George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teacher Story: Susan McCray Lights the Fire of Project Learning

By guiding her students through rigorous projects aimed at illuminating solutions to real-world problems, high school humanities teacher Susan McCray uses Outward Bound principles to tap into students' passions for learning.
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Teacher Susan McCray Lights the Fire of Project Learning (Transcript)

Susan McCray, Teacher: I was instructor at the South Marks High School. And we did everything from backpacking trips to ropes courses in the riggings of tall ships in the harbor. Then began to do urban exploration. It was an attempt to bring the methodology and philosophy of Outward Bound into the inner city, and into classrooms for the first time. So it really is out of the work that kind of Expeditionary Learning was designed, and came to life.

Oh, yeah, you're right.

Susan McCray, Teacher: So we designed this expedition where teams of students interviewed people who have struggled with housing and homelessness. Because the work that we do, it has to be compelling, and it has to be looking at the real world. We're called Expeditionary Learning for a reason. You know, the classic expedition, you're out with a group of people trying to climb a mountain. And the goal is real. And you're driven towards it. You all want to get there, because you know that there will be a sense of accomplishment in the end. And all of the consequences along the way are real. [laughs] It starts to rain. Like that happens. Your computer dies! That happens, you know, these things go on. You know, these things go on. But you're committed to this end objective together. So the relationships become important, and the connections become important. And when you offer someone the opportunity to engage in something real, and push them and challenge them to do things they never thought they could possibly do, there is nothing more exhilarating.

Boy 1: Okay, how long have you each been homeless?

Man: I've been in and out of the shelters on and off like 22 years.

Boy 1: So how did that affect you?

Woman: Because of the way you have to live, and the fact that you may not be proud of it, wears on your self-esteem, no matter how good your self-esteem is. It's going to be-- it's very draining.

Susan McCray, Teacher: I want my students to walk out of my classroom skilled, knowledgeable, capable, and ready to tackle the problems of their lives in the world. But I believe that in order to achieve that, you have to feel like you belong. And you have to feel comfortable enough to be who you are. Because none of us are capable of learning when we're closed off, and when we're fearful.

Susan McCray, Teacher: Thank you so much.

Woman: Thank you.

Susan McCray, Teacher: I think that's one of the reasons that we have the dropout rates that we have in schools, is that we have these large monolithic places where people walk through the halls anonymously. And no one notices whether they're there or not. Why would you go someplace where you don't know whether someone's going to notice whether you're there or not? But I get up in the morning and show up, because I know my friends are going to be there. My colleagues are my friends. And I'm going to get to say, "Hello!" Right? I'm going to talk about the weekend before we get into the work.

Susan McCray, Teacher: So I've got groups arranged around the laptops. You'll be meeting those groups and presenting these things. So they must ...

Susan McCray, Teacher: So we've got to build a community in our classroom. We have to build a community in our school. We have to create a space where students feel like their whole self, and everything about them matters. I challenge my students far more than I would if I were in a place where we didn't know each other.

Susan McCray, Teacher: Writing process standard, and quality of writing standard. I need to see your revisions and all those drafts stapled together.

Derek Pierce, Principal: Susan is an intellectual, but she brings as much heart as head to her game. And she convinces kids that if their-- if they're not passionate about what they're doing, then they need to dig deeper and find what they are passionate about. Because once they're passionate, she knows that intellectual engine is going to be catalyzed, and they're doing to do great things that they didn't think they could do, and which will motivate them to do the next thing.

Susan McCray, Teacher: I want you guys to see something, because it's going to give you a taste, and it's going to inspire us, and then you're going to work so hard!

Derek Pierce, Principal: She gets the adrenaline rush out of kids that is typically only gotten from the football coach or the drama teacher. Because they're fired up about what they're studying, and what they're going to present and share with the world.

Susan McCray, Teacher: So you got to make some of those decisions. Okay.

Yuki Hall, Student: Ms. McCray? I love her, quite -- just aside from being a great English teacher, it's just she's the kind of teacher that you go to with whatever. She's always there for you. Always full of life. If you're going to teach Expeditionary Learning, you have to have a certain spark in you. And she just has so much of that. So.

Susan McCray, Teacher: Go to "Share." Try "Share." No? Huh. Are you in the slideshow part?

Student: Yeah, I'm on it.

Susan McCray, Teacher: It's really hard work. It's grueling, and it's demoralizing, because you see the kid that you're not reaching. And you see there's several young people that are slipping through the cracks. Or you feel like it's not happening. The curriculum that you spent hours planning, the lesson that you designed, and you spent all this time around falls flat. You know? It happens to all of us, all the time. And I think the key to sustaining yourself in teaching is to be able to know that that is a reality. And that's a fact of the profession. And to know you got to get up the next morning and try again.

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Video Credits

Produced and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis


  • Karen Sutherland

Coordinating Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Camera Crew

  • Gilberto Nobrega
  • Kevin Kalunian

Associate Producer

  • Doug Keely

Still Photographs Courtesy of

  • Susan McCray

Support for Edutopia's Schools That Work series is provided, in part, by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Additional Resources for the "Give Me Shelter" Project

View a short video on the "Give Me Shelter" project

Samples of Student Work:

"Give Me Shelter" Slide Shows


Casco Bay High School's Web site

More at Free Resources and Downloads for Project Learning

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Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

donna merrill's picture

Wow...wonderful video I will share. Not only for education, but for people in the Internet Marketing World. We are similar in teaching methodologies to our adult students learning the new wave of marketing.
One has to experience climbing the mountain to reach the top. Thank you for this wonderful inspiring post.

Bibi Tran's picture

Indeed. This is great. We need more classes such as these in our education system today. We need to let kids set themselves free and be full with one another.

Thomas Hermanson's picture

...of what it means to be an educator. Educators should be connectors, facilitators, and expedition leaders! Taking students on expeditions of learning is such a great metaphor for why I got into education in the first place. A collective motivation to understanding the world around us. How powerful is that! Strange, it doesn't include textbooks, back of the book problems, or standardized test scores yet the curriculum is still rigorous. Fantastic.

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