At Amana Academy, a Playground Teaches STEM Concepts and Character

By Wanda Hopkins McClure, 

Amana Academy is a K-8 public charter school in Alpharetta, Georgia, that has embraced the project-based model called Expeditionary Learning (EL) for the past nine years. 

In Expeditionary Learning schools, students learn by conducting “learning expeditions” rather than by sitting in a classroom being taught one subject at a time. Expeditionary Learning works on developing the character–as well as the intellect–of students. 

Expeditionary Learning changes not only how students learn but also a school’s culture. Expeditionary Learning affects standards, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and school organization. Teachers, parents, staff, and students work together to create a school culture of collaboration, respect, and high expectations.

Amana’s mission is to prepare students for high academic achievement beyond what they think is possible so that they become active contributors to building a better world. This hands-on learning process allows students to think critically and deeply by combining project-based learning with place-based education. Place-based education emphasizes connection and appreciation of the natural world, and service to others. 

Amana Academy is fortunate to be located adjacent to Wills Park, an 85-acre urban park space with two miles of walking trails, ball fields, an outdoor classroom and equestrian center. It has two playground areas, one of which Amana’s 700 students use for recess everyday. We also use the park space for physical education and to teach environmental science.

The Expeditionary Learning model continually asks students to identify problems in their own community that they might potentially solve. Our teachers guided a discussion about our park space. As the discussion deepened, students came to the awareness that the playground they use daily is not user-friendly for handicapped children. It has wood chips, which are difficult for wheelchairs to navigate, the swings are intended for able-bodied students only, and the climbing equipment doesn’t take disability into account. Teachers used the discussion to talk about empathy and got students thinking critically about how playgrounds are designed.

The Expedition: With this awareness, an expedition was born! Amana students would reimagine their playground. It enabled our fourth grade students, who are studying simple machines, to apply technology to the problem. They looked at physics, technology, and design, to engineer potential solutions. They struggled with these guiding questions: How do forces impact society? How can we use our knowledge of simple machines to serve our community?

The Research: Students began their expedition by exploring the playground through the lens of an architect, using a critical eye toward design, assessing the ease of use of the equipment itself. They analyzed the entrance to the playground itself and worked individually and in groups to imagine what it is like for students who have physical challenges to use the space. The exploration continued as students worked through case studies that allowed them to explore physics and force. They created and prototyped simple machines to measure speed, distance, and force. Research continued with field work at LegoLand Discovery Center where students created models using Legos. 

The Partnership and The Product: Students interacted with an architect and mechanical engineer who gave them input on the process of design and engineering, including the use of blueprints and 3-D models. Students used Google Sketchup to create their own blueprints which were then used to build 3-D models of their re-imagined playgrounds. 

Students deepened their understanding of what would be needed to bring their project to life. They used math to calculate cost effectiveness, budget breakdowns, scale-factors, safety, and use of eco-materials. Working collaboratively, students created their ideas of what an accessible playground could look like. This project also integrated connections to the new Common Core standards in English language arts as students wrote persuasive proposals for changes to the existing playground based on their research. Students presented their final products to their parents and community at Showcase, Amana Academy’s mid-year celebration of student work.  

Using Expeditionary STEM, Amana students are poised to become problem solvers and change-makers. Teachers are already planning next year’s expedition which will include a partnership with the Alpharetta City Parks Department. Amana students will create and write a collaborative grant proposal that might transform our playground and produce real-life change to our community.

Wanda Hopkins McClure is Elementary Grades Principal at Amana Academy, a Fulton County charter school.

The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.

Why My Son Attends a Single-Gender Charter School

By Rae Anne Harkness

Most people have heard about the decline in educational outcomes for boys and young men that have become more pronounced in recent years. There has also been an increase in research to determine the reasons that girls are outperforming their male counterparts. In fact, according to the author of Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies that Work, boys are held back to repeat a grade at twice the rate of girls. They are expelled from preschool five times as often and are diagnosed with learning disorders and/or ADHD more than three times as often as girls.

I do not believe these outcomes have to be the destiny of our boys. This is why I chose to enroll my son in a single-gender charter school.

In a typical American classroom, a teacher spends much of her time lecturing. Students are expected to sit still, listen, take meticulous notes, and speak only when called on. This type of environment is alien to many students, especially boys. Researchers have identified more than 100 differences in the structure of male and female brains. We can’t fix these differences with medical prescriptions, counseling, or disciplinary protocol. To change the outcome, we must find teachers and schools that meet our boys as they are and teach them in ways that they learn best.

According to Michael Gurian, author of With Boys in Mind/Teaching to the Minds of Boys, there are several brain functions in boys that differ significantly from those in girls. The male brain has more area for spatial-mechanical functioning, while the female brain dominates verbal-emotive processing. Because of the way their brains are wired, boys tend to use fewer words than girls. Another difference in brain function is in the frontal lobe development. This part of the brain, which controls reading, writing and impulse control develops at a later age in boys. As a result, many young boys are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities or punished for behavior problems.

Another major inconsistency between the brains of boys and girls is in the neural rest state. Boys’ brains drift into a rest state multiple times each day. Boys often try to fight it by tapping a pencil or ruler or talking to another student. If the brain does enter a rest state, some of his brain functioning shuts down. This phenomenon does not happen to a significant extent in female students, who tend to remain alert even when bored.

A last major difference in brain function between the sexes is in the way the hemispheres of the brain communicate. The brains of girls send signals back and forth, making them naturals at multi-tasking. The compartmentalized activity in the brains of boys give them laser-like focus to follow a task step by step. If interrupted or when too many things are going on at one time, boys may become irritable and start to act out.

These major differences in the way the brains of boys and girls function should create increased demand and growth opportunity for new charter schools that offer single-gender learning environments. When single gender schools hire motivated, competent teachers and ensure they have adequate training in the best teaching practices for boys, the bias of “boy behavior” disappears. The complaints that our boys “won’t sit still, pay attention and do their work” can be conquered with simple, specific strategies. A global study published in 2009 collected data for boys in the US and five other countries. Included were data from schools of all sizes, both public and private and various races and income levels. The study identified the top eight categories of instruction that succeeded in the instruction of boys:

1. Lessons that result in a product (model, poem, drawing)
2. Lessons structured as competitive games
3. Lessons requiring motor activity
4. Lessons engaging boys to help others learn
5. Lessons where open questions or problems are addressed
6. Lessons that require both competition and teamwork
7. Lessons that focus on independent discovery and realization
8. Lessons that include drama as a novelty or surprise

The research I did before enrolling my son in a single gender charter school has empowered me to recognize that single-gender instructional practices are effective for boys when teachers intentionally use them in the classroom. Now that my son gets to write about things he is interested in, he comes home eager to read me his words. When he read the book, “Because of Winn-Dixie,” which has a dog as one of the main characters, he increased his reading speed by more than 25 words per minute.

Our relationship has grown stronger in the time we’ve spent working together on models and projects that he enjoys. Today he marched happily into our home singing a song about the parts of speech. If you have a wiggly, giggly, rambunctious young boy of your own who is struggling in school, you may want to consider enrolling your son in a single-gender charter school as well.

Rae Anne Harkness is a long-time charter school advocate whose son is enrolled at Ivy Preparatory Young Men’s Leadership Academy.


The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency