Chugiak High junior Sam McCall enjoyed cutting class recently.
"Perfect way to end a Friday," McCall said.
As he spoke, McCall used a small saw to prune a dead branch from an amur maple tree in an arboretum on the school grounds. Overgrown and overlooked, the tree garden had become a bit of a mess in recent years, said teacher George Campnell.
"I don't think it's ever been pruned," Campnell said.
The students weren't just gardening to kill a lazy Friday afternoon. They're part of the school's World Discovery Seminars program, which emphasizes Socratic learning methods, source materials and guest lecturers in English and social studies.
"It's more dialogue oriented and primary-source document based," Campnell said.
Teachers also try to bring in as many experts from the field as possible.
"We always try to find community experts who might be willing to come in and work with kids," he said.
Campnell said about 10 percent of Chugiak's students elect to enroll in the "school within a school." Five teachers and one counselor are dedicated to the four-year program.
Junior Sean Parker said the program is designed to help students think beyond facts in order to gain a deeper understanding of how things work as a whole.
"We're supposed to apply the Socratic process, and think about how this would affect the community as a whole," he said.
So instead of just pruning the trees, the students had to first determine what effect cutting each individual branch would have on the entire tree -- and, subsequently, on the garden and entire school grounds themselves.
"It's going to be more aesthetically pleasing for one, but they also were thinking about turning this whole area into a bird sanctuary, so this habitat will help attract birds," Parker said.
Campnell said students in the program frequently spend time outdoors, with seminar classes held outside in both winter and summer.
"We spend a lot of time out in the natural environment," Campnell said.
As the students worked to trim the trees, several professionals led by University of Alaska Cooperative Extension horticulturist Julie Riley walked among them giving advice on pruning methods.
Riley said the most important part of successful pruning is to take time and care to think about the plant's overall health and structure.
"You have to have goals in your pruning," she said. "Step back and take a look at the whole plant."
George Campnell said that's sort of what the World Discovery Program tries to do, too.
"Trying to think about the natural world out of a textbook doesn't quite work as well," he said.
After pruning, Campnell said his students will return to the classroom to write about and discuss topics related to their work.
"We'll get back to the content area: the plant identification, the geography of the area, the plant habitat," he said.
In addition to the classroom knowledge the students receive, he said, they also are learning valuable skills that can help them in the future.
"These kids are getting real-world knowledge," he said.