In a service-learning odyssey that is still unfolding, a small group of Cornell University students headed to Taos, New Mexico, this January for an immersion into “expeditionary learning,” and rural school culture and diversity.
The course, Innovative Schools Advocacy and Research Team, is the brainchild of Bryan Duff, education lecturer in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and a 2013 Engaged Learning + Research fellow. Last fall, he issued a call for students to join a small, multidisciplinary team headed to an underresourced high school in the mountains northeast of Santa Fe.
“I wanted students to see an expeditionary learning school in action for more than the short field trips I had arranged in the past,” Duff said. “And I wanted students to spend time in a rural school because most of us get little personal or media exposure to such schools.”
The host Duff found was Vista Grande High School, a small charter school in the Taos Municipal School District. About 40 percent of the student body is part of the Native American Taos Pueblo community. Another 40 percent are Latino. Nearly all qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under federal poverty guidelines.
The expeditionary learning reform model, successful in a range of high-needs schools, frames learning with long-term, multidisciplinary projects that get students out into the community and out into nature (“expeditions”). During their time on site, the Cornell team helped document the first days of new expeditions through videotaping, observing and interviewing students. Observation also extended beyond campus, including witnessing the buffalo dances of the Taos Pueblo and many other immersive and unexpected experiences.
“The really big portion of our trip was made of things we weren’t expecting,” said Steven Ingram, a CALS junior majoring in science of natural and Earth systems. “There were so many things that came up along the way.The Cornell student team included Ingram, Andrew Key (a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations), Emma Korolik (a sophomore from the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in sociology), Brenda Martinez (an Arts & Sciences senior in anthropology) and Adrienne Wilson (a graduate student at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs).
At Vista Grande’s request, the team hosted a college-awareness program for students that included discussion of a documentary on first-generation college students made available through the support of Mann Library, as well as videos of Cornell student projects and campus events such as Dragon Day. Duff and the students also conducted parent focus groups, using funds from Engaged Learning + Research to cater a dinner.
Duff and the students stressed that fall team-building and cultural-sensitivity work with Engaged Learning + Research Director Richard Kiely, Akwe:kon Residence Hall Director Ansley Jemison and Cornell Outdoor Education’s Amy Kohut helped the team approach its work with humility, a posture that paid off in warmth and acceptance from the Vista Grande and Taos communities. They said that closeness helped open their eyes to innovative ways to build a successful education program for an economically challenged, cultural diverse student body.
“The essence of our trip was to learn from them,” Martinez said. “And we did. They’re just really genuine kids … genuine, caring kids.”
Duff and this year’s team continue to meet each Friday as they undertake one more service-learning exercise: proposing a redesign for Vista Grande’s website to better showcase the school’s assets – and make it easier for students and parents to find information. Duff also said he’s returning to Taos in May to be a guest panelist for Vista Grande’s “senior passages” showcase, and hopes to bring a new group of students with its own unique mission to the high school in January 2016.
John Carberry is managing editor for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.