational leadership The Role of Gratitude in Helping Schools Leaders Strengthen Relationahsips. ACEL Inspiring Education Leaders.

Changing school culture with gratitude starts with the Head of School.

Curriculum: Bridges to Change

During my short time at Galileo School of Math and Science, I collaborated with middle school teachers to create a standards based interdisciplinary curriculum around the essential question, How can building bridges promote peaceful change?

1st Space Brigade Commander Col. Jeffrey A. Farnsworth assists a student from the Galileo School of Math and Science in creating a bridge. (Photo Credit: DJ Montoya)

Context: Galileo School is located in a neighborhood of Colorado Springs, Colorado with a high population of military families who had parents stationed in Afghanistan in 2009. President Obama had recently pledged 17,000 more troops to the region and recently appointed General Stanley A. McChrystal, commander to lead the war efforts. He called for a change in strategy. In the Commander’s Initial Assessment to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, McChrystal recommended a “change in the operational culture to connect with the people [of Afghanistan]. This is exactly what this project did.

Blogging with the “Enemy”: The project connected our students with students in Afghanistan through a bridge building project that taught students how to build figurative and literal bridges during war time. In one learning activity we used a social networking site similar to Facebook, but highly monitored to create student blogs. In a US Army article, I explained that, “Students from Jalalabad had a group already set up. I joined, spoke with the director of the school, and we decided to get our students to connect. We have kept it friendly and mainly discuss what students do with free time, what their schools look like, how they perceive the elders … topics that are safe and friendly.”

Powerful Learning: Students learned that even though our nations may be at war, people from other countries are more alike than they are different. I remember one student telling me, “I thought they would all be terrorist and hate us, but in reality they have homework like me, they play soccer like me, they have chores like me – they are kids just like us.”

The video below shows some of the activities of the culminating curriculum night that integrated literature, engineering, math, and writing, with the support from volunteers from US Space Command working with the kids.