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JAN. 6, 2014

Going Offline

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I love talking about our school, and students all over the country seem to really enjoy hearing about it. When I talk about our relationship with technology, though, I’m sometimes afraid that I’ll lose students’ interest. As I visit schools, I hear and see the challenges of technology: signs about where to and not to use cell phones or comments from teachers reflecting their resignation about texting in class. So I expect students to be shocked by the idea of not using technology for four months. At the same time, I see more and more students wanting to take a break from that constant electronic contact.

I don’t gloss over not having access to the Internet or cell phones. I think it’s one of the most unique parts of our program and even more than that, I think it’s a amazing, if not once in a lifetime, opportunity for our students. Many of us, regardless of generation, have shared our lives online initially through MySpace and Facebook and now through any number of social media programs. Staying connected is even easier with our smart phones and wi-fi hot spots at gas stations, airports and coffee shops.

As we connect with the people that we meet through that social media, we’re given the opportunity to look back at them and see how they have represented themselves online. In many ways we get to know people without ever knowing them, and The Outdoor Academy challenges that pattern. Instead of scrolling through a timeline to get to know someone, students‘ have to ask their peers about their past. The only stories we learn about people are the ones they tell us right there and then, face to face. At The Outdoor Academy students have the opportunity to be the person they want to be, not the person they were or are expected to be, and certainly not reduced to just a few images and 140 characters.

As I talk about what it is like to live without cell phones, internet, and social media I often get so enthusiastic I forget to change the slides. When I’m done and flipping through the slides I forgot to change, I look around and am surprised to see that I didn’t actually lose the attention of the students. In fact, they begin to see how great the opportunity to connect authentically and directly really is.

Jack Pitfield
Admissions Counselor

DEC. 19, 2013

A Sense of Direction

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The other day, Resident Becca remarked to me that she was astounded at how difficult it was for new students to find their way around the woods. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “at the beginning of the year, our students go into the woods and set up a bear bag tree, and then when they go back to hang up their food, they can’t find the tree. It’s as if they don’t register any landmarks.”

Her observation set me to thinking about my own struggles with my sense of direction. How, until I was sixteen, I could not have given you directions from my house to school, even though there were only three turns. How I can still get lost driving around Brevard. However, put me in the woods with a map and compass, and I can keep the lay of the land in my head pretty well.

Having directional sense in the woods is often a challenge for people who are used to using street signs, houses, and businesses as landmarks. At first, all trees kind of look the same. Moreover, the environmental volatility of the woods changes the appearance of landmarks. A neon sign is always neon, but that white stump might become dark with rain and impossible to single out at night.

When we studied tracking at Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education Center, Nathan Roark emphasized the importance of being aware of natural patterns, and being able to detect when those patterns had been disturbed. Leaves compressed by the weight of a boot look minutely different than the usual ground cover. Knowing what the woods are supposed to look like requires spending serious “dirt time” exploring nature and being observant. Paying attention to how this tree looks different than that tree, or how a freshly broken stick looks different than an old break, intensifies our sensitivity to changes in natural patterns—including the changing topography. Somehow, zooming in on microscopic details strengthens our awareness of our place in the macroscopic landscape, and our students can find their way back to that bear bag without thinking twice.

Last week, our students spent the night alone in the woods, each in their own quiet clearing in our campus forest. After so much hectic, active learning, they did little but sit, think, write, and observe. Mostly, observe. It is a skill they often practiced here, in navigating the backcountry, in tracking each other through the woods, and in mediating conflict resolution. As they turned their powers of observation inward, I hope that they found some resonance with what Wendell Berry describes in The Unforeseen Wilderness: “And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”

And now, as they turn their sense of direction outward to their home communities, I hope they continue to seek solace in the woods and continue the long journey of being at home wherever they may be.

Felix Dowsley
Head Resident

DEC. 11, 2013

Ender vs. OA

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I will probably not go see Ender’s Game, the new science-fiction movie about a young general fighting against invading aliens, but I was inspired by its debut to re-read the original book. One of my childhood favorites, I was entranced once more with the fascinating coming-of-age story. Ender is torn from his family, sent off to Battle School, and is put in charge of managing a small army of child-soldiers in a series of games that loosely resemble null-gravity laser tag. Despite having the rules of the games turned against him, Ender is brilliantly successful as a commander and is put in charge of a video-game army. After fighting a series of demanding virtual battles, Ender is told that he was commanding a real army by proxy and that he has incidentally wiped out the alien race.

