Faculty in Focus: Jonathan Exall, Middle School Science Teacher

The Graded Gazette

You are starting your twenty-third year as a middle school educator. What inspired you to become a teacher, and why middle school science?

When I was in middle school, I grew very interested in hiking and backpacking. Being immersed in nature during those trips inspired me to preserve those areas. That desire increased throughout high school and college, and during my senior year at the University of Vermont, I co-founded an environmental club. After graduation, I stayed at the university to help run the club. Eventually, I decided to seek work that felt more creative and collaborative.

That’s where education came into play. I had little experience in the field besides working as a teacher's assistant for a university sociology course, but teaching attracted me because it involved a lot of creativity. I accepted a position in Sonora, California, at an environmental education center for sixth-grade students. I taught ecology, geology, conservation, astronomy, and local tribal ways. Almost all of the lessons were held outdoors, during which we would usually hike around the campus trails and engage in different educational activities. Sometimes we even ventured off campus to explore limestone caves and ancient sequoia tree forests. The natural environment was my partner teacher in all of these lessons.

I found the job very engaging and was surprised by how much I enjoyed working with and learning from middle school students. They are at this perfect crossroads of being able to think critically and abstractly while still allowing themselves to be goofy and playful. 

Mr. Exall with a student last year during the period of mandatory masking

You worked as an outdoor educator for several years. Tell us about that experience.

My four years of outdoor and environmental education were terrific and taught me a lot about being a teacher. Since I was competing against bugs, the sun, and dirt for my students’ attention, I had to develop strategies to keep them interested in class topics. I also learned not to make assumptions about student behavior. If a student was disengaged on a hike, it could be because they feared being stung by bees, not because they were trying to disrupt the lesson. 

The most important thing I learned over those years was the importance of hands-on learning. Children remember more when their learning experiences are novel and compelling. There are several ways to create meaningful lessons within the constraints of a classroom, but occasionally taking children outside is crucial for their education. Students will learn much more about geology by observing the layers in a rock cliff than by reading about the topic in a textbook.

In Colorado, you taught at an expeditionary learning school. How did you integrate fieldwork into the curriculum?

I worked for ten years at an expeditionary learning school in Denver. When my sixth graders learned about the South Platte River in ecology class, they conducted research to assess the river's health. By collecting water samples and specimens (macroinvertebrates—mostly insect larvae) from various points along the river, students were able to draw conclusions about whether different elements were benefiting or harming the environment. Students then presented their findings to local experts and stakeholders, knowing their research would impact legislation protecting the South Platte River ecosystem. 

Due to the pandemic, there have been fewer opportunities to include fieldwork and other immersive experiences in my classes here at Graded. Now that we are back on campus and less limited by COVID restrictions, I am eager to explore experiential learning possibilities with my students. (Last semester, for instance, students were finally able to go on Classroom without Walls trips again.)

Mr. Exall’s students doing some lab work last year during the period of mandatory masking

In 2015, you won the Klingenstein Teacher Award for exemplary work as an educator. Why do you think you were selected?

The Klingenstein Teacher Award is conferred annually to one teacher from the national network of expeditionary learning schools. There are so many excellent educators out there that picking only one teacher is a crazy task. 

I believe I was nominated in large part because of a two-week trip I organized for grade 6 students. The trip began in New Mexico, where students did some climbing and rafting before heading down to the Texas-Mexico border. There, students applied their knowledge of immigration by personally engaging with documented and undocumented immigrants, listening to their stories, sharing meals, and occasionally visiting their homes. The students also spoke with border patrol guards and immigration lawyers.

Mr. Exall’s former Colorado students at the US-Mexico border

Your first overseas experience was in Dhaka, Bangladesh. What was your life like there? 

Dhaka is a wild place. When my wife and I first arrived and were immersed in the chaos of the city, it was overwhelming. In many ways, being in Dhaka is like stepping back in time: there is no tourist infrastructure, and various social services are underdeveloped (instead of trash trucks, for instance, the city employs a fleet of men riding bicycle rickshaws to collect the trash). 

One of our favorite activities in Bangladesh was cycling with friends into the small villages just outside the city. The villages were generally comprised of a few dozen buildings constructed of mud or cinder blocks with corrugated metal roofs. There were always people cooking over open fires, and chickens and goats often wandered loose on the streets. The villages were strongly linked to the seasons since villagers relied heavily on fishing during the rainy season and agriculture during the dry season, when the flooded lands dried up and became farmland. 

In Bangladesh, poverty is heartbreaking and widespread. The air quality is poor, the medical care is questionable, and the weather is extreme. In the winter, the country goes months without rain, dust settles on everything, and polluted air from the Middle East blows in. The summer heat and humidity can be brutal. During the summer monsoon, Bangladesh experiences heavy rainfall and occasional typhoons that cause major flooding, especially near the coastline.

Despite these challenges, the Bangladeshi people are incredibly warm, welcoming, curious, and resilient. I am so grateful for our experience in Bangladesh and for the opportunities that come with living and working abroad.

Mr. Exall crossing a bridge in Bangladesh

What are your favorite outdoor activities?

I find it difficult to pick a favorite! I mostly run and cycle these days, although I also do rock climbing in spots relatively close to São Paulo. This past December, my wife and I had a wonderful vacation in Bariloche, Argentina, where we went rock climbing and backpacking in northern Patagonia. I also really love skiing. 

Mr. Exall climbing a rock (left) and riding his bike (right)

What are some of your other hobbies and interests?

I like to brew beer! It’s a fun hobby I practice while listening to music or a podcast. I brew IPAs, porters, lagers, and Belgian ales. 

Traveling with my wife, Lori, is also a passion. She is a talented first-grade teacher at Graded, and we’ve adventured together in many countries. Iceland, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Brazil are a few of our favorites!

Mr. Exall and his wife, Lori Laliberte, on a backpacking trip

What is something people might find surprising about you? 

I used to be a musician! In high school and college, I played the drums. After that, I played the washboard in a bluegrass band called Organic Groove Farmers. We recorded an album and played at festivals around the east coast for a few years. 

Though teaching and playing music are quite different, they share a performance aspect that I love. 

What are your favorite things about Graded and Brazil? 

Graded is filled with talented educators who bring thoughtful intentionality and joy to their classrooms daily and inspire me to do the same. I am also thankful to walk onto the Graded campus each morning. It is a lush, green oasis in the middle of this concrete, urban jungle. Additionally, the weather in Brazil is fabulous, and the access to diverse outdoor spaces offers endless opportunities for adventure. Having such easy access to the mountains and the ocean is something we did not have in Dhaka or Denver. In São Paulo, I love running and relaxing in Ibirapuera Park. Our two dogs, Enzo and Bia, also love the big fenced-in dog park at Ibirapuera!

Mr. Exall’s dogs, Enzo and Bia