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SEP. 26, 2018

The Antidote to Too Much Technology

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If you are a parent of a teenager you have probably spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and talking about the impact smartphones, the internet, and social media, may be having on your child.  There are thousands of articles, hundreds of books, and countless ongoing conversations about the amount of time a typical teenager spends on a screened device.  Many studies have been conducted and more are in process right now.  And yet, even with the plethora of written material that can be found on the subject, this is still a new concept in our culture. We have only scratched the surface in our understanding of the positive and negative effects of technology on individuals and on our population as a whole.  Many of the conclusions being drawn in the media and academic studies suggest that our digital developments are having more negative effects than positive.

Of course, the longitudinal studies on technological use are incomplete since this current teenage population, plus and minus five years, is the first generation to be raised on it. As Frances Jensen, chair of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, shares “What this generation is going through right now with technology is a giant experiment, and we don’t know what’s going to happen.”  According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 73% of teenagers, ages 13 to 17, have or have access to smartphones.   Studies suggest that smartphones are getting between adolescents and their enjoyment of and engagement in face-to-face interaction.  We’ve all witnessed teenagers sitting in small or large groups quietly focused on their personal screens.  And they see us, as adults, doing the same thing, perhaps with a little more moderation (but not always!). That’s the concerning news.

The good news is that, according to the Pew 2015 survey, more than half of teens worry that they spend too much time using their cell phones.  This is the world they are growing up in and they don’t know any different. Yet, this generation is recognizing the potential pitfalls of too much screen time.  This is where The Outdoor Academy comes in.

Back in 1994, The Outdoor Academy welcomed its first semester of tenth graders, just as computers with dial-up internet were becoming a standard feature in schools and in many homes.  As had been the tradition at Eagle’s Nest Camp, OA decided that internet connected computers, email, and phone lines were not going be a part of the students’ semester. While at OA, they would engage in an experience free from such distractions. For 4 months, students were to immerse themselves in the place they were in and the people they were with, to receive the unending opportunities to learn in the greatest context there is – the here and now.  Fast forward nearly 25 years, and being free from the distractions of modern society takes on a whole new level of importance for teenagers.

Having been at OA in the late 90’s and then returning in 2015, the decision made so long ago for OA to remain free from cell phones, internet, email, social media, gaming, etc. now seemed to me as cutting-edge.  As people across the US and the world grapple with “internet addiction,” one of the primary and most effective treatments is proving to be wilderness therapy.  The woods, the forest floor, the creek that ripples by, the sound of rustling leaves, the trail that invites conversation, the mountain vistas that invoke quiet contemplation – these things, these places, and these experiences are the panacea of the ages.

During the admissions interview with OA applicants, I ask the question, “How do you feel about stepping away from technology for four months?”  Many parents worry that this may be the one thing that will stop their teenager from wanting to attend OA.  Often, parents can’t imagine their child’s life without their cell phone in hand or their computer at their fingertips.  Well, the answer I hear from OA applicants nearly every time goes something like this: “I am really excited about that part.  I know I spend too much time on my phone and my computer, but I just can’t ignore it no matter how hard I try.  Being with people where no one has that around will be so nice.” Often, an applicant will recount stories of a short day hike they took with a friend or their family.  They will express how amazing it was to be with another person or a group where there were no phones and instead find themselves talking to the people around them. They will talk of the sounds of silence, of bird calls, and the sounds of the woods.  They will talk of how awesome it was just to focus on what they were doing at that moment.  The feelings they describe are those of a sense of place, a sense of awe, and a unique closeness to the people around them. This again is good news.

Our youth have a knowing inside them, a recognition, that there is an imbalance in the life consumed by their personal device, social media, texting, emails, and YouTube videos.  I am of the belief that as this generation ages into adulthood, they will find ways to regulate their personal technology use.  They will incorporate the strategies that they have found works for them and share these strategies with their children.  We owe it to them to share our ideas and experiences and to help them create this toolbox.

