PORTLAND, MAINE — A dashing young man wearing a green felt cape and a silver crown strides over to a group of visitors.
"I am William of Normandy," he announces. "I am one of the mightiest feudal lords that ever lived."
It's no ordinary day on the battlefield for William the Conqueror, who is really seventh-grader James Pelletier. He's performing in his school's Medieval Knights program, which includes skits with characters like Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc, and Roger Bacon.
These students are on a "learning expedition" at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, a public school with a decidedly different approach.
The school's curriculum was designed by Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, a Cambridge, Mass., based-organization. The group has replaced long hours of classroom work with in-depth explorations of themes through community service, field work, or group performance.
Expeditionary Learning throws convention to the wind: Rigid scheduling and class periods are out, tracking is practically nonexistent, and students work with the same teacher for more than one year. Children still learn the traditional subjects but spend less time watching a teacher in front of a blackboard.
"[Students] learn more. They do better," says Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound president Greg Farrell. "They are able to achieve at high levels, and do more things they didn't think they could do through the traditional chalk and talk, when teachers dominate the time."
Expeditionary Learning's system-wide philosophy - which is now in place at nearly 50 schools around the United States - affects all the grades and classes of a school. All delve into expedition themes each year:
* At the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning (Grades K-12) in Denver, third-graders studied the subject of homes. They built a replica of Henry David Thoreau's cabin on their playground and visited the original site in Concord, Mass.
* Middle-school students at the School for the Physical City in New York became stewards of a local park and renovated it.
* At the Table Mound Elementary School in Dubuque, Iowa, in a program called "Books! Books! Books!," first-graders create their own class books and many individual books.
"The essence of expeditionary learning is that it motivates students," says Dan Eaton, whose seventh-grade son attends the King school. "And I think motivated kids are good students."
The program was originally funded for five years by New American Schools, a nonprofit corporation in Arlington, Va. Schools hoping to adopt it now must foot the tab themselves. District approval is required, and 80 percent of a school's faculty and all of its leadership must sign on.
Broad student appeal
Expeditionary Learning says the program helps spark a wide variety of students, from those in need of a tough challenge to low performers. School-district test results show significant improvement in standardized tests by the third year of implementation in 9 of 10 Expeditionary Learning schools. A more complete assessment of student achievement by the RAND Corp. is under way.
That performance is key, say experts. A catchy-sounding curriculum is fine. But schools need strong basic academics too, says Theodore Sizer, education professor emeritus of Brown University in Providence, R.I. "The success depends on the particulars," he says. "We confuse serious education with models, and models are ... just the shell. It's what you do inside the shell that's crucial."
Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound acts as a consultant to its schools, and has branch offices around the country. Teachers and administrators follow guidelines and consult with a school "designer," who visits regularly. The first-year cost for a school with 25 teachers is approximately $78,350.
Students aren't the only ones that test new methods. Teachers go on one-week learning expedition summits where they, like students, study themes in depth.
The five-year-old educational design tends to suit small high schools but has been successful with lower grades as well - public or private. While students of all ability levels are suited for the program, Mr. Farrell says, the approach may work best for those who have had problems learning in traditional schools.
Here at the King school, 22 percent of students are foreign born and speak a total of 28 languages. Many come from low-income backgrounds. As a traditional school 5-1/2 years ago, King had its share of problems, says principal Mike McCarthy.
"When I first got here, it was a typical junior high school - a lot of discipline problems, not a lot of interdisciplinary work," Mr. McCarthy says.
After Expeditionary Learning was introduced, students became more engaged, test scores have improved, and disciplinary referrals dropped, he says.
Students get a dollop of several academic subjects. For their Medieval Knights program, youngsters wrote reports on medieval characters in addition to putting on a play.
When they published a field guide of Casco Bay in an earlier expedition, students used science, art, research, writing, and computer skills. Youngsters did extensive on-site and laboratory work on organisms, as well as underwater photography and snorkeling. Shortly after that, an oil spill fouled Casco Bay.
"It then became real to the kids," McCarthy says. As part of their follow-up field work, "they saw animals drenched in oil and talked to the cleanup crew."
More demands on teachers
Despite its successes, expeditionary learning is not without its challenges. Teachers may find they have less free time - whether it's because they're buying art supplies or shopping for costumes.
"It's a lot of work. You have to do a lot of scrambling to put resources together," says language-arts teacher Karen MacDonald.
But students seem to appreciate that. Seventh-grader Krista Robinson likes the school better than others she's attended.
"When I was younger, I went to a parochial school then I went to a public school," she says. "The biggest change of all would be the freedom we have here. They trust you a lot more with learning. It's more hands on. It's more involvement with the whole class."