Mind Travel

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Five young leaders make the progressive tradition their own.
Mind Travel

It's exhibition night at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning, a public, K-12 magnet in southeast Denver. Director Rob Stein, a self-described "nerd and introvert" dressed in green preppy corduroys, a button-down shirt, and gold print tie, stands at the front of the cafeteria, fumbling with an uncooperative overhead projector. "Something doesn't work," he mutters before running off to find help. Meanwhile, the room fills with parents and children who have braved a snowstorm and icy roads to learn about the school.

Moments later, the problem fixed, Stein welcomes the 50 or so visitors. "Thanks for coming tonight," he says as he slips a videotape about the school into a VCR. Founded in 1993 and run jointly by four Denver-area districts, RMSEL is one of more than 85 Expeditionary Learning schools throughout the country. They are based on the ideals of Outward Bound, the popular outdoor education program that promotes teamwork and moral development through adventures such as rock climbing and river rafting. The model, a modern riff on the progressive tradition of "learning by doing," was one of 11 whole-school reform prototypes selected in 1992 by the New American Schools, a business-backed group that aims to spur the creation of innovative, break-the-mold schools.

Rob Stein

Age: 39
Job: Director, Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning.
Education: Middlebury College, B.A. in anthropology with a minor in Hispanic literature; Stanford University, M.A. in teaching humanities; Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Ph.D. (in progress), dissertation on midlife career changers who become teachers.
Heroes/Mentors: “People who take a fresh approach or find a novel solution to a problem”—Albert Einstein; Bill Koch, a cross country skier who won competitions and revolutionized the sport by using skating techniques; carpenters and people who work with their hands. Also: Jerry McCracken, Stein’s world studies teacher in high school and mentor when student teaching.
Favorite Education Books:Improving Schools From Within, by Roland Barth.

Students at RMSEL—located in a nondescript former public elementary school—engage in "learning expeditions," long-term, in-depth studies of a single topic. They also go on real journeys. This year, for example, the school's 3rd and 4th graders are learning about sailing and navigation. Soon, they will travel to California, where they will explore the waters around Catalina Island by boat. "We feel that learning in the world is the best way to learn about the world," Stein tells the parents.

A youthful-looking 39-year-old, Stein has been director of the school for four years. Born and raised in Denver, he went east for college, graduating from Vermont's Middlebury College in 1982. He then spent 10 years teaching English and history at several schools, both public and private. An interest in school change—specifically, why schools don't change—led him to a doctoral program at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. His long-term goal was to teach college.

"But it took me about a year or two to realize that I didn't want to have a full-time university job for the rest of my life," says Stein, sitting behind his office desk. "I didn't see any role models at Harvard. The professors all seemed highly stressed, the rewards low, the frustrations high." After finishing his coursework, he hit the job market, looking for a principal's position. About the same time, RMSEL was searching for a director. Stein was familiar with the school, had an interest in whole-school change, and was a former outdoor education instructor who had gone on several Outward Bound courses. "It seemed clear that it was a really good fit," he says. It was. Stein applied and got the job.

As director, Stein's role is similar to that of a university faculty dean. "I'm there for the teachers," he says. "My job is to make sure that the adults are learning so that the kids are learning." To that end, he leads weekly faculty meetings, with the stipulation that only one per month is devoted to what he calls "administrivia." He also schedules at least nine days for professional development during the school year. "We take it very seriously here," he says.

Not surprisingly, the school's teachers offer Stein high praise. "He makes us see that there's a higher mission here," says middle school teacher Kathleen McHugh. "And he won't settle for second best."

"He's awesome," adds Marnie Moody, a first-year faculty member. "He's so passionate about what he does, and it trickles down to the entire faculty."

RMSEL's nontraditional approach to teaching and learning fits neatly in the progressive vein. "We don't do a lot of delivery of information," Stein says. "Teachers might do what we call 'mini-lectures,' or explanations of things. But there isn't a lot of standing in front of a class, or what I call 'frontal teaching.' And there isn't a lot of rote memorization." At the same time, the school eschews what Stein calls "misapplications" of progressivism. "Permissiveness, for example. We're not about that. We're highly structured, but we're differently structured."

Stein acknowledges that RMSEL isn't for everybody. Successful students tend to be self-directed and highly motivated, with an affinity for the unorthodox. The school has 315 kids, but many choose to go elsewhere when they reach high school. "It's small," Stein says, "and some students want the big social milieu, and we don't really provide that."

RMSEL's students perform above average on standardized tests, and many graduates have gone on to top colleges and universities. "By most measures," Stein says, "we do very well. But I wouldn't want to emphasize our standardized test scores because we are a select population. People choose to come here." The school has a long waiting list of applicants, so students are selected by lottery. (Thirty-eight percent of the students are minorities, which reflects the diversity of the four sponsoring districts.)

In a recent report titled Better By Design? A Consumer's Guide to Schoolwide Reform, published by the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, writer James Traub describes RMSEL as "plainly a delightful place to go to school." The students "seem eager, attentive, curious. . . . The day feels meandering even when in fact it's been carefully planned; only a few subjects, including math and Spanish, are actually taught as discrete units. Learning is meant to grow 'organically' out of experience."

Tonight, RMSEL's four middle school classrooms have been transformed into museums documenting the events of World War II. As part of their "expedition," all 96 6th, 7th, and 8th graders traveled to Washington, D.C., where they visited museums and studied not only their content but also their exhibit presentation. The trip's impact is obvious. One classroom has been transformed into a stirring Holocaust museum, made out of weathered wooden slats and cardboard. Inside, two knowledgeable girls, dressed in concentration camp garb, explain the museum's detailed charts, photographs, and time lines. Next door, several boys dressed in Army fatigues lead visitors through a D-Day museum.

An impressed visitor surveys the room and says, to no one in particular, "I didn't do this when I was in school!"

—David Hill

Vol. 11, Issue 7, Pages 50-51

Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as Mind Travel
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