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MAY. 8, 2019

Spring Banquet

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It is hard to believe that we are in our final days of Semester 48. Exams, final projects, and honors presentations are in the books, and we are now in the midst of what we call Transition Week. Final work crews have spent the past couple of mornings cleaning up campus, and students have participated in a variety of transition-related workshops. This evening, they will head into our campus woods to reflect on these past four months over a two-night solo experience. Students are putting the final touches on beautiful handmade projects ahead of Friday evening’s final dinner and Giving Night celebration. As is always the case at The Outdoor Academy, our days have been jam-packed, but faculty spent much of the semester planning a special surprise to kick off Transition Week: Spring Banquet.

The concept was simple: students would spend the day creating everything—and I mean everything—by hand and from scratch to put on a celebratory banquet that evening. The food, the decorations, and even the tables would be the product of a hard day’s work. The execution of such a feat as putting on a dinner for forty people after starting at square one was much more challenging, but students dove into that challenge with vigor after hearing about the plans at breakfast.

As I walked around Nature Hill and the New Lodge observing students and faculty hard at work and jumping in to help how I could, I simply couldn’t contain the glee and giddiness I felt at seeing our experiment take shape. Students were cleaning out sections of bamboo for cups and hand-carving forks and chopsticks with knives that they had made in Crafts class earlier in the semester. They used hand planes to smooth large oak planks that would soon be assembled into tables. Chickens sizzled as they roasted on spits over long beds of hardwood fires built with wood that students had split and stacked on previous work crews. Bread dough rose in the sun while students boiled down fresh strawberries for jam and shook mason jars vigorously to make butter. Another group made fresh pasta and pesto from scratch with the founder of OA and a faculty spouse. Students explored campus, picking flowers for table decorations and learning about the wild edibles they collected for salads and brewing tea. A group sat humming and enjoying the sunshine while making ice cream and hollowing out oranges that would serve as the baking vessels for brownies. Everywhere I looked, cook fires sprung up as more dishes started to take shape, and the air was thick with wonderful aromas, songs, and laughter.

After about ten hours of work, interrupted only by a quick pause for lunchtime burritos delivered by Rick, we circled up around a ring of seven new low tables, heard from each group about the items they had produced, gave thanks, and sat down in the grass to dig in.

The. Food. Was. Amazing.

I have eaten in Michelin-starred restaurants, I’ve watched every season of Top Chef, and I like to think of myself as fairly handy around a grill or in the kitchen. For my money, though, this was a once-in-a-lifetime meal. Hard work makes everything taste better, and the hours and effort that went into this meal were astonishing. Food experienced amidst beauty tastes better, and there could not have been a more perfect setting than a grassy field under blue skies on a warm spring evening. Food cooked and shared with those you love tastes better, and at the end of a semester, you’d be hard-pressed to find an assemblage of young people who appreciate each other more than a group of OA students.

For me, however, the true beauty of the Spring Banquet was how much the event encapsulated so many of the underlying principles that we hold dear as a school. We lived simply by assembling modest ingredients into tasty dishes. We were self-reliant by producing virtually everything we needed on our own, right down to the utensils with which we ate. We showed gratitude by thanking one another profusely for each other’s part in making the meal come together. It took an incredible amount of work ethic collectively to pull off such a feast from scratch. We crafted each piece of the banquet by approaching each task with intention, deliberateness, and precision. We appreciated our environment by immersing ourselves in its beauty and enjoying its bounty. Despite classes being over, students were still curious and learning still took place as teachers helped facilitate the experience. More than anything, Spring Banquet was a celebration of our community as we came together under blue skies to enjoy each other’s company.

Though students’ Cold Mountain papers and math tests have been behind them for a few days, learning is still happening at The Outdoor Academy. The purpose of OA isn’t simply to take the same old classes in a different place. Rather, we ask students to expand their conception of what school can be, and Semester 48 has bought in to the idea that their classrooms, lessons, and assessments can take many forms. Spring Banquet was very much a final exam, and students passed in the most delicious of fashions.

By Glenn DeLaney

APR. 17, 2019

Camping, Climbing, Clock-Free, and CRAZY

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Semester 48 just completed our longest wilderness block of the semester—three days paddling or climbing, followed by two days of on-campus programming that included planning out student-led treks, embarking on the five-day student-led trek, and finally ending with five days base camping in Pisgah National Forest for Classes in the Field.

