Education Out of the Box and Into the Field

Jen Lazar (with white board) and her class “in the field” in 2011.

By Annette Hinkle

If you could build a high school from the ground up, what would it look like? Would it have high tech classrooms? State of the art science labs? A well-rounded library?

For Sag Harbor native and Pierson graduate Jen Lazar, the ideal school is one defined not by what lies within its four walls, but rather by the wealth of information that can be found in the world beyond the bricks and mortar.

Two years ago, Lazar cofounded the Field Academy in Maine along with Heather Foran, a classmate from Williams College where both earned undergraduate degrees, and Claire Hirschmann whom Lazar met while pursuing her Masters of Education at Harvard.

All three women were so inspired by how travel influenced their own education, they created the Field Academy with a shared vision for an academically rigorous high school in which students use the United States as their classroom, and its diverse people and places as their textbook.

Lazar recalls her college experiences in Europe as eye-opening in that she formed passionate relationships with places far from home.

“Then I took a road trip with my best friends, and by Utah, I realized I didn’t know anything about the United States,” adds Lazar. “We wondered, what would it be like to have that study abroad program, but in the United States? How would we really study the culture of the U.S?”

The result is the Field Academy, a program based on in-situ and in-depth learning. Students spend multiple weeks studying in a specific location, be it New England, Central Appalachia or the American Southwest where they tackle a range of disciplines alongside their teachers and experts from the region.

With the new Common Core standards now adopted by 45 states, and Pierson High School’s adoption of the IB (International Baccalaureate) program this fall, the nationwide trend in education appears to be toward curricula which encourages students to make meaningful connections between what they’re learning in the classroom and real world ideals.

Experiential learning is one way to do that, and locally there are schools which use this as their model — at Hayground School in Bridgehampton, for example, students take part in project-based tasks which cast them in the role of scientist, writer, artist or scholar. And at the Ross School in East Hampton, students make strong connections across disciplines by studying cultures throughout history and on-campus learning is often supplemented by travel that expands a student’s base of knowledge.

But taking that model out of the classroom through intensive multi-week study of a single place is really where Lazar and her partners seem to be taking the notion of “field trip” to a whole new level.

“The type of education we’re talking about is so fundamentally un-new,” stresses Lazar. “For the longest time, people have learned from others around them – elders through storytelling, science from figuring things out. It’s inherent in the human capacity to learn and we want to bring school back to that.”

“It’s not innovative — but what we’re doing is totally innovating,” she adds.

While at this point the Field Academy is only offering summer programs for 12 to 16 high school students at a time, the ultimate goal is to create a boarding school — probably in Vermont — which Lazar notes would happen by 2015 at the earliest.

“We’re in the stage of scaling up to our full vision for a high school — it would at least be a two year program for juniors and seniors, though potentially for all four years,” says Lazar. “Students from around the country would come and live on campus – but rather than being confined to the campus, we would be traveling in-depth to different regions of the country for six weeks at a time.”

The boarding school model would mirror what Lazar and her partners have already done in their first two summers of operation in the form of a five week program in New England, and a seven week study of Central Appalachia. Next summer, the Field Academy will add a new four week program in the Southwest, and will offer a second program again in New England.

Students admitted to each program reflect the diversity of the nation itself and they look at the region in-depth through formation of a critical issue which frames the focus of study.

“In New England, it’s the idea of community and what that means,” says Lazar. “‘What is home?’ is the framing question and it recognizes people’s different definitions of that question and how identities are tied up in that.”

Conversely, in the Southwest, the focus will be on water scarcity.

“The questions there are ‘What does it mean to survive?’ — both in terms of ecological and cultural survival. ‘What’s the difference between thriving and surviving?’” adds Lazar. “It gives students something to study that is true to the place they’re in and they dive into in that specific region. It also raises the broader question of how the subject impacts them at home. What would their community look like if it was truly thriving?”

“For Central Appalachia, we studied mining, which is immediate and relevant. But we also can see the reality of the issues and weigh them against progress and energy security,” says Lazar.

She adds that during their time in Appalachia, students tackled essential core curriculums in arts and culture, U.S. history, natural sciences, leadership and citizenship by visiting a mountaintop removal mining site, creating lab reports, drawing sketches and identifying trees and sediment layers. Local geologists, historians and ecologists put the region in context for the students, who also journaled throughout their experience.

“As a teacher, the thing that is incredible about doing this intensively is you’re living and traveling with the kids – you see that transformation day by day,” says Lazar. “One boy said, ‘I never thought of myself as a good student, but now I know the things I think are worth it.’ Some excel in school and are doing this because it gives them a deeper understanding — others are passionate and curious, but have never thrived in school.”

“We think every student should have this education,” adds Lazar. “I’m really excited about creating something strong enough that it stands on its own, but also making it a place where teachers from around the United States can come for professional development retreats.”

“I know teachers are excited about doing this kind of teaching and students are excited about learning this way,” she adds. “We think of school as something that happens in a rectangular room. A box with lights and books — that’s the only imagined school space we have right now.”

“But there’s no reason it has to be like that.”

In late November, Lazar plans to host a “mini-house party” in Sag Harbor to share her vision for the Field Academy with potentially interested donors and parents. For more information, visit