Ender’s Game is in many respects a study in pedagogy, especially as it relates to creating inspiring leaders and effective teams. I could not help but notice how the Battle School has similar aims to leadership and teamwork as The Outdoor Academy, though with entirely converse morals and techniques. For example, Ender is being groomed to be a commander, so his teachers make sure to praise him in front of his other teammates while criticizing his peers. As a result, Ender becomes a social pariah, and he must win admiration and respect through pure prowess. His commanders use this strategy to make him calculating and independent. Conversely, we believe that the success of any leader must be in relationship to the rest of the community, so we ask that our students become intentional about how their particular leadership style impacts the group. As a result, OA students trend towards empathy and away from hegemony.

Perhaps most remarkable is the Battle School’s use of virtual reality to train its students. The “games” that Ender plays are useful for teaching military strategy, but they have little to do with the horror of real battlefields. The Battle School continues to uphold the farce of virtual reality warfare when Ender commands a real army by telling him that his battles are a simulation. As a result, Ender is absolutely ruthless and ultimately slaughters an entire sentient species. In later books, Ender finds himself haunted with guilt for a xenocide he did not intent to commit. It is a powerful lesson, and offers eerie parallels to contemporary ethical questions being raised about the use of armed drones. Will military commanders continue to practice ethical warfare if they are removed from the actual battlefield? Should artificial intelligence programmers be sure to create “ethical” war machines? I offer these conundrums in relation to the model of experiential education used by OA. Whenever possible, we confront students with the reality of what they are studying. Because their hands are wrist-deep in the dirt, they know the grit and smell of that dirt, and the bitterness and sweetness of what grows from it. And, because we chiefly study how to live well in community, students are confronted with the bitterness and sweetness that grows from their actions as well.

As virtual reality and simulation increasingly inhabit our realities, it will be important to recognize when they are used to conceal conflict. Our students cannot hide behind facebook posts and tweets. Their words and actions have immense power, and they see for themselves the hurt or healing they enact. Just as Ender was only able to act ruthlessly because his actions were concealed from him by virtual reality, our students are able to act compassionately because their actions are stripped down to what is absolutely real.

DEC. 4, 2013

Why We Paddle

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Wilderness programming takes up one fourth of our academic semester here at OA, which is a lot! As the Outdoor Programs Coordinator, I have been actively working with Michael on developing learning outcomes and curriculum for all of our trips. Students benefit most from the interpersonal and intrapersonal communication that takes place, but how might we be able to quantify this?

The local rivers, rocks and trails provide a sense of place to students to the local Appalachian culture. We are doing the good work and students are achieving more than they ever thought possible, and I believe this paraphrased paddling reflection paper from Grace Horvath, Semester 37, sums up what we can accomplish.

“My paddling expectations were changed after trying to laugh everything off, and I began to get upset and became harder on myself. The canoe would veer to the left and not paddling effectively, the boat would float further and further away from the direction we intended.  Being in the stern with my partner Luke, I had the responsibility of steering and found myself arguing with him when I thought he would mess up. I told him he didn’t have to use corrective strokes and I could do it all by myself, becoming ever so irritated with him. 

I then verbalized to him that I would work with him on strokes, allowing myself to not have all control. We then were able to become effective communicators and boaters at the same time.

In school I have realized I hold myself to high standards and form unneeded pressures onto myself and am affected negatively. Recognizing that I wanted to be totally in control during paddling this weekend was a big step for me. Not only will I begin to be calmer, I also am able to move past it and personally grow as an individual. I practiced canoeing with an open mind for the rest of the weekend and enjoyed it so much more. I was also proud to come back to school and be able to say, “I have taken a refreshing step toward a difficult personal goal.”

So as you can see, wilderness program trips do not always have to be quantified to justify why we spend so much time on trips at our amazing school. Reading through the rest of student reflection papers, there were common threads present throughout about personal growth, working with other peers and learning new skills. Sometimes it takes the context of a river, local crag or trail to allow students to step up as leaders and accomplish personal goals throughout their time here at OA.

Lucas Newton
Outdoor Programs Coordinator

NOV. 14, 2013

4 + 7 = Grit

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Screen Shot 2013-11-14 at 11.09.06 AMThomas Edison once said that “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

James Heckman and Tim Kautz, award-winning economists at the University of Chicago, would likely agree. In a recent study, they use data to determine the worth and malleability of skills such as self-reliance and curiosity that we so highly value at The Outdoor Academy. Heckman and Kautz address ambitious questions: “Can you change personality? Can you teach conscientiousness? Can you measure perseverance?” The answer they found is yes, and the development of certain non-cognitive skills is much more predictive of performance later in life than intelligence or test scores.