Spending a swath of time in the forest—looking up and seeing the thread of Blue Ridge Mountains taut against the skyline—creates a connection among students and place, builds confidence in backcountry skills, and allows for a different state of mind to emerge. Students shared that some of the best elements of the experience were to have “no thought about assignments and tasks to be completed… and not worry about all the ‘stuff.’ ” Others shared an appreciation for the freedom of living out of a single backpack, just “having what was there” and nothing more. And there was much rallying around the experience of going “clock-free” during one of our days of Classes in the Field, in which we navigated our day of classes and meals by watching the sun itself, not glancing at the tyrannical face of the digital watch.

Each group on student-led trek planned their own route and menu for the week. Each day, they were responsible for navigation, camp set-up and breakdown, facilitating evening activities and debrief, and continuing to deepen bonds with each other. Each student brought back wild stories of mini-parties on Pilot Mountain, wading in translucent mountain lakes, watching sunsets on Black Balsam, making pizza dough in the field, and working together as a team. Student-led trek is, for many of our students, the most valued week of the entire semester. It is the opportunity to practice the community and wilderness skills learned thus far and give meaning to the topography and trail names seen on the map. That doable-looking bushwhacking route? It is now an adventurous memory of steep cliff and extra miles, Type 2 fun at its finest.

Classes in the Field, five days in base camping with faculty, is the expression of the integrated, experiential learning our school aspires to create. This semester, students hiked directly into our campsite, the final destination for all trek routes. We used Pisgah National Forest as our text, traveling through time, exploring the ways the forest is and has been managed and settled. We immersed ourselves in this place, our backyard of The Outdoor Academy, and considered through experience the (false) dichotomy of humans and nature. Students said their favorite parts of this week included an opinion-changing conversation with two members of the forestry service about logging, a long solo walk under the stars at night, a meditation class on origins, and a session on “creeking.” But there is always the unplanned-for memories that can be most exciting: mud-sliding in the rain, seeing a snake, and, of course, “that one day when we slid down a rock and sat in the field together and ate banana bread.” Learning is an act of community, and community building is a foundation of learning.

By Katie Harris

APR. 1, 2019

Happy Trails, Semester 48!

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Well, things have taken an interesting turn at The Outdoor Academy. Semester 48 students have decided that they have learned all they can learn here in Pisgah Forest and are ready to take this show on the road. Amidst planning for this week’s Student Led Trek, during which faculty take a back seat and let the students do all the work, a group of ambitious teens decided that five days in Pisgah National Forest was not enough. After hearing about Eagle Nest Employee Marlin Sill’s plans to through-hike the 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, Semester 48 decided to drop out and hit the trail with him. Students made faculty aware of their decision during post-lunch announcements on Friday.

With an early-April start at the Mexican border just south of Campo, California, it takes about five months to hike the PCT. Students would like their parents to inform sending school that they may or may not be back in time for the start of the fall semester (depending on snowpack in the high Sierra Nevada when they hit that section of trail in June). They’ll get there when they can, but it might be a few weeks late.

Eagle’s Nest Development Director and PCT through-hike alum Cara Varney is pitching in to help students with their pre-hike gear shakedowns and logistics. Varney said, “I spent nearly six months planning my PCT through-hike. There are a lot of details to take care of with resupplies, but OA values simple living, so I’m sure the students will be fine.”

When asked about whether or not he played any role in encouraging the students’ decision to leave OA, Marlin said that he had mentioned his plans in the dorm during shifts as back-up resident on Wednesday nights: “I mean, I told them about the PCT and what it was like to through-hike a long distance trail. They were excited about my hike, but this was all them.” Sill noted that OA does a great job of teaching leadership skills, so the students quickly took ownership of the scheme. “Some of the Spontaneous Motivators in the group initially got people excited, but it was the Analyst-Architects who really started putting plans together.”

OA Director Glenn DeLaney was caught off-guard by the students’ announcement on Friday: “I was just sitting there during post-lunch announcements having enjoyed some falafel and baba ghanoush, and I was about to raise my hand to remind students to stop leaving apple cores around campus. Then this came out of nowhere.” DeLaney noted that OA does, indeed, turn more and more responsibility for the leadership of the experience over to students as the semester progresses. He added, “So, I guess my hands are tied? Sorry parents!”

Longtime faculty member Ted Wesemann said that this type of thing happens from time to time at OA. “Yes, this whole PCT thing brings to mind Semester 18. They jumped ship and made their way to Springer Mountain, GA to start the Appalachian Trail. Then, there was Semester 33. They got it in their heads that they were going to start an organic beet farm and hand-carved spoon co-op. I think they’ve still got that going over toward Maggie Valley.”

Students are still working out some of the details, but their current plan is to hitchhike to Southern California.