So long as the human species exists on this planet, the natural world in some way, shape, or form will continue to exist.  Our job as the adults, the ones who facilitate the day-to-day options and ways of living and being for our children, is to first and foremost take our children to the woods.  For it is there they will find their way. It is there where they will hear their own thoughts.  It is there where the miracles of life offer the lessons that can only be found in the natural world. As Jensen said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen” as a result of this technological experiment. But what we do know, and our youth are reminding us, is that there is no greater antidote for a distracted mind, a disconnected heart, or a soul longing for peace than to be in nature.  As Rachel Carson wrote, “Those who dwell in the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”

By Julie Holt, Admissions Director

APR. 13, 2017

Reflections from the River

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Clara Ruth Logan, one of our semester 44 studetns, wants to share her experiences during the last paddling trip.

“There are many moments at The Outdoor Academy when I feel my body and my mind getting stronger, and our 3-day paddling trip last weekend was one of them. With the sun on my arms and the postcard view of the Appalachian Mountains over the French Broad River, it seemed impossible to feel unhappy.

On the first day, nervousness and excitement bubbled up inside of me as our instructors, Lucas, Eric and Ryan, told us the plan. As soon as we got on the river, we would have to ferry across against the current to avoid a strainer on the left of the river. I hopped in the bow and my partner Margo got in the stern of the boat. I was so scared but we did it and I felt so strong! Margo and I continued down the river and enjoyed the sunshine, the beautiful view, and the occasional splash of water on our skin.

On the second day of our trip we had some crazy rapids! I loved the wave trains because our boat would gallop down the river while tons of water splashed over us. We learned that if we paddled hard and really focused on our boat control, we could let go of the fear, and our excitement and happiness would take over. I felt strong and capable on the river, and most importantly, I felt truly happy.”

Thank you Clara Ruth for sharing.

Rodrigo Vargas, Spanish Teacher

MAR. 31, 2017

Gigantic Hellbender Found in Swimming Lake

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An astonishing discovery at Eagle’s Nest this spring has set the herpetological community afire. “We drain the swim lake every winter, and I’ve never seen anything to suggest we had a monster living here” stated Taylor Mackay, livelong Transylvania County resident and Eagle’s Nest Staffer, adding an understated “yikes!”

Apparently this year was different. A small hole, about the size of one of, Eagle’s Nest Chef, Mark Walker’s meatloaves appeared under the diving board as the waters receded. When prodded with a broken canoe paddle, the waterlogged soil gave way, exposing a gaping entryway into an unknown underworld. When a headlamp’s beam revealed the glow of two eyes in the slimy abyss, amphibian expert Posey Lester-Niles was called in to investigate. “Step back – I want everyone out of the lake!” she commanded in a surprisingly authoritative voice, (because, you know, we all think she’s still eight. Ah, they grow up so fast . . .) Then, to everyone’s shock, she disappeared headfirst into the black void, trailing a old yellow canoe painter that should have been replaced years ago. Those things were always too thick to actually tie. An unseen but obviously violent struggle ensued. A stomach-churning moment of silence, then a cheer as Posey backed out into the sunlight, straining at the rope. First, tantalizingly, a tiny tailtip, then a growing and seemingly endless wall of amphibian flesh was dragged into the light of day, ending in a flailing head the size of . . . well, you know that sun medallion thing hanging on the back wall of the Sun Lodge? It seemed that big, but probably was a little smaller, given most Eagle Nester’s tendency to exaggerate. Still – really big. OA student, Cedar Ann Skeen, at the scene, said it best. “No, so wait, it was like, LITERALLY, huuuuuuge. And this time I’m using literally correctly! No, really! Why are you laughing at me?”

