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'Expeditions' offer students real experiences

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-20 09:34:58-05

MARIEMONT -- Walk through Mariemont Junior High School's halls on any given Friday, and you’ll hear students excitedly chattering about woodworking, interior design, cooking and even surviving outdoors. Fridays at Mariemont are Expedition days, when the students participate in their weekly experiential learning activities or “expeditions.” 

“A lot of the buzz about it is that students are just so excited to tell you about what expedition they’re in or what they made or where they’re going,” said Molly Connaughton, principal of Mariemont Junior High. “Walking around the hallway on Fridays between 1 and 3 when expeditions run, has become, professionally speaking, my favorite two hours of the week.”

Planning for the Expeditions program began last school year, when the Mariemont district leaders put together a plan called Destination 2026, a vision for how they wanted the district to evolve over the next 10 years. The first step of this plan is the initiative called Warriors BEyond, a K-12 program focusing on providing students with learning opportunities outside the normal curriculum. The Expeditions program is Mariemont Junior High’s piece of Warriors BEyond. 

New Principal Launched Program

“We really wanted to provide students with more experiences beyond just the classroom,” explained Josephine McKenrick, director of communications for Mariemont City Schools. “We wanted to give them opportunities to travel and explore different career options and do some service learning and have it be something built into their school day or their school experience.”

According to McKenrick, the Expeditions program is Connaughton’s “brain child.” The 2014-2015 school year was Connaughton’s first at Mariemont Junior High, and she took the opportunity to observe and gather feedback in order to craft the Expeditions program to align with the district’s Warriors BEyond standards. 

The expeditions are divided up into three categories: Wellness - focusing on physical, mental, social, and community and development; Arts - focusing on music, art, expression, and performance; and Learning Beyond - focsing on technology, college and career-focused expeditions. Students get to pick two from each category, plus a bonus seventh expedition from any of the 53 that the school offers. These expeditions range from ceramics, to public relations, and even racquet sports. According to Connaughton, the school's staff deserves a lot of credit for the ability to offer so many choices.

“I have a staff that really understands junior high kids more than anything,” Connaughton said.

Instructors Come From Staff And Community

Each expedition runs four weeks, and is totally ungraded. Students simply receive feedback and assistance from the adults running the activities. Many expeditions are led by Mariemont staff, but, according to Connaughton, outside partners have played a strong role in creating and leading expeditions.

“We’ve been blown away by the amount of support we’ve gotten both from our local community and city-wide,” Connaughton said. 

Cincinnati Sports Club, Lachey Arts, Wellington Orthopaedic and the local Kiwanis chapter partnered with Mariemont in planning expeditions that fell outside of the school faculty's knowledge. In addition, outside partners like Kroger and Jungle Jim’s have assisted in planning activities like baking challenges. Students have also traveled to locales as varied as the Cincinnati Art Museum, the University of Cincinnati and even Washington, D.C. 

So far, Connaughton and McKenrick report that the program has thrilled both students and parents.

“I hear often from parents ‘man, this makes me wish I was back in junior high’ or ‘I wish we had something like this when I was in junior high,” Connaughton said. “To be able to experience different things.”

According to Connaughton and McKenrick, the expeditions already have proven successful in allowing students to engage with hidden skills and passions. “My favorite thing that I’ve heard from students is when they do an expedition and learn that they are able to do something or that they’re good at something that they had never tried before,” Connaughton said. 

“The students are enjoying it,” McKenrick added. “They know that they’re learning a new skill and I think that it’s really empowering them to explore things they wouldn’t have thought of before and there are some leaders that are emerging. Some kids that are normally shy or quiet are taking leadership roles in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise. It makes education that much more exciting.”