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OCT. 23, 2014

Teaching as Road Trip

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When I was studying secondary education in graduate school, a professor asked us to create a drawing representing our view of ourselves as teachers. My colleagues around me began sketching pictures of coaches, cheerleaders, and guides; I found myself drawing a landscape of mountains, a road winding deep into the horizon, the sun. I was a little puzzled by my own actions, but when called upon to explain my picture, I realized my metaphor: it was teaching as road trip.

I caught the tail end of a glance between the graduate professor and the teaching mentor, an experienced instructor recruited from the local high school system. This glance indicated to me that my metaphor was somehow off-kilter, perhaps a little inappropriate. It caused an internal moment of self-doubt. Why didn’t I gravitate to the picture of a cheerleader? The suited professional? The summer camp counselor?

A couple of Fridays ago, this memory resurfaced as I found myself in a large bus with twelve students from Semester 39. I had been driving down a winding gravel road for the last 20 minutes, and I slowed the bus to a crawl.

“Remember Dillard’s piece ‘Seeing’ from this week? What do you notice right now? What do you hear and smell?”

Students looked over to the left, “We’ve been gaining elevation!” “There’s a really tall, cleared hill over there!” “Vultures!” “It doesn’t smell bad!”

That last comment was actually pretty important. We were visiting the Transylvania Sanitary Landfill as part of our Cornerstone Day on energy use and consumption waste. After arriving at the main offices, director Jeff Brookshire took us on a tour, explaining the science and intention behind the disposal of trash, including this salient point: trash doesn’t go away.  At the end of the day, our school gathered beside the French Broad River and created a pact on our own energy use and consumption waste. Tylar volunteered to place recycling bins in buildings that did not already have them; Leo volunteered to create water-use awareness signs for the showers; Sara drew up our pact and posted it for all to see.

Driving back to campus, I laughed to myself. Perhaps this is what I had meant, years ago—teaching as road trip. It is experiential education out in the world. It is a process that, while promoting objectives and goals, still allows for experimentation and play, allows for the unexpected epiphany and innate curiosity. These elements are all integral to becoming a life-long learner. As the cliché goes, we are all travelers on the path of life. And Semester 39 students are well on their way.

–Katie Harris, Dean of Academics, English Teacher, and Wilderness Instructor

OCT. 8, 2014

Reading Our Landscape

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What does it mean to read a landscape? Such a question has puzzled many over the years, including Emerson and Thoreau in our literary heritage and Hutton and Clements in the scientific. It is also a question that students at OA face after they hop into their canoes and slide from shore into deeper, faster water. But any canoeist faces that question in the moments and hours after setting out on a river, especially if they slam into rock after rock, jarring the boat, their bodies, and sometimes bringing their vessel to a complete stop.

The boulders, especially on the second day of our final paddle/climb weekend, lie just beneath the water’s surface, a place we think of often with trepidation, think of as a place to avoid visiting for long without SCUBA gear or submarines.  Even the idea there are things under the water sometimes escapes us. Fortunately for our paddling group, there are signs and clues for those who look that reveal what lurks below. Our OA semester has been making a concerted effort to be among those who look. The French Broad River, a river that passes by the OA campus doorstep and meanders northward, is an integral part of our environment, an environment we are continually trying to better understand. That is why we devote 4 beautiful autumn days to exploring a 25-mile stretch of it in one of our National Forests.

As I sit in the stern of a Mohawk canoe, with Myles in the bow, we discuss water currents and how they change to accommodate the space occupied by rocks, making lumps and ripples in the water’s surface that we call “pillows” and “V’s”. The submerged boulder field around us transforms from a sun-streaked mass of frothy, chaotic water to a technical obstacle course through which we can navigate. Students in other boats whiz past the rocks that are no longer hidden beneath the waves. Information and commands are yelled back and forth. Memories of a bumpy ride the day before fade in the face of this newfound expertise. We pass cliffs only visible from the river and forested mountains.  We even found a mudpuppy—an enormous salamander with external gills—drifting along the bottom of an eddy, and surf waves curling in the river currents. The environment we pass through is wonderfully rich, varied, and always poses a new challenge, canoeing gives us a way to push a little deeper into that environment.

Franklin Jacoby
Resident Wilderness Educator

SEP. 30, 2014

What’s For Dinner?

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Taste, Availability, Health, Cost, Culture, Hunger, Ethics…there are a myriad of reasons we choose to eat certain foods. Sometimes the choice is fairly unconscious. We’ve all undoubtedly been engrossed in a movie only to find ourselves surprised to discover that the popcorn bag, once full, is suddenly empty. But unconscious eating comes at a price–social, environmental and health–to name a few. For our most recent Cornerstone Day we went, as a school, just down the road from The Outdoor Academy to visit the Gwynn Valley Farm.

Understanding where food comes from is one of the biggest steps in moving towards conscious consumption. After a brief introduction to the farm, Farmer Dale, walked us out into his pasture to meet his herd of cows. “There’s Leonard,” Dale says, as a three month old Wholesteen calf ambles towards us. There is lots of crooning over the adorable calf. After some discussion over the process of caring for the animals, Dale points out the tag in Leonard’s ear, “2014 on the tag, means he’s a calf born summer of 2014—which means he’ll be 2016 hamburger.”