Accurate depiction of a Hellbender. (trees added for scale)

Accurate rendering of a Hellbender (trees added for scale)

So, the great beast was finally subdued and carried by six OA students to the little plastic swimming pool that Camp uses for basketmaking class – the one we keep under the dining room porch, you know? The Leviathon finally stopped thrashing and was stuffed into the pool and only fit after its tail was wrapped around a few times. It was accurately keyed out as an abnormally large hellbender with Peterson’s second edition of A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern/Central North America – the slightly dog-eared copy that lives on the little white shelves next to the computers in the Sikwayi library – not the regular built-in shelves that look like solid wood but are actually that weird flakeboard. OA students added Feeding the Beast to their daily chore list and it has thrived on stale cho-chos and day-old mac and cheese.

Although Smithsonian officials have requested that the gigantic creature come to live at the National Zoo, the all-wise and powerful Eagle’s Nest Executive Council has decided to return the creature to our pond. “Given the fact that we already have Big Lex in the Fishing Pond, it only seemed right to have a gigantic Cryptobranchus alleganiensis to terrify the kiddies in the Swim Pond” stated OA Director Roger Herbert, who knows a thing or two about being amphibious.

T. Wesemann, OA Faculty 

(You know – that gray-bearded guy you always think must be somebody’s grandfather, not a teacher. I mean, how old is he?!)

FEB. 8, 2017

Conflict Resolution 101

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What do you do when you have a disagreement with someone? What if that person was in many of your classes at school, did chores with you, and slept in the bunk next to yours? Learning how to resolve interpersonal conflict is a skill we teach early on at OA. The honeymoon phase only lasts a few weeks, and then it is completely normal for any group to enter into sibling-like behavior, which can include not only great fun and laughter, but also some squabbling and eye-rolling. With principles such as Integrity and Self-Reliance, not to mention a cornerstone of Community, we value timely, compassionate, assertive and empathetic feedback as a way to keep our community healthy and happy.

Last weekend, students learned and then practiced how to give and receive feedback. They learned how to use “I” statements, choose an accurate feeling word, explain why they felt a certain way, and follow it with a request. The finished product might sound something like this: “I felt disrespected tonight when you laughed during my dinner announcement, because I was already nervous and I needed your support. Next time will you please not laugh when I’m speaking in front of the group?” This clear, concise way of communicating allows the speaker to share her or his experience of the situation, while eliminating a blaming, shaming tone usually found in “you” statements. Students also learned how to VOMP, which is a conflict resolution style used for more intense disagreements. VOMPing is a back-and-forth conversation that goes through four steps. The first step is Voice, where one person shares her or his side of the argument, while the other person listens. The second step is for each person to Own her or his part of the argument, acknowledging anything that she or he might have done to add to the disagreement. The third step is to share eMpathy for what the other person experienced, talking through what it might have been like for that person, such as what that person might have been feeling. During the eMpathy step, the discussion usually softens and both participants are allowed the space to feel the vulnerability of the other. Finally, the two participants make a Plan in order to avoid further miscommunications. These are challenging skills to master, but it is our hope to build a culture of feedback and respect during the OA semester by taking the risk to deal with things directly. It is important for students to feel empowered to offer and receive feedback from all members of the community in order for each of us to move towards becoming the best “self” we can be.

Susan Daily, Dean of Students 

SEP. 26, 2016

The Hard Work of Community

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This is my first semester at The Outdoor Academy. I’ll be honest, it’s something I’m self-conscious about at times. I look around me and I am surrounded by an incredible faculty with years of experience as educators and a diverse, rich history here at OA. Sometimes I have questions. “When can students start listening to music in the kitchen?” “What time does study hall end?”

But I have not for one minute since the beginning of semester 43 had a question about this being the right place for me. Every day I wake up, I go to breakfast, and I get to give thanks for being a part of this community. Believe me, it is a community to be grateful for. This is the type of community where we struggle to pick volunteers because there are so many hands up in the air and where students take initiative to plan activities in their free time so nobody is left out. It is the type of community where we celebrate each other’s accomplishments and regularly share our appreciation for each other.

