Community Outreach: Explo Works with the Sunflower County Freedom Project

March 16, 2015

At Explo, a large part of our focus is figuring out how can we broaden our reach and inspire even more students not only during the summer, but throughout the year as well. Our work with the Sunflower County Freedom Project is just one piece of that puzzle.

Bringing Science to Life in a Wind Tunnel
Four adults walk up to a wind tunnel, holding parachutes they've fashioned, cut, and shaped just moments before. When Dave [Explo's Creative Director] flips the switch, the whirring begins. One by one, they drop their parachutes in and wait to see which one rises, which one floats, and which one crashes straight down.

Beyond the fun (and challenges) of the experiment itself — figuring out how to engineer a working parachute out of the cardboard center of a toilet paper roll — Kate, Jeremiah, and Vaish are witnessing how a tube of cardboard and some wind can help bring abstract concepts like aerodynamics, gravity, and air velocity to life. They're here for a two-day workshop at the Exploration Center, and each moment is packed with experiments, projects, and lessons.

The hands-on approach makes it easy for me to envision how we could apply this with our students.

The Sunflower County Freedom Project: Changing Lives in Mississippi
Vaish, Kate, and Jeremiah work for the Sunflower County Freedom Project (SCFP), an educational program dedicated to offering academic enrichment, cultural activities, and leadership development to the students of Sunflower County, Mississippi. Inspired by the “freedom schools” of the civil rights movement, the SCFP is helping to transform the lives and futures of children growing up in one of the most racially segregated and economically disadvantaged regions of the country.

At SCFP, both students and staff commit to upholding the four L.E.A.D. principles (Love, Education, Action, Discipline). The challenge for the teachers is figuring out how to frame lessons — whether on a novel, a historical event, or a scientific concept — in such a way that the students not only grasp the material, but actively want to engage with how they learn it.

Through project-based experiments such as building (and launching) balloon rockets, as well as more discussion-based activities, the SCFP team are able to fully delve into the importance of curriculum-mapping, developing learning objectives, and asking probing questions to facilitate higher order thinking. And by learning about backward design (a planning method), "Explocizing" — brainstorming ways to make traditional lessons much more engaging and fun — and the Explo Collaborative Discussion Method (similar to the Harkness Method), Vaish, Kate, and Jeremiah can bring back tools that will help them (and their staff) empower students to fully participate and take ownership of their learning.

”The hands-on approach makes it easy for me to envision how we could apply this with our students,” Kate, SCFP's Director of Art and Special Events, says. “I imagined the L.E.A.D. Center and our classrooms at Ole Miss as we did the experiments.”


Explo + the SCFP: A Perfect Collaborative Fit
When former Explo staff member Caitlin Simon left Explo to join Teach for America (TFA), she found herself teaching a group of extremely bright and talented students whose educational and enrichment opportunities outside the classroom are quite limited. And very soon after, began thinking of how she could work with Explo to give some of those students a chance to attend Explo in the summer. Caitlin made a connection with The Sunflower County Freedom Project, and put Moira Kelly, Explo's Executive Director, in touch with Vaish Shantry, the Project’s Executive Director.

With missions and visions that are so similar, working together across organizations became a given. Along with professional development, Explo is thrilled to be able to welcome a group of the Project's students to Explo at Yale. In 2014, a group of ninth-grade students attended Explo at Yale on full scholarships. This summer, another group will do the same.


Fostering Agency in Learning by Empowering Students
As an after-school enrichment program, figuring out how to both impact students and extend the learning hours beyond the regular school day is a delicate balance to achieve. During workshops with Barb Trainor and Kristi Jacobi, Explo’s Director and Assistant Director for Curriculum and Instruction, respectively, the SCFP team discover new methods to bring the magic of learning back into the classroom.

”What’s important,” Kristi says, “is creating an experience that stays with the student — lights the fire instead of filling the pail. At the end of the day, you want them to think that was one of the coolest things they’ve ever done. It’s all about combining the rigors of learning with engagement, and improving education so it ‘sticks.’”

The trick is creating ways of approaching a subject that students haven’t experienced before, which opens avenues of engagement and hands-on learning. And that comes through using three tools: brainstorming, idea generation, and debriefing.

What’s important is creating an experience that stays with the student — lights the fire instead of filling the pail. At the end of the day, you want them to think that was one of the coolest things they’ve ever done.

”What we want to do is create independent thinkers and tinkerers,” Barb says. “By taking the fear of ‘getting something wrong’ off the table, students begin to see that there is no wrong, only ideas that need to be tweaked. The world needs independent thinkers, not someone who can just give solutions that have already been tried and failed. We need to raise a generation of independent thinkers and tinkerers who will attack problems with creative and higher order thinking skills.”

”From a strategic point-of-view, seeing how Explo’s mission and vision was embodied in the day-to-day operations as well as new projects was incredible to see,” Vaish says. “It forced me to think about why the Freedom Project does particular activities and how we could better-align what our mission is with how our calendar looks, or why we take particular trips and making everything we do become more strategic.”


After the Fact: Putting Lessons Learned into Practice
A few weeks after their development workshop at Explo, the SCFP team wrote us with their thoughts on everything they’d learned at Explo, and what changes they've already started implementing on the ground. One of the key issues the SCFP team came to us with was how they could give students greater ownership over what they learn and how they engage with a subject:

The creative projects based around our novel have increased student engagement and excitement ten-fold... Already, a visiting teacher to the Freedom Project has expressed amazement and excitement about our creative lessons!

“We have already begun implementing Explo ideas in our Novel Studies curriculum and our Fitness curriculum,” Jeremiah, SCFP's Director of Health and Communications, says, “and have also started messaging more intentionally our mission throughout the day, both with the staff and to students. The creative projects based around our novel have increased student engagement and excitement ten-fold. We have had mock editorial boards reviewing the work of our novel’s author, we have held a full trial based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and have written articles by adopting the biases of the Israelis and Palestinians."

"Although I am still trying to make the student-owned projects more ‘rigorous’, they have allowed our students to form new and interestingly different conclusions and observations about our book, and have led to more vivid and involved conversations around the book. Already, a visiting teacher to the Freedom Project has expressed amazement and excitement about our creative lessons!”


Find out more about the Sunflower County Freedom Project and the incredible work it's doing with students in Mississippi.


By Lisa Merlini

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