Experiencing History: Hands-on Learning for Teens with ADHD

High school students sitting on staircase during field trip
Hands-on field trips lead teens with ADHD to a heightened understanding of History and their communities.

Experiential Learning is the key. 

Students who have ADHD get distracted easily. Often they struggle to sit still for extended periods of time. As a result, many students will attest to the fact that they are constantly being told to “sit down and be quiet.” For teens with ADHD, this seemingly simple suggestion can actually be an incredible challenge. That’s why at Bayhill, we take pride in providing hands-on, active learning experiences that engage our student’s energetic nature instead of condemning it. 

Most high school history courses involve long lectures and hours of required reading—sometimes 30 pages a night from a thick textbook with a tiny font—followed by several written responses or worksheets to prove that the student completed the reading. Teens with ADHD would get next to nothing out of this kind of exercise—aside from a headache. 

Everyday Bayhill teachers use multimodal techniques to present lessons to our young learners.

We design curriculum intentionally with visual, auditory, and kinesthetic stimulation because teens with ADHD are able to absorb the information more readily and completely this way. In addition to our multimodal classroom techniques, we always take advantage of opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. 

A big part of our Bayhill culture is rooted in community involvement for our teens with ADHD. Bayhill students are able to gain tangible, immediate meaning from experiences as they explore our larger Bay Area community. They love outdoor adventures. Trips to museums, plays, films, science labs, and historical destinations are the norm here. 

Through experiential education our unique learners are able to see, feel, and interact with information for themselves, instead of simply reading facts and memorizing dates from a textbook. Moving around, breathing fresh air, they exert pent up energy. Anxiety levels drop. This makes it easier for teens with ADHD to engage with complex and nuanced material. 

Real Life Experiences for Teens with ADHD

While experiential education has been common in vocational and professional programs for a long time, this idea is only recently being brought into schools. Really all kinds of learners can benefit from this kind of hands-on experience. The Association of American Colleges and Universities champions the inclusion of experiential education in schools:

“[B]eyond building the kind of social skills, work ethic, and practical expertise that are important in professionally oriented programs… experiential education can also lead to more powerful academic learning and help students achieve intellectual goals.”

The AACU insists that while classroom skills are important to develop, the “real world” of higher education and work life demands “real world” experience. “[E]xperiential education can help students transition more gracefully from college to work, and community-service experiences prepare them to be more engaged citizens.”

In an effort to prepare our students to become engaged citizens while engaging their senses and strengths, our history teacher, Osiah Carbonneau, recently took his classes to Angel Island. There his students were able to fully realize the magnitude of the historical events they’d been studying in class. History became real for them. 

This is what he said about the educational experience:

We drove with 12 students to Tiburon crossing the Richmond Bridge. From there, it was a 10 minute ferry to Angel Island and steep hike to the Immigration Processing Center. Everyone’s spirits were high being off campus. We found spiders hiding under tree bark and enjoyed the walk to the immigration station. Young people with ADHD really seem to thrive in outdoor environments.

The truth is, many people in the Bay Area don’t know much about the history of Angel Island. 

From 1882-1943, the United States singled out Chinese Immigrants to be excluded from the American Dream.

In order to get around the law, many claimed to have 10 or more children back in China. These papers were sold to Chinese Immigrants who would be kept on Angel Island and questioned for weeks or months at a time to prove they were these ‘paper’ sons and daughters. Until they could pass these tests, they were imprisoned and subjected to cruel conditions.

These people carved thousands of sorrowful poems into the walls that remain a testament to the suffering they endured.

Poetry carved into the walls were spackled with wood putty and painted over 6 times. One cross section revealed a poem from each of the 6 layers.

Knowing that so many painful poems were hidden behind the coats of paint gave the building an air of mystery. 

I had read about the poems years before, but had no idea they covered the walls so thoroughly. There wasn’t a corner left without some message left behind – and not just from Chinese immigrants, but Japanese prisoners of war, Hindus, and Russians Jews. 

It’s one thing to read the poetry of imprisoned immigrants and quite another to look out the barred windows that inspired their stories.

The processing center is a monument to the racism immigrants confronted in their pursuit of a better life. To see this injustice I hope will inspire my students to see the need for acceptance of immigrants in the here and now. 

Thanks to Ms. Lobell, Ms. Austin, Dean Trevigne, and Ms. Bell for making this happen! 

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