The Academic Backbone of the Enrichment Cluster Experience

Nora G. Friedman, Ed.D.

Prior to my retirement as an administrator of twenty years, I worked with colleagues to make school a stimulating, enjoyable and academically rigorous place. Implementing Enrichment Clusters became a great way to excite learning and teaching and raise students’ academic achievements. The Enrichment Clusters we worked hard to develop and implement through the years have developed successful students with a zest for knowledge, a curiosity about life, and a work ethic that will serve them well through their school years and into their world-of-work experiences.

A good example of this occurred in an Enrichment Cluster titled, The Got a Nose for News Agency. The local reporter who ran this journalism cluster worked for a daily newspaper dedicated to bringing the best of local news and events to the community. The students who signed on for this cluster did so because they enjoyed writing, research and interacting with people. They were inquisitive and eager to work with a “real” reporter, and on the first day of the cluster she explained how her love of writing as a youngster and her subsequent hard work eventually led her to realize her dream and become a journalist. She expressed the academic standards and editorial expectations associated with her work; deadlines had to be met, the writing had to be top notch in her own words, and a willingness to work hard within limited time frames was essential.

As the local newspaper granted the cluster participants opportunities to write articles for publication for the duration of the cluster, she set the very same standard of work for the participants, explaining to them that she would not entertain excuses for missed deadlines and the like. “I can’t get my report done because I have a soccer game.” “My grandparents came for a visit so I didn’t have time to edit my work,” would not fly in this cluster, nor should these excuses fly in the general classroom setting. It was the mission of this cluster facilitator to guide the participants towards achievement of high academic standards and a world-of-work ethic, first to be applied during the cluster experience and then transferred to the classroom setting.

She initially tapped into their inquisitive nature by asking them what they wondered about in their community. Using a range of higher-order questioning strategies, she helped them focus in on topics that could be of interest to them and the readers of the newspaper. Since solid academic writing skills are essential to a professional journalist, the reporter guided the students to take their words and sentences to a higher level. She focused on the writing process and used how-to books like, How Writers Work: Finding a Process that Works for You, A Writer’s Notebook: Understanding the Writer Within You, and Live Writing: Breathing Life Into Your Words, all written by Ralph Fletcher and available through www.prufrock.com.

These books encourage students to have a “tool box” containing ideas, words and their deep interest in writing to make their narratives come alive for readers. The best thing about how-to books such as these is that young writers are given practical strategies to help them strengthen their academic writing skills, not only for the immediate need of writing a quality article for the newspaper while they are in the cluster, but for long after the cluster experience ends.

Citation requirements are another of the academic skills that are a must-have for any practicing reporter. Students learning to become journalists must maintain academic integrity and avoid plagiarizing other people’s work. Cite it Right: The Source Aid Guide to Citation, Research and Avoiding Plagiarism, written by Johns and Keller is another how-to book available through Creative Learning Press that could be a fine addition to any Enrichment Cluster that involves writing and research. It was then up to the classroom teacher to set aside a short but critical amount of time, when students returning from their Enrichment Cluster experiences could share with each other the academic standards of expectation they were being held to in the cluster and guide the students to apply the very same high academic standards to their class work. One classroom teacher debriefed her class by pointedly asking them, “How can you take what you are learning in your cluster and apply it to your social studies project due in two weeks?”

The students in The Got a Nose for News Agency were quick to say that they would not be late in handing in the project, nor would they hand in a piece of writing in its’ final form which was not in their own words or with misspellings and grammatical errors. It is interesting for me now to take a step back and reflect on the sustainable change in the high academic standard of achievement that I have witnessed, not only in my former school, but in many schools implementing Enrichment Clusters. This component of the Schoolwide Enrichment Model is all about teaching to the academic standards in an enjoyable, rigorous and stimulating manner. The academic standards become alive in a way that the students can relate, through the real world experiences of people working in their various occupations and areas of interest. What are the academic standards in school if not the forerunners of proficiency for higher education, adult careers, and occupations? A truly academic Enrichment Cluster experience can be offered for just about any topic as long as the facilitator identifies the academic backbone of the Enrichment Cluster and continuously makes these academic standards explicit for the students. Time and time again I have witnessed Enrichment Cluster topics ranging from golf to flower arranging to forensics, and each can stand on its own merit as a worthwhile school endeavor. So go ahead and have some fun while the students involved in Enrichment Clusters gain a broad range of transferable academic skills in a most enjoyable way!