This post was authored by Buck Cooper.
The 8th Grade team tried something new this year–experiential learning week. In years past, we have had field trips and service learning days sprinkled across the year. This year, we agreed that the final week of 3rd quarter would be handed over completely to three experiential learning opportunities that have become major events in the life of the 8th grade: the annual trip to Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Service Learning Day and our Jackson area Civil Rights field trip.
The Dauphin Island Sea Lab trip is a two night trip to the aforementioned barrier island on the Gulf Coast of Alabama. We spend almost three days rotating through several different learning experiences–a cruise on the gulf that allows students the chance to learn about the environment and organisms that inhabit it, an opportunity to build a remote controlled underwater vehicle and then compete to see whose vehicle retrieves the most objects, a chance to dissect a squid and an activity out on the beach that makes the actual consequences of rising global sea levels very real. In addition, the kiddos get time together in dorm like settings and ample time to play out on the beach or to play tabletop games in the evening. It’s a great combination of learning and bonding.
This year’s 8th grade service learning day began with a kind of prelude to the next day’s civil rights field trip, as students visited Tougaloo College’s Woodward Chapel, site of many historic events during the height of the movement in Jackson in the 1960s and the synagogue that is home to Beth Israel Congregation, which was both an opportunity to continue the conversation begun during a chapel earlier in the year with Rabbi Joseph Rosen and to see another historic site in the civil rights movement in Jackson during the 60s. We then drove out to the Mississippi River Basin model near Clinton and spent the afternoon clearing brush under the supervision of a group dedicated to the preservation of the model and (hopefully) a renewal of Buddy Butts Park.
Finally, on Friday, students visited the two Mississippi Museums to learn more about the history of the state and the genesis, legacy and ongoing work of the civil rights movement. After lunch, we drove out to Jackson State University and visited the Masonic Temple, home of the office of Medgar Evers and still site of the NAACP’s office, hearing from Frank Figgers, a veteran of the civil rights movement and local educator and citizen-activist. Mr. Figgers shares the history of the Masonic temple and the role it played both in the civil rights movement, but also more broadly in the history of Jackson’s Black community. We also visited the COFO Headquarters, a space that is now managed by Jackson State University, but which served as a central location for the leadership and coordination of a number of organizations active across Mississippi during much of the 50s and 60s.
We’re hoping to fold all three of these experiential learning opportunities into places for the 8th graders to begin to answer the question “How do you want to work to/how can you change the world?” They’ve seen examples of how the world is changing and has changed–historically and physically, and they’ve had the opportunity to interact with folks who are learning about and who have been active in that change. This is a great place for the students to then think about where they might assume a role in such work or be inspired to think about their own lives differently, and to share their thinking in the context of their capstone presentations later this year. In the longer term, we’re also hoping to continue to build this aspect of the 8th grade experience. There is additional work that we can do to prime students for this week of experiential learning and to be more intentional about how we weave the threads these opportunities create throughout the 8th grade curriculum beyond their reading of Coming of Age in Mississippi and their work about Earth’s resources and environment in their science classes. Asking students at the pinnacle of their middle school journey to reflect on how the previous four years have shaped their view of themselves and their relationship with the world of which they are a part feels like a fitting way to wrap up the middle school journey.