Conscientiousness, which they define as the “tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking,” predicts “educational attainment, health and labor market outcomes as strongly as any measure of cognitive ability.” Conscientiousness is one of the five aspects of personality often referred to as the Big Five in various studies. The other four include Openness to Experience, Extraversion (characterized by positive affect and sociability), Agreeableness (defined as the ability to act in a cooperative and unselfish manner), and Neuroticism/Emotional Stability.

Heckman and Kautz found that measuring a combination of these five personality traits, “grit” is extremely predictive of students’ future earnings, hourly wage, hours spent working, and education level as adults at age 35. Grit is defined as a measure of persistence on tasks and takes into account a person’s ability to respond with resilience to challenges.

They then turn to the question of how do we take this data and use it to influence the development of these traits in young people today. Can you really change someone’s personality or grit? How much of these non-cognitive skills is inherited from our parents or evolve from our culture? And do they really change over time? Most adults would report that they are more responsible and organized at age 35 than they were at 15, but is this a result of brain development or of situational changes and increased expectations? The answer, probably unsurprisingly, is both. Heckman and Kautz found that personality traits are 40-60% heritable, “tied to the person,” and therefore 60-40% tied to the situation and outward expectations. That is a lot of “play” space through which personality and grit can be influenced and, in a way, “taught” throughout adolescence and early adulthood.

Every day, our students at OA find themselves in challenging situations that they are encouraged to work through independently. This might be facing a rock wall or a river rapid, a piece of hot iron at the forge, or trying to express an idea just right. Our school and faculty provide the space in which our students come up against what they imagine to be their limitations and push through them with courage and determination. OA is a place where grit most certainly happens.

Laura Kraus
Math and Art Teacher



NOV. 7, 2013

The Joys of Difficulty on Trek

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Our final Trek, the culmination of outdoor programming and outdoor education at OA, just came to a close last weekend. Sleeping bags are hung up, long underwear washed and shoved out of sight, hiking boots left out to dry and decontaminate. Our students returned, triumphant and weary, after climbing numerous peaks, walking many miles, hanging dozens of bear-bags, and sleeping restlessly, looking at the stars. The entire experience, while a ton of fun, serves as a challenging test of character and strength, requiring a kind of discipline, adaptability and fortitude not often asked of many American 15-year-olds.


On the instructor’s side, the stress of Trek comes mostly from the planning side. The logistics of such a trip are of course complicated, and if something goes wrong, plans must be rewritten, routes revisited, schedules overhauled. A few things went wrong this Trek.

Despite the hard work of our very qualified wilderness team, the odds were against us and repeated, unavoidable incidents occurred that forced us to reevaluate and rewrite our goals and plans. At first, it was just some sleet and hail that made us worry, but as it passed, my co-instructor and I were sure things were looking up. Soon after however, my co-instructor’s preexisting injury was exacerbated and forced him to leave the trail. The next 36 hours involved an instructor switch, some off-trail jungle hopping, spending half a day walking in a complete circle, and a lot of friendly neighbors with terrible advice. Once again, after a few days of chaos, I was sure I had made it through the storm and that the trip would smooth itself out. I was, again, very wrong.

I do not mean to worry you, parents of our students. I can assure you, your children are safe, warm and happy in their study hall right now. I can see them giggling actually, trying to stay quiet and pretending to read Cold Mountain.

Anyway, after several more departures of students and staff due to preexisting injuries and weird minor injuries, I was also forced to leave the field as well after I was mercilessly pursued and incapacitated by my nemesis, the North Carolina yellow jacket. My bee allergy, a new discovery to me this semester, proved to me that sometimes the universe is against us. Both Trek trips were equally well planned, staffed and executed, and one happened to be plagued with difficulties while the other sailed smoothly over the Blue Ridge Mountains and back in the Pisgah Forest valleys.


And I would like to say how grateful I am to have been on this 9 days of challenging trip, how much I laughed, how much I was able to teach my students, how much I will remember of those crazy days and nights searching for trails most likely didn’t exist. Smooth days are nice at the time, but rarely make lasting memories. As one of the students on my trip said when we finally made it home “I will remember that day for the rest of my life.”

Beth Daviess
Resident Wilderness Educator