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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

OCT. 2, 2015

Decisions Abound – Food Cornerstone Day at OA

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Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

In his book The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz posits: “the fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better…there is a cost to having an overload of choice. As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety and stress, and dissatisfaction—even to clinical depression.”

Nowhere is our overload of choice more obvious than the average American supermarket. In general, however, we are so accustomed to the dizzying array of options that the abundance seems normal. For our food themed Cornerstone Day, OA students entered two Brevard grocery stores—one a chain, the other a mom and pop health food store—under the auspices of being food anthropologists. They were armed with questions like: “How does the layout, lighting, arrangement and ambiance of the store affect your buying experience?” “Can you easily find sustainably raised chicken?” “How much does one pound of sustainably raised chicken cost compared to one pound of conventionally raised chicken?” “Can you easily tell which produce is local or organic?”

The real test of the day however came when the students learned that they would be buying their dinner that evening using the same $2.60 per person budget that our kitchen manager adheres to. It was a bit of a social experiment (and possibly one with questionable ethics) to release twenty 15 year olds, whose food choice for a month has been scripted, except for their elected flavor of decaffeinated tea, into the cornucopia of the modern American grocery store with nothing more than a budget to guide their shopping. There was tension. There was stress. A frozen pizza per person was considered, as was ice cream as an entrée. In the end, after much angst and the savvy move of signing up for the BiLo bonus card in order to capitalize on deals, the students came home with chicken (conventionally raised), pasta, alfredo sauce, bread, brownie mix and a boat load of cheap soda. They had the boon of supplementing this meal with produce from the Outdoor Academy garden, which was free to them, but of course expensive in labor costs. With the addition of roasted potatoes, stir fried green beans and a mixed green salad from the garden, we truly had a feast, and had soda on the table for the first time in Outdoor Academy history.

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Our day, which began on a local Brevard farm learning about and interacting with cows, chickens and a pig, ended with lively dinner conversation about the complexity of our food system. I asked the students at my table if they were glad we didn’t usually have soda with dinner, and they unanimously and genuinely said yes, while happily sipping away.

This nod towards the virtue of moderation and their ability to enjoy the exception felt like a perfect end to the day.

Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

SEP. 14, 2015

Bio Blitz Cornerstone

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Ted Wesemann, Natural Science & History Teacher

Fecund, from the Latin fecundare, I believe, which means to make fruitful. I’ve never cared for this word, it seems awkward to me, but it shows up in natural history readings a lot because it is the first requirement for the processes of natural selection to function. Lots of babies, as we say in Natural Science class here. Charles Darwin came to understand from his reading of Thomas Malthus that organisms use excess calories to make all the babies they can which tends to flood the market, providing excess energy to others which powers the food web and biodiversity – the economy of nature as they called it in Darwin’s day.

So, last Friday, we waded into the Eagle’s Nest economy of nature and took a stab at identifying our diversity of life. These marathons are sometimes called BioBlitzes, or Inventories of Life and they are tackled regularly in National and State Parks. We had six groups: Vertebrates, Invertebrates, Flowering Plants, Trees, Non-flowering Plants, and Aquatic Life. I think it’s safe to say that above all we concluded that this task is complex and difficult. The Flower team got bogged down on goldenrod hybrids; the Aquatic folks found it’s really hard to actually catch organisms in the canoe lake and in the Little River, much less identify minnows; the Vertebrate researchers found they don’t know their bird calls very well; the Non-flowering Plants team threw up their hands in the face of the moss diversity; and the Invertebrates squad were simply overwhelmed by the number of taxonomic groups and the subtle genera identifications of things like little brown moths.

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Not to say we didn’t have some success stories. We found we have otters in the Little River, a species that is slowly rebounding in the Blue Ridge; at least some of us have a handle on mushroom identification; the Flower team knows a dozen or so species now without the field guide; we have a good start on the spiders in our neighborhood; praying mantises are abundant at the end of the summer here; and a few of us know the major tree species in the mountains. For a first effort I think we learned quite a bit and we’ll be more prepared next time.

It’s certainly accurate to conclude that we were pretty impressed by all the flora and fauna on this little patch of the mountains, even if we had trouble identifying most of it. And I think we were encouraged to find that with good field guides and a little focus, those identifications could eventually come our way. The economy of nature seems to be quite burgeoning and busy here when one swings a collecting net or gets on their hands and knees with a magnifying lens. Little brown moths look out!

Ted Wesemann, Natural Science & History Teacher

SEP. 2, 2015

A Bear Ate My Homework

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Roger Herbert, OA Director

During a day hike up Johns Rock last Saturday, Semester 41 was treated to an encounter with one of the Southern Appalachian’s most fascinating and beautiful inhabitants: a black bear.  For those trained in the fundamentals of bear safety—as all OA students are—bear encounters are exhilarating and memorable.  I will never forget the first time I saw a bear in the wild.

While meeting a black bear on its home turf is typically a delight, I recently learned that last year one of our students had a less than delightful experience.  The story goes like this: during trek, an intellectually curious bear decided to explore the tarp under which the class had stowed its gear.  Finding nothing that resembled food (a result of solid backcountry practices), the bear chose to make off with a small daypack that contained an English paper that one of our student’s had been working on.  The bear, in other words, ate her homework.

Hearing this story, it occurred to me that I must speak to this student before she writes her college essays.  She HAS to include this story.  College admissions committees will “eat it up” (so to speak).

This story also reminded me that the OA experience does so much more to prepare students for college than providing fodder for college essays.  I recently had the privilege of teaching international relations and political theory to undergrads at the University of Virginia.  UVa is one of the nation’s top universities.  Yet even there I observed that many college students never break the high-school habit of passively receiving “knowledge” from their professors.  They are consumers of information rather than producers of knowledge.  This is not the type of student that the best universities are trying to attract.  Nor is this the type of student who flourishes at the college level.