Many of us are fairly distanced from the reality that our hamburger was once an “awww” worthy calf. The danger of that distance is that it allows us to take part in systems that we’d never condone if we were personally involved. That pause we feel when we think about putting Leonard on a bun is healthy. Sustaining life requires taking life, but it doesn’t mean we should take that life lightly.

It is part of our tradition at OA to pause before a meal and “Give Thanks.” Part of our food themed Cornerstone day—besides being an excuse to commune with cows and chickens and goats–was an opportunity to connect with the complexity and beauty of what is at the end of our forks.

Arrington McCoy
Dean of Students/Environmental Seminar Teacher

MAY. 6, 2014

Integrating Art and Music

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Have you ever wondered what math sounds like? As a part of the honors program at OA, students can choose one of three different routes. Avery chose to do a project to earn honors credit in his Pre-Calculus class. He wrote up a proposal and we both signed a contract outlining the parameters and requirements of his project and final presentation. Avery has a lot of background and interest in music so throughout the semester he has been working to compose a song using the famous Fibonacci sequence as his inspiration. The Fibonacci sequence gives something called the golden ratio and the golden angle, which are displayed all throughout nature. A pine cone, a sunflower, and the human body are just a few examples. How amazing that all these things in our world exemplify Fibonacci! This sequence can also be applied to other mediums such as visual art, architecture, and music. Avery’s choice in tempo, each note, and the ordering of notes in his song composition were all influenced by the Fibonacci sequence. He will present his final project to the school during lunch on Monday and Tuesday. For now, enjoy this audio representation of the Fibonacci sequence!

Click here to see and hear Avery’s song.

Jen Hilterman
Math Teacher

MAR. 26, 2014

Talking Philosophically

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Weekends at OA can look a little wild. When we are on campus (about 4 or 5 weekends a semester), we could be doing anything from building stoves out of soda cans, mapping our woods, playing guitar in the sunshine, or an intense trail run. A couple of weekends ago, we had a bit of time for what we like to call Sense of Place skills. Again, this could vary from baking bread to writing poetry to rock climbing. Our offerings this particular Saturday included needle felting, climbing on the tower, and my personal project, “Talkin’ about stuff.”

Semester 38 has a philosophical mind. The students are motivated by problems they are made aware of and really love to dig into an idea. We’ve done a couple of other philosophy-based activities and students keep asking for more. But on this sunny afternoon, as I described the activity I was offering, I quickly began to doubt whether or not I would get a single student to follow me inside towards the whiteboard. Four did. This is something of a landslide victory for philosophy, which might be described by high school students as the least interesting subject in existence.

The five of us proceeded to discuss this quote:

“Your genes do not belong to you, your genes belong to humanity.”

And the discussion moved me. Emotionally, I mean. As I listened to the students’ focus and insight, their ability to bring in sources from their science, English and environmental seminar classes with precision and clarity, I become so proud. Everyday now I continue to be so grateful to work and live in an environment where learning is loved and respected as it is here. Give thanks, OA.

Beth Daviess
Resident Wilderness Educator

MAR. 22, 2014

Alternations of Generations

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And The Importance of Asking “Why?”
By Beth Daviess, Female Resident

On a warm day, one of a number of pleasant surprises we’ve had in the past few weeks, science class sat on a trail trying to metaphorically “pull apart”   Lycopodium. Or rather, the mystery of it.

In true OA fashion, as we discussed Lycopodium we happened to be nestled in a Lycopodium patch, surrounded by the miniature trees themselves. Lycopodium, you see, is a type of club moss that has a very special characteristic, brought to my attention by a student. Elsa described to me Lycopodium’s almost unique ability to become sexual or asexual as it saw fit. “Alternation of generations.”  A weighty phrase that could describe quite a few ideas, in this case signifies an organism’s use of multiple reproductive strategies throughout it’s lifecycle.

As we sat in the dirt and played with sticks, the class moved into a discussion of why organisms would evolve to reproduce this way, switching back and forth between methods; if alternation of generations was effective, as it appeared to be given our surroundings, why hadn’t other organisms, ourselves included, evolved similarly adaptable traits. Why, Ted asked, Can’t I grow another Ted out of my toe, and another Ted out of his toe, and so on.

The class launched into a frustrating, exhilarating discussion of why or why not. Why should alternation of generations be better than our reproductive strategy? And if it was, why aren’t we doing it. What could that look like? Why? I was struck, at this moment, by the determination I saw in every student’s eyes. They would not passively accept this brilliant mystery, let such an interesting problem go unaddressed. I could see that Elsa, and Christian and Levi knew that, evolutionarily, there must be a reason we are this way and not that. But again, Why?

This question reverberates on the OA campus. I might even argue it is the most important thing we teach our students. To question, to know a problem and try to solve it, to enjoy the sweet frustration of the unsolvable. That is what we try to instill at The Outdoor Academy.