School Spotlight: Finn Academy Charter School

2nd grade scholars at Finn Academy Charter School.
2nd grade Finn Academy scholars put on their ‘detective hats’ to investigate their new unit.

As the 15 or so 2nd Grade scholars scampered, pen and paper in hand, into the (unused) locker room on the 2nd floor of Finn Academy Charter School, they were greeted by a support staff member dressed in an inflatable dinosaur costume. After some welcoming high fives with the friendly dinosaur, the curious scholars put on their “detective hats” and began scouring the locker room for clues to what they would be studying in their upcoming unit.

Novels on dinosaurs and fossils are strewn on the room’s benches and windowsill. Roars emanated from a sound machine in locker 23. Tracks – from a velociraptor, most likely, one scholar theorized – circled the room. A young girl picked up a magnifying glass and discovered “dinosaur bones” hardened within a rock. After about ten minutes, the teacher called time, and the scholars lined back up at the door, eagerly chatting about the evidence they had found. A minute later, they headed back to class to discuss their theories and inferences, marking the conclusion of the expedition kickoff event and the beginning of a unit exploring fossils. It is the type of “experiential learning” that has become a focal point at Finn, a SUNY authorized charter school serving grades K through 6th Grade in Elmira, New York.

Kristie Swanson, Experiential Learning Coordinator at Finn Academy Charter School.
Kristie Swanson, Finn Academy Charter School

“It’s a no brainer; no one wants to sit there and be told things,” says Kristie Swanson, the Experiential Learning Coordinator at Finn. “The things you remember most are those active things…by getting their hands on things, they are learning more without even realizing it. It’s kind of like play, but it’s structured and disciplined.”

Building Cultural Competence

Swanson uses the example of scholars learning to make bricks out of mud, which she admits, seems like an odd activity for third-grade scholars. But, Swanson says, it makes sense when you consider the focus of the unit is on education around the world, including a Kenyan community that must construct its entire school building out of mudbrick each year before its washed away in the rain season. Eventually, the goal is for the scholars to make a “mini-model” of Finn.

Bonus: Listen to Kristie Swanson dive deep into the experiential learning at Finn on the More Great Seats 4 Kids podcast

“We made our very own mud-Legos,” says Swanson, who comes from a science background with a degree in horticulture and forestry. “Yes, they are playing the mud, but they are also making that connection to how other cultures are and to how other communities learn.”

Teacher instructing beading at Finn Academy Charter School.
Swanson offers a tutorial on beading to her 4th grade scholars.

Cultural competency is an important aspect of the learning projects. In Swanson’s 4th grade class, the scholars spent the first minutes of the class discussing the latest chapter in the novel, The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich, about a young Ojibwe girl living on the islands of Lake Superior in the 19th century.

The book explores the lives of the indigenous peoples and the impact of settlers. Swanson uses the book as an opportunity to teach scholars about nomadic cultures and the varied artistic practices of different indigenous communities, including beading. Scholars learned about using porcupine quills for needling and how certain berries and flowers can be refined into dyes. They then create their beading, using needles and thread, and share the finished products with their classmates.

Inspiring a Love of Learning

And what do scholars think about the chance to get hands-on learning opportunities at Finn? The sixth-grade scholars we spoke to could not contain their excitement.

“There was one (project) about “mystery liquids,” and you had to figure out how to stack them…you pour them into test tubes, and some would not mix,” said Teagan Matteson,11. “If you did it in the wrong pattern, the colors would just blend together.”

Others, like James “JC” Gould the II, 10, loved visiting the Ithaca Science Museum and the chance to build a dam to redirect water. Ivan Matos, 11, enjoyed his trip to a local Mexican restaurant, which made a culinary connection to the class novel Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, set in the years after the Mexican Revolution.

“You always learn something new every day, and it’s just a fun experience,” says Jacob Drexler, 11. “(The hands-on activities) give you a really good visual on what you are trying to learn and how it works in real life.”

Savannah Lin meanwhile took the time to praise the teachers at Finn.

“I really like the teachers here, they are really kind, if I don’t understand something, they will gladly help me,” said Lin, who plans to be a doctor and a dentist when she grows up.

Learning Year-Round

“(Experiential learning) gets scholars to buy into learning,” says Karen Cassetta, Finn’s Academic Director. The school leaders brought on Swanson for this year to create more cohesion and help provide support to the teaching staff with hands-on learning activities.

Finn also integrates experiential learning into its summer session, which lasts two weeks and is optional for all scholars. This past summer, 156 scholars attended, which included a trip to a blueberry farm and learning about blueberry recipes. Beyond the culinary connection, the activity also provided an opportunity for scholars to work on fractions, which Finn had pinpointed as an area of need. The school, which also has a formal partnership with Elmira College for tutoring and enrichment work throughout the year, also brought in graduate scholars during the summer for literacy work.

“(The summer session) is a blend of experiential learning and true academic nitty gritty,” said Aimee Ciarlo, Finn’s School Leader. “We prioritized two standards at each grade level that they could touch on and hopefully make gains on through the expedition. It’s an incredible aspect of our program. The academic piece is huge but also what I always get excited about is the opportunity created for kids who may not otherwise have that opportunity to go to a summer camp, go on vacation, or go explore things in the summer.”

And as for advice for schools seeking to introduce more hands-on, experiential learning in the classroom? Swanson says it’s time for schools to think outside the box.

“I know a lot of time we worry about how this is going to work for our kids with special needs, or kids really struggling in the classroom, maybe with behaviors…but I’ve found those kids are the ones that respond the best. Don’t be afraid to really challenge your scholars.”