MAR. 27, 2019

Let There Be Songs to Fill the Air

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“All I ever need is a song in my heart
Food in my belly
And love in my family.
All I ever need is a song in my heart
And love in my family.”

So go the lyrics to one of the numerous songs that Outdoor Academy students and faculty sing before one of Rick and Lupe’s delicious meals. We gather in a circle around the dining hall, join hands, and make announcements before the leader of the day chooses a song. Semester 48 is into singing…they belt out the tunes with gusto, swinging arms and stomping feet. And it’s not just before meals that we sing. We start our days with a song as part of Morning Watch, and we end our evenings with a song at Goodnight Circle. Cheoah, our music room, is a popular spot to hang out, practice instruments, or spin some of our old record collection. Each student brings to OA with them a USB drive or CD with a mix of their music, which provides tunes for post-meal kitchen cleanup crews. Even just walking across campus, I often hear voices harmonizing and melodies wafting across Cabin Seven field from a pair of friends singing on the Wayah Porch. Song is a big part of life at OA.

I will admit that my first meal during my on-campus interview took me by surprise as students grabbed each of my hands and hollered the lyrics to “Left Hind Leg of a Rabbit” before sitting down to lunch, but it quickly becomes second nature to sing at OA. As we approach our 25th year, I often reflect on all of the little traditions and rituals that I notice day to day at The Outdoor Academy, wondering if they have been around since the beginning. Having spent this past summer getting ready for OA during Eagle’s Nest Camp, which is coming up on its 92nd summer, it is clear that songs—and the joy found in singing them—have long played a central role in what we do.

Some of the songs are funny and some are sweet. We welcome students to add their own songs to our repertoire, and each semester seems to settle in on some of its favorites…Semester 47 was big on “What Falls in the Fall?” (leaves and temperatures). Many of our songs, like “All I Ever Need,” espouse key principles of OA like simple living. Others celebrate the mountains in which we live or the community of which we are a part. Some songs are just plain silly, and it’s wonderful to watch high school students embrace them.

On Monday evening, we were lucky to have guest musicians on campus for our weekly Community Meeting. We were treated to an hour and a half concert by George and Andy Pond on bass and banjo. The Pond Brothers are Eagle’s Nest Camp alums and relatives of a current OA student, and they have been fixtures in the Asheville-area music scene for twenty years (several teachers were familiar with their band, Snake Oil Medicine Show, from our younger days). They played traditional standards, their own brand of “bluegrastafari” reggae-infused banjo tunes, and even a Venezuelan waltz. Students jumped up and danced raucously, and some—tentatively at first and then with more confidence—retrieved instruments from their cabins and sat in with the band. At one point, the Pond Brothers were joined by students on guitar, ukulele, fiddle, and vocals. The last half hour of the show found us breaking out the Eagle’s Nest Song Book and thumbing through pages to request Camp and OA classics.

It is clear that music plays a key role in this community. It brings us together, making our voices one and reminding us of values we embrace at OA. In a school in which we ask students to forego many of their familiar forms of entertainment, like social media and video games, music is a necessary outlet for stress relief and fun. The quality of one’s singing voice does not matter; rather, it is the willingness to embrace this aspect of OA’s culture and traditions that’s important.
In the final moments before students depart OA at the end of the semester, the community comes together with tears in their eyes to share in one last rendition of “Sweet Winds.” At the conclusion of my first semester, this was a powerful and poignant moment, looking around the room at faces that had grown dear to the OA faculty as they poured themselves into the beautiful music, so representative of the power of the place that we occupy here in the mountains. Bless my soul!

By Glenn DeLaney

MAR. 20, 2019

Scientific Method Lab Day

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We love science!  We are excited about asking questions and exploring the natural world, yet we have also found that scientific research can feel daunting and inaccessible.  We decided to address this by giving students the opportunity to conduct scientific research with a focus on delving into personal interests, creating realistic and relevant experiments, and using hands-on science as a means of connecting with the natural world.

As two young educators with backgrounds in earth and environmental sciences, we were eager to share our enthusiasm for the scientific method and curiosity about our surroundings with our students. After speaking with Ted, our Natural Science teacher, about how we could fit more experiential learning into our science curriculum at The Outdoor Academy, we decided to plan a Lab Day on the scientific method.  Using the six steps of the scientific method as a framework, we designed a morning of experimenting throughout the forests, lakes, and streams of our campus.

Before conducting their experiments, students asked a question about the relationship between two measurable factors in the natural world. Using these questions as a starting point, students designed experiments that ranged in topics from dissolved oxygen content in still versus moving water to the density of amphibious creatures on a transect of the swimming lake to the mineral content of different soil types. As students stomped through the muddy bottom of the drained swimming lake or collected soil samples from beneath rhododendron bushes, there was a sense of excitement surrounding each new discovery, despite the pouring rain.

