Are Your Students Crew or Passengers?

We are Crew, not Passengers. This is the motto of the organization I worked with for 20 years, Expeditionary Learning, now called EL Education. It comes from Kurt Hahn, the fonder of Outward Bound (the taproot of EL Education), and refers to people gathered together for a long boat journey where everyone is needed to row. Crew is at the heart of school culture and practices in EL Education schools.

One of the ways Crew manifests is in the use of various protocols for discussion that ensure every voice will be heard. I visit so many classrooms (memories of my own included) where the teacher conducts a lively whole class discussion, with provocative questions, passionate responses – usually from the same few students! Talking to the teacher afterwards, he usually feels like it was a great class. I remember feeling the same. And it was – for him (me) and the few students who contributed.

But what about the others? They sat and watched, maybe engaged, maybe thinking about the soccer game after school, maybe head down hoping they wouldn’t get called on. The use of protocols to guide discussions allows the teacher to step out of the center of the conversation, and invites all students to be active participants. Crew. Learning to work together is fundamental in the formation of disciples who will be “crew” in the kingdom of God, not passive passengers. Click here for descriptions of some useful protocols.

One of my favorite protocols is called Building Background Knowledge, or for short, BBK. It begins with a mystery piece, some inscrutable item: a poem, a graph, a diagram, a quotation, a short text. It is meant to provoke inquiry – what is that? What does that mean? For example, I began the study of the American Revolution in my fourth grade class with a slight paraphrase from a letter John Adams wrote in 1818 to Hezekiah Niles. “The Revolution was completed before the war ever commenced. The real American Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people. Their changing principles, opinions, values and sentiments, that was the real American Revolution.” What? How could the revolution be completed even before the war began?!

The next step in the BBK is called the common text. This text reveals more information about the topic, and begins to clarifies the mystery. This is a text that everyone will read and discuss in small groups, say, of four. Each student is expected to contribute any information they learned from the common text, and the group records it on a chart.

The next step is called the expert text. Here each group of four is given a folder with four separate texts. These can be differentiated for students of different reading abilities. Some could be provocative editorial cartoons, maps, timelines, charts or graphs. I usually put in a few extras for students who finish early. For the American Revolution I included short articles about Galileo, Luther, and Oliver Cromwell. The fourth piece was the opening of the declaration of independence. Granted, this was still quite a mystery: what did Galileo, Luther and Cromwell have to do with the American Revolution? They would later discover something they all had in common, a drive to find out something for themselves, have their voice be heard, rather than rely on the “authorities.” This spirit of independence, of the rights of the individual no matter who your parents were, what your station in life was, how smart or pretty or clever you were, you had rights simply because God gave them to you when He created you as an individual. Galileo was the first scientist we know to have done experiments to find out the truth rather than rely on the writings of Aristotle. Luther translates the Bible into German, the language of the people, and teaches that we can each find our own relationship with God and his Word without the mediation of the priests. Cromwell leads the Glorious Revolution – the Parliament representing the people needs to have a say in making the laws, not just the King.

Each child in the group studies one piece and reports out new information to the others. Everyone contributes! We are crew…The group adds new information to their chart in a different color.

The BBK ends with a return to the mystery text, where we begin to discover something about what John Adams may have meant in this quotation. This began our search for what was changing in the minds and hearts of the people that Adams called “the real American Revolution.”

Do check out the protocols! They are valuable tools to create a culture of crew, not passengers, in your classroom journey. And add a comment on this blog if you try something out, let us know how it works! If you want more ideas for BBKs on different subjects, write a comment, or send me an email.


  1. Jeff Bullard says:

    This is a great idea and thought through really well. Thanks for the detailed suggestions. One quick question I have is how to apply this to a physics class in which all of the students are mathematically challenged, and some much more so than others. It is difficult for me to see how a graph or experimental result could be used for BBK when the students struggle so much just to understand what a graph means. Maybe if I think through this a little more, I could come up with a way to introduce a phenomenon as BBK, rather than a graph or result, and use that as the starting point for an inquiry into the concepts supporting that phenomenon.

  2. Steven Levy says:

    Hi Jeff. Thanks for your inquiry. Great question! There are a couple of ways that the BBK is particularly suited to classes of students who are ELL or struggling. First, I love to use graphs for a mystery piece. Choose something simple, but don’t label the axes and see if they can imagine what the graph represents. Could be baseball statistics, or something familiar. I also like to hand out graphs (no labels) and the stories they represent and the kid with the graph has to find the right story that describes the data. Something simple like a graph of walking to school – time and distance. The variable is the slope of the terrain. Send me an email and I can send you some samples. Second, for the common text, you could read it aloud to them, or it could be a video. Third, in the expert texts, you could differentiate the pieces – some could be pictures, some text, or a data chart. Sometimes I put them on different colors and let the students know the difficulty of each color and let them choose. Let me know what topic you are teaching in physics and I’ll see if I have any examples.

    • Jeff Bullard says:


      Thanks for the quick reply. Now is the end of our school year, so I don’t have a current topic. However, I think this idea could go over really well at the beginning of next year when we are doing the unit on linear and projectile motion. Students can get really hung up about the differences between velocity and acceleration, especially for projectiles. The more I think through what you wrote, I can see how a good story, even a dramatic one, could be made up for that— like a car plunging over a bridge, a bomb dropped from a moving plane, or (less violently) a soccer ball kicked down field— and then I could provide three unlabeled graphs, one showing displacement versus time, one showing velocity versus time, and one showing acceleration versus time. The students could then discuss what each graph represents for the story and label the relevant parts.

      Would that work? Multiple for graphs for one story, whereas you suggested multiple stories for one graph, with the students choosing the right story. I guess I could do it that way too, giving the three stories above and having one graph.

      I guess all of this is still at the BBK stage, and I need to get some better ideas for those specific examples of what would constitute expert texts. I need to go back and read your post on those parts more carefully.

      Best regards, Jeff

      • Steven Levy
        Steven Levy says:

        Love your idea of the three graphs with three different stories, letting them figure out the matches.
        The expert texts could be about velocity, acceleration, any of the other relevant concepts. Have you read Isaac Asimov’s Understanding Physics? He gives a very lucid description of the development of our understanding of motion. Sometimes tracing the history of our understanding helps kids to appreciate the problem that the new insight solved.

        Steven Levy 11 Fletcher Ave Lexington, MA 02420 617-901-5046 #WeAreCrew

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