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'What I Want to Be, My Whole Life'

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This post is by Dina Strasser, a 7th grade English educator in upstate New York and a member of the Expeditionary Learning network.

Thirteen-year-old Samantha Davis thinks a lot about vision: literal and metaphorical.

Samantha came to my attention first through her vision of service: assisting a Ghanian schoolteacher named Lateef to maintain a library in his African home village. Samantha and Lateef met on an educational trip to Ghana run by Samantha's Expeditionary Learning school, Evergreen Community Charter School in Asheville, North Carolina. Sam and Lateef experienced an instant connection, and upon her return to America, Samantha embarked upon a long-term project to raise funds and provide books to Lateef for his library.

"Oh, yes. Lots of challenges! Many, many trips to the post office...." Sam laughs when she describes the library project. "We helped him sort books, and mailed him books from America, and I was also able to talk to my religious community in temple about the experience and raise funds for him. Community interest in his village is ramping up now because of the educational opportunities that the library gives. So now is not the time to lie low--now is the time for next steps."

Samantha is adamant, however, that these next steps need to be shaped entirely by her understanding of Lateef as a person. "This is not my library, you know? I don't live there. This is his library. I need to step back with all my privilege and not take over. I have to see the library not from the standpoint of poverty versus privilege, but from understanding and compassion. Let the compassion lead how I deliver my service."

Samantha anchors her philosophy of service with the Expeditionary Learning Design Principles, the foundation of her education at Evergreen Community Charter School. The design principles reflect the values and beliefs of Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound, and of the Expeditionary Learning philosophy. These principles inform Expeditionary Learning's model for transforming schools and teaching; they also embody deeper learning. Learning, through the principles, is purposeful, connected to the real world, and fosters collaboration and communication. "These are used a ton in school," Samantha laughs. "I know them really well."

They are also Sam's life blood. Shaped by the design principles, Sam's deeper learning is not just a theory of education: it is a practice, related to even the most deeply personal--and literal--issues of vision.

"I've had vision and auditory processing challenges for all of my life," Sam explains. "I went to vision therapy for years and "graduated" in fifth grade. But then, I discovered that had to go back into therapy in sixth grade. So you can see what it was like: you know, success at first, but then I was really upset to have to go back. It was not pretty."

"I learned through that that success is not just a one-time thing--just because you 'graduate' once doesn't mean you have success. Success means meeting an ongoing challenge; something you're working with every day."

"It would have been a lot harder to deal with it without Evergreen," Samantha says firmly. "My teachers encouraged me to advocate for my needs--they make lots of room for communication, reflection, and relationship-building, and that's really important. Without them and the design principles I don't think I would have been able to reflect on what it meant, or look back and say, 'this is what I overcame in myself.'"

"I'm learning how to be a self-advocate," Sam says, "and Evergreen stresses that. This is stuff you need to know for your own life. You see how much it plays into everything you do--the people around you, the social world, the academic world. All these things should match up and reflect what you want them to be. And if they don't, you need to find the courage to change them and yourself."

Reflection, courage, self-advocacy: these ideas epitomize deeper learning.

"I'm a person that likes to be with other people, so sometimes I don't always take enough time to [reflect]," Sam says thoughtfully. "Thinking by yourself can be really good--it's not natural to me, but it's helpful."

At only thirteen, Samantha's entire life is ahead of her, but she has no plans to abandon her grounding in Evergreen's influence. 

"I'd like to go to college and study international relations with a focus on women's education, and then join the Peace Corps, and then law school, with the eventual goal of working at the United Nations," Sam says. "Keeping an open mind is the goal of the design principles, staying reflective and aware. That's what I want to be, my whole life."


 

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