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April 19, 2021

Deeper Learning: Building Academic Courage


What does courage have to do with success in school? Just about everything, I believe.

Last June I was standing on the broad marble steps of the Springfield, Massachusetts Symphony Hall after a remarkable and unique high school graduation at one of our Expeditionary Learning (EL) schools. On the surface, the students and the school looked typical: Springfield Renaissance School is an urban public district school with about 700 students, most of whom are low-income students of color. The graduating seniors wore traditional caps and gowns and everyone wore uncomfortable shoes. But this event was anything but typical. Unlike most urban high schools, where almost half of the students don’t even reach graduation, almost every single student that had entered that school as a ninth grader graduated that night, and for the fourth consecutive year, every single graduate was accepted to college. How could this be? What made the difference here?


I believe it has much to do with the kinds of courage that the school cultivates in students. My own conception of courage changed many years ago when my friend Scott Hartl, now the president of Expeditionary Learning, had just returned from a successful high-altitude climb to the summit of Pumori, a mountain adjacent to Everest. While most of us think of this kind of bravery in the face of danger as the embodiment of courage, Scott was modest about his accomplishment because he had a different conception of courage. He described what I call differentiated courage, meaning that each of us has more courage in some domains and less in others. I adopted this notion of courage with my family, and everyone soon became more tolerant of themselves and each other, and more determined to improve. Instead of teasing each other about their lack of bravery, my kids, and now grandkids, worked hard to develop friendship courage, sleepover courage, ocean courage or airplane courage. My grandson who had been working hard to develop his food courage was able to point out that he at least had good dessert courage.


At Renaissance, this kind of differentiated courage is at the heart of the school culture. Renaissance is a school of Deeper Learning, and courage is everywhere. It begins with social and emotional courage. Renaissance graduate Karenia Long, a student who overcame difficult family challenges, including homelessness, to graduate and enter college as a nursing student, writes in a letter to current ninth graders: “I’ve buried family members and some of my closest friends, and still got up to make that 8 a.m. class the next day because I knew that is where I needed to be. Owning your education means getting up and moving forward when everything around you seems to be falling apart.” (See her full letter.)


Days at Renaissance begin with morning “Crew” sessions – small advisories – where students must show courage in speaking up, honestly, to the group, sharing their feelings, their goals, their concerns, their academic progress. For students from tough neighborhoods, being vulnerable personally and showing compassion to others – especially across lines of gender, race and social group – takes significant courage. They critique themselves and each other in their journey toward being good students and citizens, being brave in their candor. They hold each other accountable for being their best selves.


In the classrooms, academic courage abounds. Students show the courage to care about their learning, to try hard, to do their homework, to raise their hands. This may seem minor, but in many urban high schools it is simply not cool to care. They show the courage to ask questions, admit confusion, and to make mistakes in front of peers. They show the courage to try out ideas and concepts when they are not yet sure if they understand them fully. They even show vocabulary courage – trying out academic and disciplinary language in making arguments, very different from the language of their neighborhoods. Classroom lessons, which frequently involve students leading significant parts of the learning, conclude with a debrief circle, in which students show the courage to speak up and publicly reflect on their learning. See students leading a powerful lesson in Teaching Channel’s film on Deeper Learning in Expeditionary Learning schools.


Renaissance compels students to struggle with complex texts and problems, often beyond what they think they can handle. Students present their learning to their peers, families and community in Student-led Conferences, Passage Presentations and Senior Talks. Perhaps most impressive of all, the school asks students to step up their courage as citizens to lead significant projects for the community beyond the school. For example, ninth grade science students were trained by city engineers to conduct energy audits of city buildings. The students wrote a scientific report that recommended over $150,000 of building renovations to save the environment and to save city funds. The city invested in those renovations and within two years had more than recouped its investment. (See the report.)

When I sit down with students in the school to discuss their stories – their victories and their struggles as young scholars and members of the school community – it is rare when a student does not include the word courage to describe the heart of his or her academic journey.


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