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Outward Bound Leaps From Climbing Walls Into Schools

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A dashing young man wearing a green felt cape and a silver crown strides over to a group of visitors.

"I am William of Normandy," he announces. "I am one of the mightiest feudal lords that ever lived."

It's no ordinary day on the battlefield for William the Conqueror, who is really seventh-grader James Pelletier. He's performing in his school's Medieval Knights program, which includes skits with characters like Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc, and Roger Bacon.

These students are on a "learning expedition" at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, a public school with a decidedly different approach.

The school's curriculum was designed by Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, a Cambridge, Mass., based-organization. The group has replaced long hours of classroom work with in-depth explorations of themes through community service, field work, or group performance.

Expeditionary Learning throws convention to the wind: Rigid scheduling and class periods are out, tracking is practically nonexistent, and students work with the same teacher for more than one year. Children still learn the traditional subjects but spend less time watching a teacher in front of a blackboard.

"[Students] learn more. They do better," says Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound president Greg Farrell. "They are able to achieve at high levels, and do more things they didn't think they could do through the traditional chalk and talk, when teachers dominate the time."

Expeditionary Learning's system-wide philosophy - which is now in place at nearly 50 schools around the United States - affects all the grades and classes of a school. All delve into expedition themes each year:

* At the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning (Grades K-12) in Denver, third-graders studied the subject of homes. They built a replica of Henry David Thoreau's cabin on their playground and visited the original site in Concord, Mass.

* Middle-school students at the School for the Physical City in New York became stewards of a local park and renovated it.

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