Imagining and Examining the Everglades at the Phoenix School
by Joey Phoenix
Spring is finally here and the students at The Phoenix School are gearing up for their annual adventure. This year, they’re trekking down to the Florida Everglades.
Trips like these have been part of the school’s curriculum for years now as a way to create an engaging project that’s adaptable across age, ability, and learning style. This year’s trip focus is on the ecology, including both flora and fauna, as well as the issues of social and environmental change affecting southeast Florida.
These young students are such an incredible voice for change, and their trips to these places equip them with knowledge and experiences they can bring back with them to reshape their world.
So for the past few weeks, all of the students at the school have been researching and prepping for their journey. The 6th-8th graders will actually be traveling to the southern tip of Florida where they will spend several days exploring Everglades National Park, and the Kindergarten through 5th graders will be taking part in an imaginary trip which will take place in the school also during that time.
The older kids will be basing their operations at a youth hostel just outside Everglades, and from there they’ll be able to make day trips to explore different aspects of the National Park. One of the highlights of the trip is a 15 mile bike ride though Shark Valley where they’ll get to see lots of things, including tiny alligators who frequently cross the path in search of new watering holes.
While the older kids are encountering alligators in the wild, the younger kids will stage an Everglades trip of their own, imagining everything from going through airport security, making plane tickets, flying a plane (and often “crashing” it in Florida to the accompaniment of Google Earth on the projector. They also will transform their benches into imaginary kayaks, use long poles and pool noodles to make pretend oars, and go on a make-believe kayaking trip through the Mangroves.
To prepare, the students have been creating research guides, where they create visual aids to help them understand what they’ll be seeing on the trip, take notes to explain the visual guides and keep track of any new vocabulary they learn along the way.
Each of the research guide’s requirements is modified to fit the student’s learning styles and level. More advanced students will create elaborate visual aids and will work on shortening their notes and writing in their own voice, while younger students will learn about composition and observation.
This way, everyone can get those kinds of lessons doing their own research. It’s also important to recognize that one kid’s work doesn’t necessarily need to look like another kid’s work for it to be well done, they’re going to do it at their own level and think about the kind of things that interest them. For example, some students may focus on the chemistry aspect of the research while others will want to look into flowering plants or regional wildlife.
If each student has their own learning style, way of processing, and special talents and abilities, they should be allowed to do the kind of work that allows them to develop those skills on their own merits, and projects like these are just one more thing the Phoenix School does to make that possible.
About the Phoenix School:
Phoenix is an experience-driven learning community that gives kids the tools, thoughts, and experiences that will help them become the best versions of themselves and fosters their development as contributors to society. At Phoenix, we emphasize process over product, implementing project-based learning through our curriculum to help students think critically, explore deeply, challenge themselves, contribute positively to their world, and learn more from their failures and celebrate their successes. Our core values are creativity, perseverance, citizenship, and empathy.
At Phoenix we always start Thanksgiving week by cooking, in multi age teams of students ranging from K-8th grade. These connections allow students to learn real life and valuable lessons from the variety of teachable moments. The Thanksgiving holiday reminds us of the importance of connection – not just with friends and family, but within our school. Phoenix is a family of students, alums, teachers, and friends. Our annual Thanksgiving Feast at school allows us to be able to celebrate together as one large family, connecting current students, with past generations of students.
Our community works together, where teams have to learn collaboration, and older team leaders learn to guide their younger partners through different aspects of cooking, from cutting and peeling apples and potatoes to different measuring terms, like rounded teaspoons versus flat teaspoons. Did you know cooking involves a variety of sciences, math, discovery, taste, textures, team building, real life learning and so much more? Students learn fractions in action, and how they apply to real life situations. During cranberry sauce making, students actively observe the physical changes of cranberries while they are being heated and cooked, and from sour berries to sweet sauce! Even the simple act of cooking can bring feelings from joy to frustration, to exploding taste buds and smells!
Older students learn to lead, guide and share their knowledge, while engaging the younger grades, encouraging them to participate and teaching them how to do certain jobs safely. Younger students are able to fully participate from measuring, to cutting to cooking the food. Students have to learn how to read recipes accurately and follow directions, otherwise their creations might just not succeed! These are real life skills, at all grade levels, and they teach students patience, team building, collaboration, guiding, teaching, and knowing when to lead and when to allow others the spotlight and so much more. All of these skills will transfer into situations students will find themselves in throughout their whole life, from highschool, to college and to their careers.
The students spend two days preparing and cooking a Thanksgiving Feast for our school community. From cooking and cleaning to decorations and dessert all grades are actively involved with creating their feast. On our final day we redesign the school to create one long table for the students, a smaller table for our Alumni visitors and a teachers table. Students are able to learn the dining etiquette of a formal meal, but in a very kid friendly way! By gathering around the table, students are able to share stories of their family traditions and enjoy the feast that they were a part of creating.
This also opens the opportunity for our community to reflect on the things we are grateful for, to find gratitude and begin to think about setting new goals for following year. And while it is important to recognize the gift of giving to the community, it is also the time to show respect and indifference to each other. Students are given the opportunity to reflect, in a group sharing moment students comment on what they are thankful for. Kindergarteners are often thankful for something in their family, while the older students often reflect on life events or global events that are making them think on a deeper level. Being thankful for parents is a common theme, from being given the opportunity to go to a school they value to pushing them to grow outside their box, to providing them with a safe home.
Students keep our local shelter, Lifebridge, in mind and make extra food to donate for their Thanksgiving Feast the following day. Students here are used to giving, helping, volunteering and being thoughtful. From a young age students learn to be mindful and considerate of their peers, their community and to students around the globe. As active members of the EarlyAct Club of the Salem Rotary Club our K-8 students discuss, vote and implement community actions that involve volunteering or donations. The learn early that giving comes in many forms—time, energy, money, goods and services, and more. But all have something in common at their core: they are gifts offered without expectation or implication of repayment, only the desire to create a better future.