Throughout the day, we emphasized the significance of communication in science.  We discussed the importance of sharing data and conclusions so that scientific research is accessible and useful.  Additionally, each group worked through their own challenges with dividing up group work and coming up with the best way to present their findings. While students navigated working as a group, we engaged in conversations about giving feedback and using leadership skills that students have practiced on campus and in the field.

After several hours of data collection and analysis, each group of students designed a poster to present their findings in a mini science fair held in the Sun Lodge. Students proudly shared their findings with their mentors as OA faculty members walked around and asked questions.  Our goal for this Lab Day was to have students walk away feeling excited about the natural world and inspired to answer their own questions. While we do not expect or want all our students to become research scientists, we enjoyed watching them look at their surroundings in a different way, and hope that they walk away with enthusiasm for what science can be.

By Hannah Ryde and Madison Atterbury, Resident Wilderness Educators

JAN. 28, 2019

OA Woods Day

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”   -Henry David Thoreau

This sentence, first published in Walden; Or Life in the Woods in 1854, has since become profoundly famous. Thoreau’s experiment in simple living on the shores of Walden Pond has earned him a place in the American philosophical and literary canons, and many accolades as an early figure in the environmentalist movement. These words also served as the inspiration for our first lab day of Semester 48, offering up a guiding question for an afternoon of interdisciplinary learning and intellectual inquiry. Lab days at OA provide an opportunity for teachers to collaborate and coordinate to create lessons that would otherwise overflow the boundaries prescribed by their individual disciplines. It allows us to put together creative lesson plans that incorporate ideas and themes from across the range of courses taught at OA in order to engage the students in synthetic and holistic ways of thinking.

On this past Friday, the students headed out into the woods to reflect on the natural space that surrounds our campus through the lenses of science and philosophy, materiality and spirituality. The afternoon began with a discussion on the distinctions between wilderness, nature, and civilization. How do we draw these lines? Are they as clear and precise as we are often inclined to think? This inquiry then led into a lesson on biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson’s theory of biophilia, and the numerous ways in which humans relate or affiliate to the natural world. While Katie worked on giving the students tools to understand the ways in which they interact with the biosphere — morally, symbolically, aesthetically, scientifically etc… — myself, Ted, and the residents scampered deeper into the woods. Thirty minutes later, the students rejoined us, but instead of finding their teachers, they found Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and Rebecca Solnit, waiting to talk to them.

Impersonating some of our favorite intellectuals from the last two centuries was great fun, and gave the students the opportunity to ask us directly about the material they had been thinking about in class. During the week leading up to this lab day, all of the OA students had read essays and excerpts from each of these thinkers, encountering their ideas and philosophies through the medium of the written word. To suddenly be able to ask these individuals direct questions presented an odd and unusual opportunity for our students, and created an interesting challenge for the faculty as educators. How can we confidently or responsibly answer questions as though we were in fact someone else? How are we to embody or enact the beliefs of others who we ourselves have only learned about by way of the written word? We did our best to be faithful to these thinkers and to engage in a productive dialogue that provoked some critical thinking in our students.

The students then had two hours to sit and reflect on their own experiences. It was a beautiful afternoon in Pisgah Forest last Friday, and we spread the students out around the woods near our campus to sit and enjoy the bright blue sky, the cold winter air, and the opportunity to consider why they found themselves here. One of our foundational principles at The Outdoor Academy is simple living. Just as Thoreau set out to build his cabin at Walden Pond in order to discover the essential facts of life, we ask our students to show up to our campus and live their lives for a few months without the distraction of cell phones and internet, to strip away the excess from their lives in order to more effectively find what is most necessary and vital to becoming who they already are. The experience of sitting by yourself in the forest and being brought into confrontation with your own feelings of boredom can act as a catalyst for all kinds of internal realizations and personal growth: the kind of learning that has nothing to do with classroom instruction.

As our lab day came to a close, the students were grateful to return to the warmth of the Sun Lodge and to take hot showers in their dorms, but also seemed to have enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on themselves and their surroundings, their past and their present. It is still early in Semester 48, but already the eagerness to learn and to grow as a community and as individuals that these young students feel is becoming evident, and can be felt atmospherically amongst the faculty. Our next lab day will take place February 8. I am eager to see the students dive into it with the same verve that I saw last Friday.

-Nolan Bishop, OA English Teacher and Wilderness Educator