Check back for the latest posts about life, academics, culture, and great stories from The Outdoor Academy. Subscribe to our blog’s RSS feed and get our news sent directly to you as we post it.

 (You might need to install a browser extension or plugin to read the RSS feed directly from your browser.)
FEB. 15, 2016

World History with Ted – The Presidential Campaign

Bookmark and Share
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

NOV. 10, 2015

Rethinking Identity, Prejudice and Privilege.

Bookmark and Share
Polly Averette, US History and French Teacher

Students spent the morning of Diversity Cornerstone Day, November 6 in workshops that created opportunities to rethink and experience different perceptions of identity, stereotypes, prejudice and privilege.

Activities of the first half of the morning highlighted the impact of identity markers and allowed students to feel what it means to be inside and outside the “normal.” They discussed obvious and not so obvious characterizations of identity groups that touched on majority and minority, wealthy and impoverished, power and privilege, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity. They were encouraged to speak honestly from their own experience and to focus on listening quietly to each other. Even if the process was uncomfortable, students worked to define where stereotype markers come from and how they put pressure on “in” groups to conform to irresponsible behavior.

During the second half of the morning students discussed the invisibility of privilege to those who have unearned advantages and the emotional, psychological, social and economic damage to those left out of privilege. Activities were designed to illuminate the advantages of privilege, define earned and unearned privilege, and help students understand privilege, earned and unearned, in their own lives. Students concluded the morning experiencing different challenging situations and discussing how to use and influence others to use social power and privilege positively. They addressed the choices of joining the oppression, remaining non-committing bystanders or showing moral courage.

Lunch was a surprise Hunger Banquet. The largest group of students received a small bowl of rice, no utensils and sat on the floor. A few students received rice and beans, a spoon only and no condiments. The smallest group received a large delicious full meal served on a beautifully set table. Debrief included questions about fairness and feelings.

work crew 2

Students spent the afternoon in Community Centers in town working on a variety of service, revitalization and environmental projects. This semester’s OA students realize they have power and are set to be leaders. Their many questions are directed toward how they are going to use that power. The Cornerstone Friday on Diversity helped get their thoughts focused in meaningful directions.

Polly Averette, US History and French Teacher

FEB. 2, 2015

Food Cornerstone Day 

Bookmark and Share
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.

Food Blog 2

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.

Food Blog 3

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

SEP. 4, 2014

Leading the Way

Bookmark and Share

“Adasahede” is a word you will often hear at The Outdoor Academy. It is how we identify our Leader of the Day; a role that students fulfill throughout the semester giving them a chance to practice their leadership skills, guide the community, and ensure that the day’s events run smoothly. For some students this is a comfortable and familiar role. Perhaps they already serve in leadership positions at home like captaining a sports team, acting in student government, or even being the eldest child in their family. For others this is a completely new endeavor. Taking on the responsibility of leading a community of their peers and even just carrying the title of “Leader” can be a daunting and nerve-racking experience the first time!

That is exactly why we have the Adasahede role at OA. We believe that each opportunity we can give students to step out of their comfort zone and into the limelight (or the front of the Sun Lodge dining hall) is a chance for them to grow beyond what they believe they are capable of.  We allow them to explore different leadership styles throughout the semester and challenge our students to lead in the manner that will best support the needs of the community around them. In the wisdom of Kurt Hahn, a founding educator of Outward Bound:

“There is more in us than we know. If we could be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.”

One of my favorite traditions at OA is the passing of the Adasahede role. After dinner tables have been cleared and announcements completed, the current Adasahede is tasked with choosing a member of the community to fulfill that role the following day. It is someone whom they have observed to be a positive role model, makes extra efforts to help with daily tasks, and supports the needs of their Cabin and community. Not only must they choose the next day’s Adasahede, they must share their choice in a creative and innovative way each time. We have heard original poems and songs, solved riddles, played board games, watched magic tricks, and participated in dramatic skits just to find out who tomorrow’s Adasahede will be. The performances can be funny, heartfelt, silly, dramatic, or touching…but always original.

This week Franklin, our male Resident Wilderness Leader, was tasked with choosing the first student Adasahede of the semester. He began by describing the book he was holding: Endurance. It is the inspirational story of Ernest Shackleton whose incredible leadership kept his 27 person crew alive while their ship was stranded for 20 months on an Antarctic ice shelf. Franklin shared three quotes from Endurance that he felt described his choice for Adasahede:

“To him, Shackleton was a cheery happy chief who was leading his men in a great and splendid adventure.”

“To keep up the spirits of the men, Shackleton now worked as I had never seen him work before.

“During our next conference, Shackleton with characteristic foresight, began talking of the preparations we should make against the time when the ship would be no more.”

Although we are a community of students, not sailors, Franklin felt that these descriptions truly captured the unrelenting positive attitude and impressive work ethic of our first student Adasahede: Jack Swinson. 

Congratulations Jack! We are so proud to have you at the helm of our ship for Semester 39.

