Children learn best in classrooms that extend beyond four walls into the surrounding world.
Experience matters. We all know that. And there is a reason school doesn’t last forever: the real world is the best teacher. At some point, we move beyond the basics, then beyond abstraction and theory, textbook and lecture, and out into the world. There, we test what we think we know against what we see and feel and experience, and we work to reconcile the differences and make sense of it all.
At Glen Urquhart School, our spiraling, theme-based curriculum is designed with those processes in mind. Each grade at GUS is focused on a different theme. The themes, which have been carefully chosen to correlate with social, emotional, and intellectual development, tie together every subject a child is studying and provide context for exploration. The child begins at the center, in kindergarten, first grade, and second; moves progressively out into the world; and then comes back to the center just when adolescence is hitting and self-reflection and self-awareness become two of the most compelling forces in his or her life. All along the way, immersion in the real world is woven into the fabric of GUS life because we want students to reconcile theory and experience now, as they go, and not be sheltered from the verities of life. We also want them to build determination, flexibility, confidence, self reliance, and resilience, “discovering the best within themselves” and “speaking individually while working collaboratively,” as our mission statement guides us.
So it begins in September each year at GUS, and culminates in June, often with extended trips away from our twenty-three acres of classrooms and open spaces, woods, and water. Fourth grade will spend several days at the Mystic Seaport Museum aboard ship, culminating their study of the sea; fifth grade will head to Chewonki’s Outdoor Classroom in mid-coast Maine to cook fires and sleep in tents and experience group challenges to cap their study of the land; sixth grade come to appreciate privilege and some of the challenges of daily life in different cultures as they face quandaries of social justice. How important it is to get off the grid for a few days and unplug, having time for reflection in the natural world with friends and mentors. Eighth grade takes capstone trips to Washington to serve the homeless and the Dominican Republic to serve children in the village of Monte Cristi as they learned English, a vehicle for economic mobility. They connect with kids living in what many GUS families would consider challenging circumstances, and adults living hand to mouth in the margins around the nation’s most politically powerful. They break down stereotypes as they wonder aloud how much was enough and what it means to lead a fulfilling life. When our oldest students reflect on their experiences they remember individuals, real people. Our goal at GUS is that our graduates will continue to ask these questions for many years to come, striving for answers as often as they ask new, more complex questions.