Students who complete a semester at the Outdoor Academy typically leave our school with a different approach to learning.  Katie, our Academic Dean, sets a high bar for OA students and faculty alike.  When students graduate from the OA, they will have learned many things about themselves and the world around them.  Primarily, however, they will have learned, in Katie’s words, “to take ownership of their education.”  They will have discovered that learning has its own rewards and that those rewards have little to do with pleasing teachers or earning external recognition.  Rather than passively absorbing wisdom from the “sage on the stage,” they will have learned to challenge (respectfully) their teachers and their texts, to think critically, and to reach their own conclusions.

A student who takes ownership of her or his education is the student that every college professor and admissions counselor dreams of.

In a couple of years I’ll have the privilege of writing letters of recommendation for Semester 41.  I’m looking forward to explaining to college admissions committees around the country what precisely a semester at the OA means.  Not only will they be admitting students who have summited mountains, paddled challenging rivers, and shared their English papers with black bears, they will be admitting students who have learned—and practiced—the virtue of directing their own education.

Roger Herbert, OA Director

APR. 8, 2015

Survival Games, Appalachian-Style

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Katie Harris, Dean of Academics

Once again, students of The Outdoor Academy read Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain, debating the finer points of crows, heroines, and anti-heroes along the way. Thanks to the hospitality of Gwynn Valley Farm down the road, however, we also experienced some aspects of the protagonists’ journeys first-hand.

We began the day in a cold and drizzly rain, fog settling on the ridgelines. It was uncomfortable. It was perfect. In the rain, students helped plant potatoes, clean a chicken coop, set up a greenhouse, and make wooden draw horses—farm work that character Ada Monroe struggled to master.  While these ill-fated students toiled, their other classmates enjoyed a pleasant morning underneath a shelter, painting the breath-taking landscape of Gwynn Valley with watercolor—a leisurely pursuit in keeping with Ada’s education as a lady of Charleston, South Carolina. 

Eamon Espey taking a swing on the draw horse.

Eamon Espey taking a swing on the draw horse.

After a lunch together, we took a visit to Gwynn Valley’s corn mill and then headed up the hill into the woods. Students were then challenged to take on the many obstacles that stood between the novel’s other protagonist, Inman, and his beloved Cold Mountain. From foraging to animal trap-setting, we learned that very few of us stood a chance of survival in the woods for days on end. There are simply not enough calories available in the plants of the forest for sustenance, and animal trapping requires years of skill. And all of this while wearing damp woolen clothing…

It is astounding how much hard work and endurance was required of the people of Appalachia in those days. I find it no coincidence that Thoreau observed during this same time period that so much of men’s actions revolved around the getting and keeping of heat: “The grand necessity, then, for our bodies, is to keep warm, to keep the vital heat within us. What pains we accordingly take, not only with our Food, and Clothing, and Shelter, but with our beds, which are our nightclothes, robbing the nests and breasts of birds to prepare this shelter within a shelter, as the mole has its bed of grass and leaves at the end of its burrow!” 

We returned to campus exhausted and rain-soaked at the end of the day. I felt especially grateful for the warm dinner awaiting us in the Sun Lodge, and though a few weeks have passed since our field trip of sorts, I still carry an awe for that older way of life in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Katie Harris, Dean of Academics

MAR. 13, 2015

Patterns Everywhere!

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Jen Hilterman, Math Teacher

During the first day of math class I asked my students to define math. They quickly realized this was no easy feat. After 45 minutes of discussion, we had a number of ideas out there: a study of numbers, problem solving, a method to understand the world around us, and the study of patterns. This was also their first introduction to the idea that here the teachers do not just give them the answers. We have been speculating about the definition all this time.

Fast forward a month and a half to patterns cornerstone day 2015. After burning through several back up plans due to new policies and impossible weather, we finally ended up having a school day out in Pisgah Forest! Everyone was stoked after wrestling with cabin fever for weeks despite our affectionately termed “snab” day where we built snow creatures and went “penguin sledding” using trash bags. The announcement of patterns day was made via a flash mob at lunch on Thursday. I informed the students to be prepared to be out for the whole day… in the snow. I sat next to Ellis during breakfast on Friday, and he asked me what to expect for this cornerstone day. I simply replied, “The only advice I would give you is to free all your senses and be on the lookout for patterns everywhere!”

We started the day with a few dance patterns out on cabin 7 field led by our fearless craft and music teacher, Jess. After one of the dances, we circled up to see the pattern we had made in the snow. One of my students exclaimed, “It’s an ellipse!” Several students chimed in with more details since we had just learned about how to graph these in math class. Jess pointed out that this is exactly what cornerstone days (and all classes) at OA are meant to do. Students make all sorts of cross-curricular connections. Today math and music and craft and philosophy would all be connected.


After creating masterful hexagonal patterns, we loaded the buses and headed out into the forest for the rest of the day. I led an activity looking at different length pendulums and sinusoidal graphs, Laura took the students on a tour of fractals found in snow, trees, and shrubs, and Franklin led the students in a philosophical excursion of the mind. When we had enough time to go explore and look for patterns on our own, we came back together for our final lesson about the Fibonacci sequence. We explored how our bodies display the Fibonacci sequence just as many other things do in nature, art, music, and architecture. Incredible! With the final hike back to the buses we found many things that are modeled by the Fibonacci sequence for the purpose of functionality and supreme beauty. Richard P. Feynman, an American physicist, says, “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.” We certainly saw this under the blue skies and warm sun out in Pisgah Forest. We ended the day by talking about what would define a pattern. Interestingly, the discussion that began on the first day of classes came full circle when one students suggested that a pattern can be defined by math. What do you think?