Learning Journeys: A Reflection on Experiential Education

Mount Madonna Eleventh and Twelfth Grade Students Head to Washington, D.C.

By Director of Upper School Shannon Kelly (’92)

As Mount Madonna School (MMS) restarts many of the programs that have been on hold due to COVID-19, I am struck by the amazing opportunity we have to reexamine and rearticulate the “why” behind MMS traditions and programs. It’s essential to understand that because a program or event has been happening for many years does not mean that it inherently holds value for those that participate in it. Every so often, we need to ask “Does this still serve us?”

One reason I love working with teenagers is that they never shy away from asking the tough questions. Each class period is filled with questioning and observations, and adolescents are not afraid to let you know when your answers fall short. 

During the last week of February, in preparation for our upcoming learning journey to Washington D.C. the two classes that I teach, Values in American Thought and Values in World thought, were combined. As I prepared the lesson plan, I realized that I needed to start at the beginning with my students; I needed to explore the “why” of the journey so that they could truly understand the expectations, goals, and in turn, make the choice to fully engage in the preparation and learning process.  

I decided to start class with two basic questions, “What is experiential learning?” and “Why do we use the term ‘Learning Journey’ at Mount Madonna School?” These questions are essential because their answers speak to the core values of MMS, and in particular the Values program. When I take students to Washington, D.C., India or South Africa,  I am not taking them on an ordinary field trip, we are engaging in a purposeful and curricularly aligned  learning journey. 

The goals of the Values program are to develop students’ capacity for self-awareness and to support an ongoing inquiry into the values that inform students’ actions and life purpose. As an educator, I do this in order to strengthen students’  ability to engage in positive and mutually beneficial relationships with each other and with our broader communities.

The archetypal hero’s journey consists of three parts: the preparation, the journey and the return. The learning journey mirrors these stages concretely and abstractly. Students physically and intellectually embark on a journey. Their intellectual journey relies on their willingness to be curious, to be open to opportunities, and to not be afraid to take risks. It tests each person, challenges assumptions, and forces students to engage in perspective taking and critical thinking. 

We invite you to join us on this experiential journey of discovery through following the student blog writings and interview videos. We are excited to engage in dialogue with dynamic thought leaders, to explore their, and our own, moral matrices, to step outside our comfort zone, and to practice self-reflection. Click here to visit the students’ blog. 

The individuals students will be speaking with include:

  • Armstrong Wiggins and Leo Crippa, Indian Law Resource Center 
  • Sean O’Keefe, Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin
  • Farar Elliott, curator for the House of Representatives 
  • Scott L. Wing, research geologist and curator of paleobotany, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History 
  • Alexandra Toma, executive director of The Peace and Security Funders Group
  • Maryland Senator Ben Cardin
  • Susannah Wellford, CEO and Founder of Running Start

It is our intention to support the development of the citizens the world most needs now, those who can respond with creativity and care in these changing and challenging times, and those who can balance their own needs, in relationship to the needs of others in the communities of which they are a part.


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.