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NOV. 24, 2014

Rising Above the “Standard”

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Jen Hilterman, Math Teacher

There is nothing standardized about The Outdoor Academy.  As I sat down to look at the curriculum for my math classes this weekend, I realized I only have two more weeks of class with my students! Time has flown. Before I know it, they will be back in their desks at their sending schools re-integrating into their “normal” daily lives.

Although OA is the complete opposite of standardized, we still play a role in preparing students to take tests like the PSAT, SAT, and ACT. Our experiential approach to education means lots of hands-on learning experiences, real life application, and learning through inquiry and discussion. Often it is difficult to get at the meat of learning through these things and then have to translate this to the answer of a test question. Katie, our English teacher, sent me a link this week saying the SAT was being redesigned. After a further look, I saw that this means the test is more geared toward real life application and the questions are presented in a way that is familiar to how the students see the material in the classroom. Of course, I first looked into what this means for the math section.

“The level of focus in math is another significant advancement, allowing students to concentrate on fewer topics that are most essential for college and career success,” said David Coleman, president and CEO of The College Board, in a letter explaining the changes. This is just one of the many great improvements. To read more, visit .

I am delighted that The Outdoor Academy can continue to teach experientially, knowing the things the students learn here will serve them well as they go on to prepare for college applications!

Jen Hilterman, Math Teacher

NOV. 10, 2014

Kids These Days…

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This is going to sound like an ad for The Outdoor Academy, but I just need to share the World History class I had this week. It exemplifies the very best of OA and American teens in general and it carries a valuable lesson for any teacher in their daily task of organizing and facilitating lessons.

We’ve been wandering about in History class this fall with the general theme and goal of gathering insights into the conflicts between the East and West. We’re being drawn into conversations about culture, imperialism, religion, capitalism, and revolutions. I am reading a new book by Karen Armstrong entitled Fields of Blood – Religion and the History of Violence. In the introduction she states that the food surpluses of the agricultural revolution brought systematic violence that led to absolutism and the modern military state (and yes, cultural awakenings and golden ages) as well as institutional oppression of the many by the few. My assigned reading was just four short pages describing Armstrong’s perspective of this civilization-building development in our distant history. I handed it out with the thought of giving the students a simple building-block concept.

They took ten minutes to read it after which I asked if they had any thoughts, with a short list in my mind of questions to prod them into discussion. But that was the last thing I said for the next forty minutes. They took this apart as though they were hungry. They opened with a comparison to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and then dissected and argued several positions, from the basic “does the author have a point?” to the causal roots of religion and conflict across history, to analogies with the predator/prey evolutionary arms race, and on to Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. I finally had to call time and send them off to their next class.

Fast forward one day; same time, same class. I realize I am late to class as I send off a visiting family. I arrive with an apology ready only to find a student at the board diagramming a flow chart of the previous day’s discussion at the direction of an eager class.

“No, no, surplus doesn’t always have to lead to a militarized society.”

“Of course it does, even well-intentioned democracies have to protect themselves from aggressors.”

“But if we export democracy to all nations there would be no need…”

“Are you crazy?  You can’t pull that off, and even if you could, Hobbes tells us that will never happen – people are greedy and it only takes one nation to destabilize the whole place!”

“That’s why there is a United Nations!”

“But then we need a UN army!”

“Aarrgh! We’re back where we started!!!”

Sometimes you can’t get out of their way fast enough.

Ted Wesemann, OA Director, Natural Science and World History Teacher

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

SEP. 19, 2014

Rendezvous on the River

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“Two trains leave stations 180 miles apart on the same track heading towards one another. One is traveling 40 mph, the other 30 mph.  When will they meet? Where will they meet?…”

Challenging American high school sophomores with this type of question has prevailed through the decades. Last week at OA, our students explored it in full experimental mode and answered these questions: Do textbook systems of equations actually work out in real life?  Can we apply the properties of substitution and linear combination to our local river with OA students paddling as our variables?

In OA fashion, instead of trains, we took to the French Broad in canoes. The problem we focused on was this… If two boats start a certain distance apart, one team paddling upstream and the other downstream, how long will it take them to meet?  How far will each boat travel before they meet?

The day opened with students creating their own hypothesis of this rendezvous location by observing the river current, staring and ending locations, and standing where they thought two boats, traveling towards one another would meet.  This hypothesis forming was followed by lots of practice of fractions using physical objects: boats, paddles, humans, and whistles. This prepped students for figuring out the average rate of downstream travel and upstream travel for the student body of Semester 39.  It was quite exciting to watch pairs students use their strength, calm minds, and determination to paddle tandem whitewater canoes upstream against the current with an audience timing them. The current was so strong that a few pairs even found negative rates of upstream travel, which only made our calculations more exciting! At lunch, Jess taught the community a very fun, upbeat rowing song from South Africa and another equally beautiful sailing song. A small group of students bravely stepped into the middle of the circle to lead the whole community in song.

Then, we were all back into the math problem at hand. Students broke out into class groups and used matrices, substitution, and graphing to solve the system of equations we had derived earlier in the day. The students discovered that the distance and time that would pass before the two boats met found with all three of these methods of math was only one second off from when they ran the experiment on the river themselves!  Their accuracy in data collection and their consistency in paddling was incredible.

While celebrating the students’ tenacity in working almost an entire day on solving a single problem, we readily discussed the different variables that can influence data collection. Some of these variables include: student energy levels changing the strength of their stroke, river currents changing over the course of the day, or a boat taking a curved versus straight path up the river! Despite these possible variations, Semester 39 was extraordinarily close to their calculations as they paddled towards one another in real time, and surprised both themselves and faculty with both their paddling and mathematical skills.  It was a rendezvous worth the trip!

Laura Krauss
Math Teacher, Wilderness Leader