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Virginia Journal of Education

 Face to Face

A Fairfax teacher takes experiential learning very seriously.

By Douglas Graney

Connor asked Mostafa Rahmani, Director of the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran, if Iranian forces were placing improvised explosive devices in Iraq to kill American soldiers.

Fairuz led the newest Americans in their first Pledge of Allegiance as Americans at a naturalization ceremony. 

Zaynab asked former Director of the CIA Michael Hayden “As a Somali American, should I be concerned about the Trump administration?”

There is learning. And there is learning. Early in my career I saw the value of expanding learning beyond the school building by having students go out in the community and having the community come into my classroom. From the very first field trip (to Boston in 1987), to the ones I have planned this year, and the many guest speakers I have hosted, I have seen how changing the learning environment can greatly enhance the learning experience. 

I’ve watched as students became more excited, motivated and open to new ideas while out in the community or when visited in their classroom. Interest is almost automatically higher just because it’s something different. Experiential learning also includes what early in my career I would have called an unintended consequence, but now is completely intended—exposing students to possible careers they didn’t know existed. 

For example, in 2015 my colleague Todd Liebenstein and I brought three students to a taping of the ESPN show “Pardon the Interruption,” with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. We toured the studios and the students saw a variety of jobs they may not have considered for their own lives. There were people working in lighting, sound recording, cameras, console monitoring, make-up, and many other areas. So, while the impetus was just an experience to indulge their love of sports with two stars at ESPN, they clearly took in that they were in a dynamic environment in a field that they now realized they were interested in.

Elizabeth delivered excerpts of President Obama’s speech on race during the live airing of of “We the People Live” on the cable channel History.

After participating in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and while in his NJROTC uniform, Ian asked Matt Southworth, Iraq war combat veteran and current pacifist, if joining the military was a patriotic activity.

Ryleigh stood in the Oval Office and said, “I really like where I am but I know I’m never going to be here again.”

Julia, Jhoanne, Shea, and Rachel attended the inauguration of the first black President in American history. 

When students go on field trips, they can say, “I was there, I asked this, I did that…” It’s an excellent learning environment, and it bonds students together in ways that don’t always happen in the classroom. They’re part of an exciting experience they share only with each other. They talk to each other and hear varied experiences, deepening their learning. 

The same is true when a guest speaker comes to school. For example, in 2014 Peter Baker, who was then the White House correspondent for the New York Times, visited my classroom. He’s the author of Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution and Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. I copied some excerpts from both books (we were getting ready to go to the Russian Embassy), and students created questions for Baker. I passed around his books and you could see in the kids’ eyes, “Wow, this guy wrote all this?!” And there’s that intended consequence: Kids may have thought, “I wonder if I could write a book?” Or “maybe I could be a reporter and go to Russia…” Baker did a marvelous job with my students. He was dynamic, interesting, and funny while being very down-to-earth, telling the kids he was just like them when he was in high school.  

Terry wrote a speech in her first week as an intern for Rep. Ron Kind. 

Gray asked Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “To what extent should judges concern themselves with foreign law decisions when deciding an American case?”

Barbara asked The Pakistani Deputy Chief of Mission, Muhammad Aslam Khan, “In President Musharraf's book, In the Line of Fire, he wrote that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told him that Pakistan would be bombed ‘back to the stone age’ if Pakistan did not do what America wanted. Is there resentment towards the United States because of statements like that?”

After visiting the Embassy of Vietnam, Emma and Kate laid a wreath at the Vietnam Memorial.

Perhaps the biggest impact of using experiential learning was creating the Political Science Internship program for seniors at my school, Herndon High School. It began with a handful of kids in 1994 and grew to become the largest intern-placement program on Capitol Hill. I started by cold-calling congressional offices, as well as interest groups, government agencies, embassies, etc. I would recruit in 11th grade U.S. History classes (“opportunity is knocking…”) and each year the program grew. Students would do a wide variety of tasks, some of course mundane, but many not. Either way they were getting an experience few high school students get—working on behalf of their political beliefs in the legislative branch of Congress. 

Many students in that program have remained in government and politics to this day. The interns also got hands-on, real-life experience that taught them things well beyond how our government works. They had to learn time-management, as they would start their day around 7 a.m. and not get home until often until after 8 that night. They learned to arrange carpools and other logistics of getting themselves from home to school and then to the Capitol and back. At a young age, they learned the do’s and don’ts of an office environment. And they acquired experience and skills that would look impressive on resumes and college and job applications. Of the hundreds of interns placed from 1994 to 2012, I believe almost all would say it was their best high school experience. 

Josh attended a Joe Lieberman for President fundraiser and talked with Sen. Lieberman. 

Cuban Interests Section official Dario Machado delivered a speech to political science students about the successes of the Castro government. 

Philosophy students learned about victory and defeat from two members of the Super Bowl-winning (1982) and losing (1983) Washington Redskins. 

Sandra participated in a fashion show put on by the Embassy of Saudi Arabia.

Whether going on field trips, engaging with a guest speaker, or other activities, experiential learning will bring out the best in your students. I have seen my students challenge elected officials, perform for audiences, volunteer for causes, attend and participate in various ceremonies, and go beyond what they thought they could do. In doing so, they gained confidence, poise, and maturity. 

My advice to you: Get your kids out there!

Future rabbi Josh composed and recited a prayer at a wreath-laying ceremony at Ball’s Bluff Civil War Battlefield cemetery, as Christians and Muslims prayed with him. 

Larissa asked civil rights hero and Congressman John Lewis, “Do you think non-violent protest only appeals to a morally-conscious society and would this work with Israel and Palestine?”

Chezka did background checks for the White House South Lawn welcoming ceremony President Bush hosted for Philippine President Gloria Macapagel Arroyo.

While in his NJROTC uniform, Matt introduced the Battle of the Bulge panel at the World War II Veterans Committee Conference, “From the Greatest Generation to the Latest Generation.” 

Graney, NBCT, is a member of the Fairfax Education Association and a social studies teacher at Herndon High School. To learn more about his experiences, you can read his book, “American Teacher: Adventures in the Classroom and Our Nation’s Capital,” available at 


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