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FEB. 15, 2016

World History with Ted – The Presidential Campaign

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Ted Wesemann, Natural Science & world History Teacher

As though we aren’t already fatigued by the presidential campaign, I must say it is proving to be a valuable tool and perspective in World History class at OA this spring. The fragmentation and strife within what once seemed to be the monolithic Republican party is most instructive as we explore what a liberal democracy looks like. On the Democratic side of the aisle as well, the word socialism seems to be part of the political discussion and for the first time in my life as a Cold War child, the threat of communism isn’t the next comment.

Hispanics, women, Jews, and African Americans are all represented on the presidential debate stage. The candidates are all over the map on issues of gun control, immigration, protectionism, education, health, right-to-life, the economy, governmental regulation, terrorism and global security. It must be what the founding fathers had in mind for a healthy democracy and, like them, we can only trust that this Darwinian process really does bring our best and brightest to the forefront.

So, our History class has started with the European Enlightenment for some insights into where modern political thought all started and I’m pleased to see my students also bring varied and dissenting voices to the discussion on the social contract. Some understand how Hobbes and Rousseau could argue for the centralized power of the State or even a “benevolent” dictator. Others cannot accept any compromise or erosion of individual rights. Moral and cultural relativism are always lurking on the edges of the conversation. And couldn’t we prove Adam Smith wrong and build economic equality in America without regulating Wall Street? Don’t we have a moral responsibility to be the global police?

Then there is always that nagging comment that communism has never really had a fair chance, coupled with the vague hope that we actually could be that nice to each other and pull together for the greater good. And yet we all admit that we will hoard all the brownies we can when given the chance.

Is it the grand concepts of governance or random acts of individual kindness that run the world?

Well, the one point on which we all agree is the foundational truth of liberal democracy that says we get to have these discussions at all. And for me, these conversations prove that hope is rational.

Ted Wesemann, Natural Science & world History Teacher

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

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

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?

FEB. 2, 2015

Food Cornerstone Day 

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Arrington Mc Coy, Dean of Students

Food choice is an intensely personal decision, and also is deeply interconnected by many strands to the wider world. What we eat can be influenced by what’s available, the food culture we’ve grown up in, our economic means, our ethical code, our taste preferences, our personal health considerations and our hunger levels to name a few. With so many factors going into the bite on the end of our fork it is no surprise that our Food Cornerstone day could only begin to scratch the surface of this huge topic.

We started the day, appropriately, in the kitchen—learning that the basics of homemade bread aren’t so hard to master. Grace taught students how to make basic yeast bread dough, and then students concocted their specific recipes—cinnamon raisin, cheese, honey and dried fruit among others.

After setting our “dough babies” aside to rise we spent the morning with Leah Erlbaum, from the Dragons Global Speaker Series discussing traditional farming in the global context—with a particular focus on Bolivian farmers. We spent some time discussing the complexities of NAFTA and the on the ground realities this trade agreement.

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Following the mornings activities, we shared a lunch of soup and homemade bread and discussed how globalization has turned something that used to be very regional and seasonal—like food—into a commodity that can appear on grocery store shelves twelve months out of the year across the globe.

In the afternoon, we headed to the grocery store—the place many folks today mistakenly link with the origin of their meals. Armed with a list of questions—like “How much does a dozen eggs cost here?” and “Who do you think this store is marketing to?” and “Any observations about the way the cereal aisle is set up?” students became anthropologists—checking out the offerings at our local Bi Lo and Food Matters grocery stores.

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Additionally, while out for the afternoon, students had the very pressing matter of purchasing dinner for the evening. What can you get with $2.60 per person (their dinner shopping budget)? Lofty morals aside this is the question where the rubber meets the road so to speak. With all those diverse reasons that go into choosing what we eat and all our students with different priorities, this was the moment I was most excited to observe. After several weeks at The Outdoor Academy of having limited choice in terms of what they get to eat, I wondered if we would be feasting on a dinner of Fruit Loops and Doritos.

As it turned out students picked a veggie and rice stir-fry with a side of the highest quality meat they could find, as well as green beans, bread and fruit with whipped cream for dessert.

The questions are many and the answers are many shades of gray, but the Food Cornerstone Day was a great launching pad for future discussions over meals, and soon enough over chores out in our garden.

Arrington Mc Coy, Dean of Students