This summer I took a most fascinating trip through the Brain Forest in Montgomery. In its third year, the Brain Forest Summer Academy is a summer enrichment experience for 4th – 6th graders from Montgomery’s public schools. The program packs five weeks with a whole lot of fun learning activities, including field trips, hands-on academic development activities, and both indoor and outdoor projects.
Along the winding hallways, I heard the chatter of wild creativity, and I saw the most uniquely brilliant creatures traveling in packs. They were collaborating and problem-solving together, and integrating math, reading, science and technology skills for some tremendous learning!
The most interesting vision was that ALL the “creatures” – the students and the teachers – were learning from each other. While the teachers guided the activities, the students would routinely surprise them with a new thought, an original perspective and a unique challenge.
One friendly participant approached me with pure excitement in her eyes, and couldn’t contain her enthusiasm for what was happening in this forest of rich, uninhibited learning. You would expect this level of excitement from the young students in such a fast-paced summer program. But this was its fearless leader, Ann Sikes, executive director of the Montgomery Education Foundation.
“You’ve come at a great time!” said Ann, as she led me down the long hallways of Carver High School—home to the Brain Forest—lined with unique projects made from simple, inexpensive and recycled materials, and colorful posters of word clouds, flow charts, number formulas, and bright, engaging artwork. She stopped several times to explain each of the art pieces, and connected each to a common theme from a book the students read. Beginning with a central text as the foundation, teachers guided students through language arts and mathematics exercises, with some related side trips through science, humanities and computer technology.
Remarkably this summer experience costs the students nothing, thanks to a whole flock of donors and community sponsors, including: City of Montgomery, Montgomery County Commission, Montgomery Parks and Recreation, Montgomery Public Schools, BBVA Bank, AKA Beta Nu Incorporated, Coca Cola, Working Women’s Home Association, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Eat South, and Soul Series Montgomery.
“This (program) can be replicated in any community when partners pull together the resources,” said Sikes, who helped unite all of these partners to blaze the trail for truly effective summer learning. “We all have a stake in the success of today’s students, and our partners understand the importance of providing an inspiring and invigorating experience for students and teachers.”
To ensure that participating students are ready for the next grade, all learning activities are aligned with Alabama’s College and Career Ready Standards – a high set of academic standards designed to help all of Alabama’s children be better prepared for life after high school.
“All of the activities can be tied to the state’s academic standards,” said Sikes, “and the teachers are also learning better ways to teach to the standards so they can carry these successful methods into the school year.”
Amber Ledford has spent three summers at the Brain Forest Academy – this summer was her first as a teacher. “This experience has shaped the way I teach in my classroom,” she said. “I love teaching, and using the tactical methods we learn here just enhance what I do in the classroom during the school year.”
Ledford graduated from the University of Alabama, and majored in early childhood and elementary education. During her first two summers in the Brain Forest, she worked as a teaching assistant. She is now pursuing a master’s degree in instructional technology.
“Brain Forest is a way for students to be leaders of their own learning,” said Ledford. “We as teachers learn so much from the students, and with the support of the Montgomery Education Foundation we are able to tailor the learning to each student in a more successful way than during the regular school year.”
My visit to the Brain Forest affirmed that learning can be fun…and that brilliant creatures can be found, not only in books, but in the hallways of schools.