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Head of School Center for Experiential Learning Update

May 30, 2019

Dear AFS Families,

As you know, our school has long prized experiential learning as central to the AFS experience. Recently, we have dramatically expanded opportunities for students to encounter a larger world of learning through the Center for Experiential Learning (CEL) and as we draw close to the end of the school year, I write to share some of that wonderful work with you.

As you receive this letter, thirty-five Upper School students are in Paris, exploring museums, cathedrals, palaces and street life while immersing themselves in French language, culture and everyday living.

Another twenty-six students are traveling in two groups through Yellowstone National Park working on habitat restoration and bison grazing projects, observing wolf packs and spectacular thermal features, while gathering a complex understanding of the region, its biosphere and conservation challenges.

Our seniors are currently off on their month-long Capstone projects that include mentorship with the Director of Sports Medicine at Swarthmore College, internships at a variety of law offices, investment firms, the Penn Museum and the Human Resources department of Diner’s Club in Ecuador. Others are recording their own music, developing portraits on the streets in Italy or immersed in the PR and marketing world at Philadelphia corporate giant URBN.

The rest of our Upper School students are immersed in our first fully-realized ExTerm courses, closing the year in intensive, interdisciplinary, team-taught courses this week and next. Students are enrolled in one of twelve classes for the full two-weeks. Courses include an in-depth exploration of North Philadelphia’s 5th Street; a fascinating look at the phenomenon of consciousness through the lenses of philosophy, science, technology and medicine; and learning to be an activist while studying about the school-to-prison pipeline. ExTerm classes draw on many outside resources and field trips for a learning experience that truly engages students with the landscape of the larger world. Every Upper School faculty member has been engaged in developing these courses over the course of the year. I am so impressed with their creativity, passion and resourcefulness in bringing the ExTerm program to life this year. The full range of courses can be seen here.

All of these experiences, and many more, are under the auspices of the AFS Center for Experiential Learning and CEL Director Rosanne Mistretta. Working in collaboration with an Experiential Learning Council of faculty throughout the school in partnership with Upper School Director Dom Gerard, the CEL has extended its reach to include mentorship programs, service, travel and summer opportunities.

These include our flagship programs of MedEx and BizEx, which pair cohorts of students interested in medicine or business with cohorts of exceptional professionals in each field for a year-long program of exploration and learning experiences. They also include our student exchange program with Friends’ School Hobart in Tasmania and this year’s travel to a Shakespeare Festival in Virginia.

In the realm of service learning, we saw our second year of Spanish 5 students working closely with MANNA, translating documents for clients, making outreach to clients by phone and directly volunteering in client services in Spanish speaking neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Other service learning projects led by our student Community Service Council include the student-run and developed Kicks for Cancer soccer tournament raising money for Fox Chase Cancer Center; outreach to those in hospital settings with artwork through the Mending Spirit program, developed by a former AFS parent; and consistent weekend collaboration and volunteering at the Jewish Relief Agency.

This summer, AFS students have successfully competed to be placed in programs in forensic science at Drexel University, environmental science at Penn, math at Williams College and a research fellowship at Fox Chase Cancer Center among many others.

This range of indelible learning experiences is thrilling to me. Alongside a powerful academic program in the classroom, we believe wide-ranging experience to be essential to fully developing students in intellect, capability and a deep sense of self and purpose. We are inspired by the fact that we live in a resource-rich world, where the walls of school can be thinner and a broader terrain of learning and connection is possible. In our independent Friends school, we have the freedom to curate and develop this wide and expansive view of education.

We value experiential learning because it extends our students’ reach into the world and fires their imagination for their place in that world. It breaks the age segregation of the high school experience by forming meaningful relationships with adults doing a range of work in the real world. It develops their fluency in navigating a wide landscape of settings including neighborhoods, cultures and professional work places. And it keeps learning and growth authentic and meaningful to students, fueled by genuine curiosity and fostering resourcefulness.

Of course, all of this newer programming is built on a foundation of Friends education at AFS that is experiential at its core, from the performing arts, to diversity, equity and inclusion work, the athletics program and the experience of silence in the Meeting House each week. It is expressed in the Middle School EGIS programAFS Outside and the Headwaters Discovery Playground, the intensity of the Robotics program and all of the interdisciplinary work we see in the Lower School coming to fruition this week and next in curriculum nights.

I am grateful for our extraordinary faculty who collaborate so well with each other to create such opportunities for our students. Their liveliness of spirit and mind, their creativity and commitment to ongoing learning, matched with those same qualities in our students, make for a distinctive and robust education.

May we all take a moment as this school year draws to a close to reflect on the growth of our children this year and to be grateful for each other—families, teachers and staff and students alike—who together create the community that is AFS.

All the best to you,

Rich Nourie
Head of School

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