What is EXCEL, anyway? And why is it important? by Director of the Anderson/Cabot Center for EXCEL Ben Snyder
Learning—in middle and high school, as well as in life—takes many forms. More than a century ago, learning in school was seen as being exclusive to the realm of the classroom in traditionally siloed disciplines (math, English etc.). The early 20th century saw secondary schools and colleges realizing the benefits of interscholastic athletics and the performing arts in teaching teamwork, sacrifice and commitment. In recent decades the best schools have recognized that their students need new kinds of experiences to teach skills and attitudes that that are critical to success (educational, personal and professional) in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.
In recent years, Nobles has intentionally built programs that engage students in their local, national and global communities in productive and meaningful ways both in the classroom and off campus—and always in close collaboration with Nobles faculty. As part of the school’s most recent strategic plan and resulting capital campaign, Nobles recognized the need to formalize this broad commitment under the umbrella of EXCEL—Experiential and Community Engaged Learning. EXCEL programs fall into four areas:
1. Service learning: Long a hallmark of Nobles there is now a clear “culture of service” that commits all students to significant and meaningful service. Nobles students are known throughout Greater Boston (and in many places outside of Massachusetts) as selflessly giving of themselves (click here for a recent article that commends Nobles’ service commitment in New Orleans). Through this program we hope to educate students around issues of social import and help them find places and causes where - throughout their lives - they can make a positive difference. In any given school year students give over 20,000 hours of service, over 75 percent of seniors exceed their service requirement, over 50 service events are hosted and close to $100,000 is raised by students to be given directly to nonprofit partners where our students have been working.
2. Travel/cross cultural immersion: Each year between 125 and 150 Nobles students and 30 Nobles faculty and staff venture out to places as far afield as New Orleans, South Africa, Guatemala, China, India and more. We have ongoing partnerships with more than two dozen schools and nonprofits where our students engage in service, participate in homestays, improve their language skills, develop new perspectives on their own lives (and their school and country) and make new friends. Each year ten to fifteen students spend a semester or year studying away from Nobles (usually in the junior year) and by graduation roughly 75 percent of seniors have traveled with Nobles or studied away from campus. With the world (in the words of Thomas Friedman) becoming “flatter” by the minute it is vital for Nobles students to have these experiences prior to graduation, and we have found that sharing those experiences with classmates and teachers enhances the educational impact.
3. Applied learning: With the increasing ease of access to information, mastery of specific content (names, dates, facts etc.) has become less important—and having the ability to apply acquired information to solve real and substantive problems has become critical. Across the Nobles curriculum, students are working collaboratively on projects and in courses designed to create challenges for which there are no readily apparent solutions. This process of facing legitimate (and often complex) hurdles, testing ideas and hypotheses and positively working through inevitable setbacks is critical to the development of resilience, patience and problem solving skills.
4. Institutional community engagement: Achieve and Upward Bound. Each summer (and on Saturday mornings during the school year) Nobles hosts two programs that provide high quality education for 140 low income/first generation middle and high school students from Boston and Lawrence to put them on the path to college. Nobles students, alumni, and faculty tutor, mentor, teach, support, and administer these programs and reflect the broader commitment of Nobles to engage productively with students who would not otherwise have access to all Nobles has to offer.
In all of EXCEL’s endeavors Nobles works to develop long term partnerships that generations of Nobles students and faculty can contribute to and benefit from—and collectively EXCEL programs are unique among its cohort of independent schools in New England and across the country.
The variety of opportunities for Nobles students is exciting and represents a compelling array of options. In returning from sabbatical and assuming a new role as Director of the Anderson/Cabot Center for Experiential and Community Engaged Learning, I’m eager to build upon what we have created and help students forge their own paths to engaging positively and productively in the world around them.