1st graders at the River School

Sample Expeditions

At SELS, as in all Expeditionary Learning Schools, the core of our curriculum is our learning expeditions—the signature curricular structure in EL schools that make content standards come alive for students. Learning expeditions are interdisciplinary, project-based studies, usually lasting 6 weeks to a semester, led by a teacher or teaching team. They are based on state standards and school-designed curriculum maps, and focus on what teachers determine to be essential content and skills. Expeditions take multiple, powerful elements of the EL approach and join them together: guiding Planning for an expeditionquestions, kickoff experiences, case studies, projects, lessons, fieldwork, experts, service learning, and a culminating event that features high-quality student work.

At SELS, we are continually developing innovative new learning expeditions.
Below is a sampling of some learning expeditions that have been offered at SELS:


Building Community: Students build connections among their crew while developing knowledge and skills about tools and construction. With a focus on the SIERRA norms, students learn about community by shaping their own. Beginning with a construction project building a loft in their classroom, students go on to research a particular tool and create a page for a class Tool Book. Kindergarteners then survey the SELS community to see what product would be most valuable to our school and create a physical structure based on survey results as their culminating project.

Strength of a Bear: In this science-based expedition, kindergarteners go deep into a study of a prominent player in the local region: the black bear.   Asking the question, “What makes a bear a bear?” students look into both the physical particulars of bears and also their symbolic power, especially in California and at our school, where the bear is our mascot. They work on multiple products, including a realistic model of a bear den and a bear sculpture for the school.

1st Grade:

1st graders at the River SchoolFarm Fresh: How do plants and animals provide the food that we find on our tables? First graders spend a full year on this in-depth expedition, which takes them to multiple farms around northern California and western Nevada. From turning compost, to planting seeds and walking orchards, to making multiple foods from fruit by hand, to incubating eggs and exploring dairy farms, students get up close and personal with the food they love. As they develop as artists and writers, students create a book that links the sources of the food with the food itself, complete with original images and scientific labels.

Astonishing Ants: How do ants live? What is their life cycle and what is their habitat? How do they adapt with their changing surroundings. Students use this expedition as a lens to compare ants communities to their own community.   Students publish a handbook of the ants of the world.

Weather Matters: What is weather? What different types of weather are there in the local area? How does weather affect our lives, including what we wear, what activities we engage in, and food we grow? Students take an in-depth look at water as a state of matter and how it changes from liquid to solid to gas (think: snow, hail, clouds, rain, etc.) via experiments. The crew keeps track of weather data and makes predictions based on what we learned. Observation and scientific investigation are the centerpieces of this expedition.

2nd/3rd Grade:

Learning TargetsI’ve Been Working on the Railroad: The transcontinental railroad had a massive impact on our nation, and especially the mighty Sierra Nevada, which posed such an obstacle to those who gave their all to connect the east and west.   Those constituents—from Chinese and Irish workers, to the Big Four, to the Central Pacific Railroad and Theodore Judah—all had very different perspectives on what is meant to build a railroad across our local mountains. This diversity of perspectives lends itself well to diverse case studies, and also to a culminating performance—a Chautauqua where 2nd and 3rd grade students perform for several minutes as a particular character from the railroad era, including precise detail, period dress, and personal perspective from those who make history come alive.

Energy Matters: Why do we need energy? How do people use energy? Why does matter matter? In this expedition, students compare and contrast different states of matter and identify different sources of energy, specifically light, sound, and heat energy through a series of experiments. The young scientists also analyze renewable energy and determine sources of energy available to communities surrounding Truckee. Our local Earth Day celebration is a showcase for students’ renewable energy research. As a culminating product, students create an experiment to enter into the expedition science fair.

Life and the Truckee River: How are plants and animals similar and how are they different? What are their basic needs? How do plants and animals adapt to survive? The Truckee River, nestled in the Sierra Nevada range, plays host to abundant plant and animal life. Taking their learning to the field, students work at local fish hatcheries, the Tahoe Environmental Research Center, the Sage Hen Field Station, and local wetlands to see for themselves how local fish and fowl behave.