Despite all of the things our students can boast about, Semester 43 is a community that (like the students) is currently in adolescence. Like anything that is worthwhile is not always easy and it is not always perfect.  One evening, very recently, I was incredibly lucky to be a part of an honest and insightful self-evaluation by Semester 43. Our students sat around a room and shared not only the successes of their group but the areas in which we are currently falling short. People spoke about feeling afraid to speak up and acknowledged that some members of this family of ours aren’t being treated as they should be. Though there were certainly moments of praise, I sat there in awe of how willing these young people were to acknowledge their downfalls as a group and, more importantly, how genuinely concerned they were about the feelings of their peers.

We are drawn to the good. We so want to see all of the great things that the people around us are doing that we sometimes fail to see our shortcomings. But then sometimes we are lucky enough to be around people who want to be better—people who are committed not only to their own personal growth, but also to the growth of the people around them and the family that they are a part of.

As someone with more connection to the outside world than our students, I am all too familiar with reading the news and being taken by a sense of despair and doubt. But I am lucky. I have come to a place that gives me hope. As was recently mentioned by one of our students, Semester 43 is coming into the world and will have the power to do good. Having meetings like these gives me hope that our students will keep striving to be better, to make their communities better, and to make this world better.

Work Crew Semester 43

Semester 43 Work Crew

Marisa Melnick,  OA Resident 

SEP. 15, 2016

Permutations of Home

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This week, the students are writing their first English paper of the semester. The topic, appropriately, is on understanding the abstract concept of “home,” either through a definition essay or a personal narrative. There is a reason Katie assigns this topic, of course. For many of our students, the idea of “home” is often limited to their primary residence, their town, and their family. To now be faced with a supplementary idea of home can be disruptive to their internal narrative, and homesickness, doubt and reflection are natural byproducts of this transition.

One of the best parts of my job is having weekly check-ins with the students. These last few weeks, I’ve had many conversations with them about home. They share, almost baffled by their own emotions, how they are suddenly missing their siblings, their parents, their friends and their pets. They are surprised by the specificity of the things they miss: a particular dinner, going to the grocery store with their mom, arguing with their little sister, a certain tree in the backyard. These are the nuts and bolts of home, of belonging; these are the things taken for granted until suddenly they are gone. I always smile when I hear these stories, because I know when they return home, it will be with new eyes. Suddenly the luxury of being able to open the refrigerator whenever they want will be a magical experience, as will the comfort of their own bed now that they can compare it to sleeping on the ground for many nights in a row. I know that the return from this journey will be just as full of unexpected revelations as the journey itself.

But for now, we, as a semester, are creating a new permutation of “home.” We are learning how to start and close each day together, how to live and learn and work together and do what needs to be done. We are figuring out how to build an intentional community, how to communicate with each other honestly and resolve conflict, and how to be vulnerable and take the risk of opening up and sharing who we really are. Yesterday, during our Landscape, Skyscape Cornerstone Day, we found ourselves standing on the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment at Caesars Head State Park. On one side the mountains rose up in a ripple of peaks towards the Blue Ridge Parkway, while on the other side they tumbled down to the flat plains of South Carolina. Ted taught the students about their geological home here at OA, nestled on the edge of a tectonic upheaval. Racheal added a new layer of home to the picture, helping students understand our unique weather patterns that bring us such magnificent thunderstorms. And students are adding their own layers: impromptu Frisbee games on Cabin 7 field, laughing while doing dinner clean-up, singing while shoveling mulch onto trails, holding hands in a moment of silence to give thanks, and, yes, crying on each other’s shoulders when they are feeling homesick. As this new home forms in their minds and hearts, it will not diminish the home they have left behind. Rather, they will begin to learn the important life skill of being able to hold multiple permutations of home in their heart at the same time, giving thanks for all the variances and challenges each one offers. Home is safety. Home is acceptance. Home is belonging. Home is laughter. Home is…

Susan Tinsley DailyDean of Students