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FEB. 4, 2016

Learning is the Thing For You

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Katie Harris, Dean of Academics

The students of Semester 42 finished their first week of official classes at The Outdoor Academy. Though the recent snow had students drying wet gloves and asking what their next class was in a constantly changing “snow day” schedule, not a single class was missed last week save one crafts class. At the beginning of my English class on Thursday, I asked our students what they had learned at school so far, and the responses were as wide-ranging as our students’ geographical homes.

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Patrick shared that he learned how to edit songs; Eva learned how to chop wood with a wedge. Finn learned that high mortality rates in certain species are the consequence of laying high numbers of eggs, while Ade learned how to knit. Another student learned both what a niche is in scientific terms and how to use a washing machine. I had to cut my respondents off because I had run out of space on my paper to take note, but it seemed that quite a lot had taken place in just a few days.

Once asked by a colleague to define “education” in as brief a phrase as possible, I replied, “Change.” It seems simple enough, but to create an environment for the greatest, most effective, and most positive change possible requires an enormous amount of work on the part of both teacher and student. While Eva worked very hard at splitting a log (I can personally attest that this is quite a difficult endeavor) and Finn questioned the various birthing strategies among species, our faculty spent hours behind the scenes creating the space for our students to grow and change. During the run of unusual snow days, faculty came in at odd hours and at a moment’s notice to teach a class. Our math team (Racheal, Robbie, and Susan) spent the week getting to know our new students and shifting the class rosters around to both achieve a community of learners in each class while fully challenging each individual student. Incidentally, the Algebra 2 math curricula of California, New York, and Florida are not identical.

Polly and Rodrigo, our world language teachers, checked in with me often as they sought the perfect balance between challenge and comfort level among students. Ted took his science classes on their first adventure around campus. And I was honored to hear from Mary Claire that the ending to one of our assigned short stories in English class was, in her words, “mind-blowing.” Similar anecdotes could probably be found about the arts, outdoor education, and history courses of the week had I done due diligence.

I am inspired by the heart and dedication of my fellow faculty here at The Outdoor Academy, and it is with them in my mind that I share the words of T.H. White from The Once and Future King:

“[Learning] is the only thing that never fails… That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

Katie Harris, Dean of Academics

JAN. 26, 2016

Semester 42 Comes Out Swinging

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Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

Semester 42 students began their time at The Outdoor Academy with a three-day trek that featured evening temperatures in the single digits. Just days after returning from their bone chilling backpacking trip, a big snowstorm left campus blanketed in white. Needless to say, it’s been an eventful start to the semester.

The four cornerstones of The Outdoor Academy program are: Environment, Intellect, Craft and Community. There’s nothing quite like adversity to showcase that each of these areas are relevant and necessary. Semester 42 students, while fresh to this experience, are already proving to be exemplars of these core values that weave into all that we do at The Outdoor Academy.

Ted, who has been teaching at The Outdoor Academy since it was founded, mentioned last week that this already feels like a very successful semester. His barometer, honed over 41 prior semesters, is student volunteerism, and this group has that quality in spades. As the winter weather approached, we stacked giant piles of wood for our wood stoves, we filled auxiliary water tanks in case the power went out rendering our electric pump useless, and we stockpiled our pantry. And each time one of these additional chores cropped up, hands went up to volunteer to help faster than the blink of an eye.

The beauty of working at a place like The Outdoor Academy is that you get to surround yourself with students who want to be at your school, in spite of–or perhaps more accurately because of–all that they give up by choosing to be part of this program. Students who come to The Outdoor Academy give up their phones, computers, Internet connection and canned music. They give up personal space and agree to live in a cabin with up to ten other people. They give up free reign over the refrigerator, in favor of family style meals. They give up candy. They give up late nights. And somehow, at the tender age of 15 or 16, they already know that what they will gain from giving up these luxuries is sweeter than the luxuries themselves.


This snowy weekend was a taste of all that is gained by coming to The Outdoor Academy. Students spent the weekend playing games in the snow and sipping tea around the wood stove. When they wanted music, they pulled out their guitars and sang some songs. They ate delicious homemade bread and thick chili family style in the Dining Hall. Most of all, they had space and time and opportunity in this slower, quieter life to start to truly get to know one another. The friendships that they will forge this semester will become the heartbeat of their experience here.