What Makes Truckee… Truckee: How has Truckee changed over history? How was the founding of the town influenced by settlers? How do we as individuals fit into the development of our community? Students create a walking historical map, a living timeline, and publish and expedition newspaper with original pieces including essays, timelines, advertisements, fiction, poetry and art. Research involves a service component with elders in the community and capturing of their stories.

 4th/5th Grade:

Sierra Scientists: How do scientists explore and learn about the Sierra Nevada mountains that surround them? To discover answers to this question, students pursue some serious long-term learning targets: “I can explain the forms of interdependence among organisms in many ways. I can analyze how rocks are formed and what properties they exhibit. I can demonstrate how ice reshapes the surface of the earth.” Rigorous scientific investigation and experimental design are the foundation of case studied in ecology, geology, and glaciology. Students create terrarium ecosystems, tumble rocks, and create 3D glacial models. Fieldwork is extensive, and includes a brine shrimp population study at Mono Lake, as well as a week in Yosemite following in the footsteps of John Muir, engaging in research with modern-day scientists and naturalists.

We Found Gold: The California Gold Rush of 1849 brought, people, dreams, wealth, and a great jumpstart to California. Students examine how the Forty-Niners, those who made a living supplying them, and many other hopeful settlers got to California, and what happened to them once they arrived. Rich fieldwork at local mining outposts enhances their studies. Students write an original script for a play using primary and secondary sources, as well as creative influence. A musical score takes this expedition’s culminating public performance to the ‘unforgettable’ level.

Lake to Lake: Students trace a watershed from the Lake Tahoe Basin, through Truckee, all the way to Pyramid Lake, exploring chemistry, water processes, and conservation methods. This expedition immerses students in various forms of fieldwork including: water quality studies in local streams and reservoirs, examining the clarity and sediment content of Lake Tahoe’s water aboard the SECCI research vessel, and exploring the upper reaches of the watershed to find its many sources.

On American Soil—Power from the People: How does a people’s interpretation of the land on which they live guide their relationships? Students dive into the multiple layers of historical perspective in the local region, with an emphasis on cultural ecology and the connection between peoples and the way they view their surroundings. In concert with the Donner Summit Historical Society, students engage in extensive fieldwork on local petroglyph sites. As a culminating product, the crew creates a permanent, full color interpretive sign complete with original text and images. The sign becomes a part of Truckee’s 20-Mile Museum.

6th Grade:

Earth Shaking, Mountain Making: Students explore the forces that shape the Earth’s surface in general, and the geology and topography of California in particular. Students delve deep into the impact of plate tectonics on mountain range formation, volcanoes, and earthquakes. They investigate the effects of weathering, erosion and deposition on reshaping the Earth’s surface. After a week of immersion in Lassen Volcanic National Park, including student-taught workshops in the field and extensive photography and videography, students create a world-class documentary film that is premiered for the public and entered into film festivals.

Worlds of Wonders: What are the enduring contributions of ancient societies? How do contributions of contemporary societies compare with those of ancient civilizations? These are the big questions that guide this expedition’s inquiry in to natural and human wonders: world, local, and personal. With a state wide California Wonder Tour as a kickoff, and in-depth explorations of the criteria that we as humans use to deem places, people or creations wondrous, students work toward a culminating, competitive forum of ancient civilizations to decide which has made the most significant contributions to human culture.

Other key Expeditionary Learning curriculum terms defined:

Guiding Questions – Open-ended essential questions that synthesize the “so what” of the topic students are studying and link all elements of a learning expedition or unit of study. Typically, 1-3 guiding questions frame an expedition; they are posted in the classroom and referenced regularly. Guiding questions often represent key concepts of a discipline. For example, “What impact did the Transcontinental Railroad have on the part of the American West in which we live?” or “How do the species around us depend on one another to survive?”

