High school classrooms tend to follow a similar pattern: students arrive to class, sit in rows, listen to the teacher and take notes, memorize the information, and take the test. All of this is usually accomplished in periods lasting about 45 minutes. At the end of the period, the bell rings and students move en mass to the next class. State and national learning standards guide the teaching of nearly all classes and subject areas and the goal is to prepare students for success on chapter and unit tests, and the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT). The OGT is one of the measures of successful schools and a requirement to receive a high school diploma. 

Not Your Typical Class

Not all teaching, nor teachers, fit this mold. Among the long hallways, four classroom walls and rows of desks are some innovative classes that stretch our traditional thinking of what a classroom could be and how teachers teach and students learn. One program just completed its second successful year of providing a truly unique and powerful learning experience for Crestwood High School students: the American Experience Academy.

Instead of sitting at your desk, imagine going to class, pulling on your rubber boots and going outside to check your animal traps. Or today may be the day you wade into the Cuyahoga River and meet with a fisheries expert from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to electro-shock fish as part of a fish study. Perhaps you sit down for a student-directed, round-table class discussion about your class book, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830 by Douglas Hurt.

Another day, you arrive to school and tan a deer hide or sew authentic pioneer clothing. Or, you might arrive to class and grab authentic hand tools to build a log cabin like the pioneers did (no power tools permitted in this class). These are just a few of the experiences that await students enrolled in the American Experience Academy.

Planning Something Special

Several years ago, Crestwood High School principal Arden Sommers challenged his teachers to think “outside-of-the-box” and develop a different way of teaching and learning. Teachers Andy Brown (science), Andrew Pavelek (English) and Angus McDougal (History) responded to the challenge and haven’t looked back since. The three wanted to develop an experiential learning opportunity for students that integrated their three subjects. The teachers settled on early American history as a theme. This naturally connected the three disciplines through an in-depth study of natural history; discovery, settlement and pioneer life; and literature related to the connection between humans and nature.

The American Experience Academy is a year-long immersion class for students in their junior and senior years at Crestwood. The class takes place during the first three class periods of each day. Students enrolled in the Academy meet for about 2 hours each day for the entire school year. The curriculum is rigorous as students earn honors credits in all three subject areas. One of the final projects was to determine BTU’s for different wood and calculate how much wood was needed for the winter, and how much acreage of woods would be needed to sustain your homestead for 10 years. The entire report had to be supported by learning from nature and an in depth understanding of lifestyles of early Americans.

The Academy teachers were careful not to make this program only for exceptional students. Students are required to apply to participate in the American Experience Academy and acceptance is based on teacher recommendations and an interview, not grades. As a result, a mix of college-bound and general students exists. The glue that holds these students together is that they are motivated to learn by the hands-on, real-life experiences of the academy.

Students Turned Teachers

The year culminates with a weekend of learning from the historical re-enactor group called the “RamRod Busters”. This group of history buffs tour northeast Ohio and set up educational encampments to teach about early American history. The RamRod Busters taught students how to set leg-hole and snare traps, make fire and cook over a fire, chop wood shingles for the roof the log cabin, and homesteading skills such as gardening and tending livestock. Recreational activities included traditional pioneer dancing, games and challenges, including knife and hatchet throwing. After mastering many of the skills of early Americans, it was time for the students to become the teachers. Each student was responsible for teaching a group of elementary students during “Pioneer Days”.

Lessons Learned Beyond Books

I asked many students what their favorite activities of the Academy were. They mentioned meeting experts from ODNR, Ohio EPA, Cleveland MetroParks and the RamRod Busters and learning how to test water quality, tracking coyotes, and making dichotomous identification keys for Ohio birds, reptiles, and mammals. However, the students all said their most important learning was how to communicate, how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks, and how to problem-solve. One student explained to me that required reading included reading the autobiographies of Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. Both of these great leaders wrote about and regularly reflected on guidelines to live by. “Because of this class, I have written my own guidelines and try to remember these in my own life.” I guarantee these lessons won’t be an answer on the OGT, but they may be the most important of all.

Other Nearby Nature

Behind Locked Gates: White Oak Farm

Wednesday, July 10 (6:30-8:30pm)

We have all driven by this Akron Watershed land and seen the small parking lot just west of the Cuyahoga River on Rte. 82. We will explore this riverside preserve along one of the most  beautiful sections of the river looking for wildlife and enjoying beautiful views of the river.

Hiking Fee: $5 for members of Friends of the Field Station ($8 for non-members). Register by phone (330.569.6003) or email (sorrickmw@hiram.edu).