Roger, our Director, keeps reminding students that this experience is ephemeral. In a few short months, we’ll be doing cannonballs into the lake that is now iced over. And the bonds and memories will be deeper and dearer still, which is why on this cold January evening, I am grateful that we are just one week in with this fantastic group of people. The future of Semester 42 feels bright indeed.

Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

NOV. 3, 2015

Why do we paddle? Why do we climb?

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By Lucas Newton, Outdoor Education Manager

Yes, we are a school, so it needs to be all books, computers and classrooms right? Well, not necessarily, there is so much more to learn outside and from each other that students at The Outdoor Academy take away every semester, and I am grateful for that and this place.

Over the weekend of October 23-25, Semester 41 students left main campus to challenge themselves on the local crags and rivers of Western North Carolina/Eastern Tennessee. The weather was perfect, cool, crisp autumn air, and the leaves were in their peak season, my personal favorite time of year in our beautiful part of the country.

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Sure, there were some difficult moments, some beautiful moments reflecting near a fire adjacent to the mighty French Broad, and with all this, a plethora of community life and educational skills being learned by our students. As students begin to head into the Mastery phase of the semester, we as faculty are pushing them more and more to own their educational experience and we help facilitate this change within the community. What better place to start owning this than on an outdoor programming trip. As instructors we’re there for safety and guidance, but the responsibility of in-camp procedures falls directly onto the students (cooking dinner, setting up camp, facilitating evening meeting, etc.)

The following is a reflection paper excerpt from current OA student and former Eagle’s Nest camper, Natalie Valentine on her recent climbing trip to Cedar Rock:

When I’m on the rock, I achieve inner peace. I get a sort of tunnel vision, and I have no room in my brain for anything other than the current climb and my next move. I wish I could live my life more like I do when I am on the rock, focused and centered, ambitious, and only interested in the task at hand.

I also gain a deeper trust of my peers. I have formed deeper relationships with those who I belayed and those who belayed me. It was incredible to have those conversations on the hike up to the rock, getting to know my peers better. I feel even more connected to my community after this amazing weekend!

I am alright with this learning outcome, void of pencils, books and computers. Stay in the present, reflect on the past, and continually move forward.

 By Lucas Newton, Outdoor Education Manager

OCT. 30, 2015

The Importance of Struggle

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Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

We are heading out today for our student-led wilderness trek. Students have planned their routes, their menus and their gear for their upcoming five days in Pisgah Forest. As an instructor, I am responsible for stepping in only in an emergency situation, and most importantly, I am responsible for not getting in my students way otherwise. The second responsibility is surprisingly hard to achieve, but the benefits of such a success are profound.

On my first independent camping trip, my bear bag looked more like a mouse hang, I was lost more than I was sure of my position on the map and my camp stove broke—likely due to operator error. It ranks as one of my most memorable trips. And I find myself hoping that on this trek that my students will face their own brand of hardship and snafus and things gone awry.

Our students have the necessary tools to be successful on this trip. They’ve learned the camp craft skills and the navigation skills, and they are adept at working as a team. However, even if they are well equipped, they are not experts in the art of backpacking, and some struggle will no doubt be part of the equation this week.

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Researcher C.R. Snyder astutely points out: “Hope is the product of struggle.”

We implicitly know that the growth and learning that comes from struggle is profound, but despite this knowledge too often schools and organizations are directed to breed the struggle out of their programs. Thankfully the students and families who choose to come to The Outdoor Academy recognize the value of struggle as both a teacher and a gateway to new perspectives on the world. So if the mac ‘n’ cheese is a little charred or we hike the wrong way for a couple of miles this week, I won’t be upset. In fact, I will view those experiences as hope in the making.

Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

OCT. 19, 2015

Classes in the Field – Fall 2015

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Racheal Duffy, Math Teacher

As the rain pounded the ground the teaching staff scurried about campus preparing food and gear for our highly coveted Classes in the Field.  Students were out on a five-day trek that was to lead directly into a week of camping in the Smoky Mountain National Park in a special area named Cataloochee.  As to be expected, Mother Nature threw us some curve balls but it was nothing Semester 41 could not handle.  Students spent the majority of their trek in the pouring rain with not a star in sight.  After coming back to campus, wringing out, warming up, and spending some time swapping trek stories (that only got better every time they were told) we all headed back out into the woods.  This time, Mother Nature was extremely kind to us and gave us some of the best fall weather we have seen yet this season.


We wound ourselves deep into the woods, finally settling on a beautiful campsite along a creek.  As we pulled into camp we saw some older buildings and began to learn about who had come before us on this land.  The Cataloochee area is rich with Appalachian history.  Throughout the next week students worked as a community to live simply all the while learning about the people of Cataloochee through song, craft, literature, and discussion.

The students took the OA principle of self-reliance during Day 2 to the letter.  We had spent the first half of the day exploring the area.  Students toured the Hannah cabin where they had the opportunity to build their own miniature log cabin and have it stand the test of the elements.  Later we became archaeologists and tried to map out an area where a town by the name of Ola was by using artifacts and other remains.  After lunch two of our talented students sang some hymns in one of the older churches bringing us right back to the mid 1800s.  After we fueled our bodies and souls with song we continued into the woods.  This is where things got exciting!  Semester 41 chose to find their own way back to camp during our hiking tour of the Cataloochee valley.  Student leaders consulted with each other, compass and map in hand, and led the entire semester through the rhododendrons, down the rocky slopes, and leapt over water right to camp just as the sun was setting.  It was a perfect day with an amazing group of individuals.  I couldn’t have imagined a better Classes in the Field.

Racheal Duffy, Math Teacher

OCT. 7, 2015

On The Changing Weather and Adventure

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Reily Kennedy, OA Resident & Wilderness Leader

With the weather taking a turn for the cooler and some of the trees starting to show their fall color we didn’t need the first day of fall to tell that the seasons are officially on the move. For all the August days of blistering humid heat the cooler temps should be a relief but I can’t help but be a little nostalgic for those summer days and hope for a few more warm ones before fall turns to winter.

Last weekend we definitely had our wishes granted for a beautiful 3 day paddling (or climbing) trip. The paddlers made the best of low water levels and enjoyed refreshing swims in the river, playing in the rapids, and checking out the scenery of the river (massive cliffs, geese passing through on their migration south and interesting locals). The climbers had amazing views into the heart of Pisgah National Forest from the top of Cedar Rock mountain. You can check out the pictures here:

Now that family weekend has come and gone and the beautiful late summer weather with it (we’ve now had almost four days of grey weather varying from pouring rain to mist and with no end in site) we are gearing up for our first five day trek and for classes in the field. Most of the students mentioned that trek and classes in the field as the thing they’re most looking forward to in the coming weeks and I’d have to agree with them. I am really excited to get off campus and to go tromping through the woods.

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I often find myself falling back into old habits of letting rain keep me inside and I try to identify the reasons behind this fear. Is it because of long ago camping trips where rain poured into my tarp all night, or more recent exposure to rain that left me shivering all day, or the denial of a view from the top of a mountain I worked so hard to summit? But really in all these instances it wasn’t the rain that ruined things for me but my inexperience in some of the long ago cases, or my flippant disregard and laziness to take precautions that would keep me dry in even the heaviest down pour. After thinking about the reasons behind this fear I start to think about all the reasons why rain is just the thing to enhance an outdoor trip. It will hopefully mean water sources will be easy to find, that there’ll be tons of fungi to check out, and that the next paddling trip in a few more weeks will have fewer exposed rocks to dodge or get stuck on and more exciting rapids. Even with all these pros for the rain, I sometimes still catch myself (like in this blog itself!) saying  “wasn’t it a beautiful sunny day” or “what dreary bad weather we’ve be having”  and I’m reminded once again of an old Norwegian saying on this topic that, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”. When things don’t go as planned on a trip this is when things become an adventure and isn’t that what I’m here for; what the students are here for?! To get out of the classroom and to do something different that get’s you excited to learn about the world around you! These are the lessons that stay with you the longest and make for the best stories.

Reily Kennedy, OA Resident & Wilderness Leader