Lindsay Martin
Admissions Director




APR. 4, 2014

Making (Changing) Plans

Bookmark and Share

If you want to make Mother Nature laugh, make a plan. Last weekend, I learned a lesson in the necessity of flexibility alongside the students of the Outdoor Academy. We had planned for a weekend of paddling the French Broad River, but Mother Nature had her own plans.  We responded to them with flexibility. We adapted to our environment. We made a better trip than we’d originally planned.

On the first day of our trip the weather wasn’t ideal, but it was manageable, and we managed to have a lot of fun. Overnight, however, the cold crept in, and by morning the weather was so crisp that we decided not to paddle. When presented with an awesome opportunity like paddling, people can tend to act out of scarcity—“I won’t have this chance tomorrow, so I better take it today”—and they might accept less-than-ideal circumstances in exchange for a chance at a rare experience.  But risk management is about making tough decisions, and it just was not worth risking anyone’s safety for our desire to paddle.

Accepting our cancelled plans, we searched for the best way to use our time; we wondered what we could do to show our values to others and to remind ourselves of who we want to be. Jack, the co-leader of our trip, mentioned that we don’t always have the opportunity to serve our community as much as we’d like. He was right—all week we’d been noticing how dirty the French Broad was and how much trash was washed up on the shores.  But instead of just remarking on how dirty it was, we decided to start making things better.

So we split up into groups: one group went down the riverbanks collecting trash, while the other group stayed at the campsite. You see, our campsite was at the top of an 8-foot bank which was dangerously slippery from rain. We had to walk up and down this bank to get to and from our campsite, and because a lot of other outdoor programs use this site as well, we decided to help manage the risk to our own group and future visitors by building a few stairs. Not only would stairs decrease the risk of slipping, but it could potentially help prevent erosion to the environment by establishing a dedicated access point for the campground.

So the builders used Jack’s pinkit (a kit of tools like saws, carabineers, prusiks, and webbing which is used to help boats clear the river of obstacles) to form stairs of 3-foot-long pieces of driftwood, using river rocks to drive smaller limbs into the ground like pegs and packing dirt all around. Meanwhile, the collectors gathered a 3-foot-by-4-foot pile of trash that consisted of everything from 5 gallon buckets, milk jugs, plastic bottles, and old toys.  In fact, we’d collected so much trash it wouldn’t even fit it into all of our spare 55-gallon trash bags; we had to return with our gear bins and drag it back to the van.

As we were all reminded this weekend, we can’t control what happens, but we can control how we respond to those things. Indeed, this is what The Outdoor Academy is all about.  Each and every one of the students rose to the challenge—not one complained about picking up trash, and everyone was excited to help make this environment better. So let’s all strive to manage our attitudes in adversity; let’s all strive to make our environment, our communities, and our Academy a better place.

Derek Jacobs
Resident Wilderness Educator

FEB. 14, 2014

Choosing Love

Bookmark and Share

The eight inches of snow on campus inspired me to revisit Thoreau’s “The Pond in Winter.” Walden Pond, not your average cow bathtub, measures over a hundred feet deep, inspiring Thoreau to write, “What if all ponds were shallow? Would it not react on the minds of men? I am thankful that this pond was made deep and pure for a symbol. While men believe in the infinite, some ponds will be thought to be bottomless.” Our landscapes actively shape our view of both the tangible and intangible worlds, to be sure.

For me, some further words by Thoreau linked our own quite shallow, quite frozen settling ponds on campus to the holiday: “Ice is an interesting subject for contemplation. They told me that they had some in the icehouses at Fresh Pond five years old which was as good as ever. Why is it that a bucket of water soon becomes putrid, but frozen remains sweet forever? It is commonly said that this is the difference between the affections and the intellect.” So much for Thoreau’s love life.

Valentine’s Day sometimes feels driven by consumerism—the expectation of chocolate, roses, and stuffed animals bear down upon us. We make sure to declare our love to romantic interests, or rebel and watch heist movies with our friends at home instead. The corporate intellect has calculated a holiday that invokes mixed emotions in many of us.

Ironically, another aspect of this same intellect has systematically found a way to destroy that which I love deeply—the mixed mesophytic forests across eastern Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Mountain-top removal allows for an efficient way to extract the coal that powers my heater, lights, and appliances at home, but has also eradicated uninterrupted habitats for diverse species, poisoned the water supply for thousands of families, buried the headwaters of hundreds of streams, and threatened the deep love and connection I feel hiking and climbing through these Appalachian ridges. Stories of the coal-cleaning chemical spill near Charleston, WV, the coal ash spill into North Carolina’s Dan River, and the recent coal slurry spill just a few days ago in West Virginia (blackening six miles of Kanawha Creek) fill the news.

For Valentine’s Day, as a celebration of the important relationships in your life, identify what you truly love, and I suspect it will be a passion that extends beyond manufactured sweets and hothouse flowers. Some thoughtful students on campus are surprising our community with handmade valentines, and I hope to do the same. But I’ll also be writing my senators and representatives about my love of mountains.

Katie Harris
Dean of Academics, English Teacher, & Wilderness Staff