Case Studies – Case studies are concrete, often local, studies of subtopics within a discipline. They are used to make the major concepts of a discipline or broad topic come alive for students. EL uses the term “case study” in a broader manner than that term is used in law or medicine. Sometimes the term is used exactly as it is in those fields, to refer to an investigation of a unique person, place, institution or event (e.g. as part of a U.S. history study of the Civil Rights movement, students investigate a local civil rights hero). Other times the term case study is used more loosely, to refer to a narrowed subtopic that allows students to focus their research on a particular example that animates and clarifies the broader topic (e.g. in a study of the Civil War, students are involved in a case study of women’s roles in the war). Learning Expeditions generally include one or more case studies; ideally they connect students to their local natural or residential community to provide a local window on national or global concepts.

Learning Targets – Goals or objectives for lessons, projects and courses, derived from state and local standards and curriculum maps, to assess growth. They are written in concrete, student-friendly language, shared with students, posted in the classroom, and tracked carefully by students and teachers during the process of learning. For example, if a required 5th grade state standard is: “students will articulate multiple perspectives on the various factors catalyzing the American Revolution,” a teacher-created learning target for students might be: “I can explain how a number of different concerns and events led to the start of the American Revolution.” EL distinguishes between long-term learning targets and supporting learning targets:

Long-term learning targets – Learning targets that express the intended student learning for the entire Learning Expedition, project or grading term. These targets will be included in teachers’ grade books and assessment reports. They are commonly labeled as knowledge, reasoning, skill, craftsmanship, and/or character.

Supporting learning targets – Small-scale targets that guide instruction and scaffold toward the long- term targets. Supporting targets are contextualized and specific (e.g. supporting learning targets for a lesson might include: “I can add fractions with different denominators. I can draw a geometric diagram and use it to explain the concept of adding fractions. I can demonstrate focus and kindness while working with my classmates.”)

Assessment for Learning (formative assessments) – Assessment for learning strategies are actions that help students improve their understanding and skills at the outset of learning and throughout the process of learning. They provide students with information to help them be successful on assessments of learning. Assessments for learning include instructional practices such as sharing learning targets, self-assessing, or analyzing models and exemplars to create a picture of quality work. Assessments for learning can also be physical assessments, such as quizzes, performances, or journal entries, when they are used to gauge student progress and determine next steps for instruction.

Assessments of Learning (summative assessments) – Assessments of learning are evaluations given after learning has occurred; they measure student progress and reflect the level of student learning at a particular point in time. They can reflect a wide range of formats that fall into one of four methods: selected/short response, extended response, performance assessment, and personal communication. Examples of formats within these method categories are: tests, quizzes, essays, presentations, exhibitions, performances, and journals.

Product – Student products are the tangible results of ongoing case studies and projects. Formats include things like: scientific reports, field guides, blueprints, business plans, anthologies of writing, architectural models, or instructional posters. Most projects in EL schools result in products created for audiences beyond the classroom. Products are intended to increase motivation by engaging students in real work with authentic purpose, and they require students to apply key academic skills while thinking creatively and critically. Products are not the sole assessment of students’ ability to meet a set of long-term targets. Their primary purpose is to motivate students to learn important material, demonstrate what they know, improve their craftsmanship, contribute to their community, and build habits of scholarship.

Performance – One type of product where students perform for an authentic audience.

Habits of Scholarship – Habits of scholarship support students’ academic success and reflect the values of the school. They are synonymous with performance character skills – skills needed to obtain a standard of excellence in academic or real-world endeavors. Teachers look to the habits of scholarship to name specific, developmentally appropriate targets for which students are held accountable.

Character – The EL concept of character is based on the work of Tom Lickona and Matt Davidson, and distinguishes two categories: Performance character refers to skills that enable students to perform to potential, to do good work (e.g., responsibility, perseverance, commitment to quality); Relational character refers to skills that enable students to work well with others, to be a good person (e.g. respect, kindness, collaboration).

A K – 8th public charter school in Truckee, CA