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Learning and Reflecting: Experiential Ed Week

By Joanna Manning

Every September, Upper School students spend a week with their grade-level cohorts participating in Experiential Education week, an intentional break from classroom studies that is spent learning from and reflecting on experience.

Experiential Education Week stands apart from other experiential education programs such as Winterim because it is a grade-level experience. The program has long been a staple of the Upper School curriculum, and with Emily Stokes-Broyles (’99) serving as the new Experiential and Place-Based Learning Director, this week is set to grow stronger under her leadership. While much of the curriculum remained the same this year, Ms. Stokes-Broyles introduced a purposeful arc to the program, assigning themes to each grade level that are relevant to each stage of the students’ educational journey. 

The primary goal of the 9th grade  curriculum was to build community by cultivating a sense of place and belonging in and around the campus itself. 

“A high-school experience at Charles Wright should not be interchangeable with an experience anywhere else,” Ms. Stokes-Broyles said. “We want our students to be deeply rooted in this community of 9th grade students learners and deeply rooted in this actual place where we come together to learn. We know that that helps them grow as people, and it also makes the lessons stick.” 

To strengthen that sense of place, students participated in a stewardship unit with Pierce County environmental experts. They learned about the history and ecology of the Chambers Creek Watershed, then headed to Kobayashi Park for a service learning project designed to preserve and protect our local natural resources. 

“There is no learning like doing something for yourself,” Ms. Stokes-Broyles said of the 9th grade students’ experience at Kobayashi. “We can sermonize to kids about stewardship, and even if they’re on board, it doesn’t mean much on a visceral level. But when a ninth grader goes down and takes a sketchy bit of hillside and produces an awesome, wide, gorgeous trail that the kindergarten science class will be using next week, that is something they feel deeply and are really proud of. It sticks with them.” 

9th grade students  also used the week to explore different Tarrier traits each day. They took a design thinking workshop with Joe Romano, the Director of Innovation and Design Labs, to develop their capacity as innovators. On collaborator day, students navigated the ropes course at Camp Seymour, which, like all confidence-building courses, serves as a physical metaphor for cooperation and is always great fun. On communicator day, students talked about communicating across difference and how we might view the world through different cultural lenses. 

Alumni and former faculty report that the 10th grade outdoor education trips–five days spent hiking or kayaking in the remote wilderness–are among the most memorable experiences of their time at Charles Wright. This time spent outdoors strengthened sophomores’ connections with their peers and teachers as they learned to rely on each other to persist through shared adversity. Students even deepened their connection to themselves as they gained the confidence to push themselves through an emotionally and physically demanding experience. 

11th grade students explored the differences between small private universities and large public institutions by visiting the University of Puget Sound and the University of Washington as representative examples of each type of school. As they begin to look toward their future beyond Charles Wright, they had the opportunity to explore different colleges and meet college counselors from those universities. CWA students also participated in guided tours led by college students to gain perspective from college students who are not much older than them. CWA students were also able to meet with the admissions teams from each of the universities.  

“For some of our kids the size of UW and access to different programs and urban location, is really appealing,” Head Librarian Sam Harris said. “For others, the more attention and access to professors at smaller liberal arts college is what they are looking for.” 

After the visits, CWA students  share their findings with peers. These notes include details about the such as extra-curricular activities, student advising, housing and residential life, and the student experience in general. 

“The goal of these visits is to give 12th grade students the opportunity to wrap their minds around the similarities and differences between a big public school and small liberal arts school before their senior year when they are deep into their own college search.” Ms. Harris said.

As 12th grade students prepare to transition past graduation, they used this time to work on their college applications and essays without the distractions a normal school week. Some seniors took advantage of the time to visit colleges and universities around the country without needing to worry about falling behind in their academic work. 

Jon Mayer is a 12th grade student, who has attended Charles Wright since Jr. Kindergarten, and visited several college campuses during Experiential Ed week.

“It’s so hard to think about finding colleges while you’re doing homework, studying for SAT’s, and doing sports so it’s helpful to have that week to explore what the next step will be after CWA,” said Jon ”Experiential ed week gave me the opportunity to discover schools I wouldn’t have looked into otherwise, and I ended up finding two schools that I never would have looked into before!” 

During Experiential Ed week, college counselors and English teachers are available to students to provide focused attention to this process. 

“We don’t have a ton of opportunities to take a week in the middle of the year to get help looking for colleges, and I got all of my college applications done in two days because of the opportunity to visit schools and the CWA teachers helping me out.” said Jon. 

“There’s a unique overlap between personal and collective growth that happens in the group,” Ms. Stokes-Broyles said. “There’s a nurturing and creating community. We find that graduates point to relationships as being such a core of their experience here, and it really is such a core. I’m an alum, and it’s absolutely the experiential ed that I remember. The content goes, but I truly remember those experiences, and they are what make you feel connected many years later.” 

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