As I arrived at Cove Creek Group Camp, the clearing of the little valley was framed perfectly by the beginnings of fall colors on the trees. The meadow was vast and covered in dew. In the back corner, a group of tents sat nestled by the creek and across the big open meadow, a group of students and teachers engaged in conversation around a fire pit and picnic tables.
There could not have been a more perfect setting for a week titled “Classes in the Field”.
Classes in the Field (CIF) is a long-time OA tradition. Before heading to Cove Creek, I reached out to Ted Wesseman, OA’s founding Director and long-time Natural Science teacher. The way Ted tells it, “I proposed an academic version of OA’s outdoor skills programs, suggesting a circuit through the Smokies for a week of natural history and literature and local culture. By the time we worked through our goals and logistics, it emerged on the semester schedule as a week at a basecamp, first in Cataloochee Valley and now at Cove Creek in Pisgah Forest. All in our community are encouraged to offer a class or skill or workshop to share.”
Today, CIF is a four day experience filled with classes on ethics, songs around a campfire, day hikes through Pisgah, and an incredible range of skill shares.
As I made my presence known, I was greeted by welcoming arms and fast-paced stories from many students at once. They had just finished up an introduction to ethics with former head of school, Roger Herbert, and were about to focus on environmental ethics. I was excited to get to sit in on it.
As everyone gathered back around the fire pit, OA English teacher Chelsea Staunton began reading a passage on environmental ethics that had every student quiet and engaged from the start. As the reading ended, Chelsea posed the question: “How do you think we should live well in a place?” Students were confused and inspired by this question, and thoughtfully began a free write session. a few students were willing to share what they had written. One student said that in order to live well in a place “there must be balance. When do we know when to give or when to receive?” Another student admitted that “in every place I need something different.” Another felt that “a community can be with people or with the wilderness.”
In my opinion, the level of insight these students achieved in such a short amount of time, could only be done in a setting such as Classes in the Field. Not only are the students able to be inspired by the conversations within the classroom, they’re able to be inspired by the classroom itself. As they discussed living well in a place, they were simultaneously building a new community both of learning and of each other.
When I discussed this with Colleen, OA’s Dean of Students, she agreed. “When students come into campus, everything is established. Now we’re in a place where they can create something and decide how their group interacts with each other. They’re still learning their group identity. This space helps to foster that and gets them out of their comfort zone.” You could tell that as easily as students were willing to share their ideas, their dynamic was getting stronger with every day spent at Cove Creek.
After they shared their writing, the students broke into groups and rotated through the field at stations hosted by different faculty members. Each station had a few readings on environmental ethics. I rotated through the stations as well, beginning at Chelsea’s. As she passed out her readings to the students she explained, “we’re talking about it [environmental ethics] because it hasn’t been solved.” The students at every station seemed to be fully content reading the material given to them. Most left the sessions wishing there had been time to discuss the readings and wanting to ask more questions.
When I arrived at the last station, Emily, OA’s dean of academics and natural science teacher, was leading a lively discussion about readings the students had seen before. Students were taking turns sharing writing that they found beautiful, and going back to the previous question of how to live well in a place. One student added the thought, “to live well in a place, you have to notice it.” As they continued reading and annotating, their discussion morphed into talking about their favorite books and how much they enjoyed annotation.
Later, I discussed the benefit Classes in the Field had towards learning as a whole with dean of academics, Emily Northrop. She told me “Learning at OA is already fun and different, but Classes in the Field adds a new level of buy in. We completely create a new community out here and it builds motivation. It’s just pure engagement for the fun of learning. It’s less academics and more the sense of mystery. It’s magical.”
Being an alum of OA, I knew exactly what Emily was talking about. The things I remembered most from Classes in the Field were the things that were the most immersive, that I’ve never had a chance to do again. As he took the time to set up lunch for the students, I had the chance to reminisce on my own Classes in the Field with Roger, who was head of school when I was a student. It was interesting that we both had the same core memory of the time. We talked about how we had walked out to an old graveyard in Cataloochee, where Classes in the Field used to be held, and we sang songs and the sky was filled with stars, and many were shooting. We walked back to our campsite that night in a silent reflection. I don’t remember many of the details from that night, but I know I’ll always remember how the stars looked.
As Roger and I continued our conversation he told me why it was such an important place to teach. “It’s one thing to be at OA, but any time you’re away from school you have the ability to step into that natural world you’re talking about… Classes in the Field is always different, and something will happen that has never happened before and won’t ever happen again.”
This seems to be true with this group as well. Never again will this group of nineteen students come together on a beautiful, early fall day to play a game of kickball or swim in the nearby creek.
Classes in the Field itself has gone through many variations over the years, from its origins in Cataloochee with roaming elk and deep history, to here at Cove Creek, where students are allowed an up-close view of what it means to be immersed in Pisgah National Forest.
Even after so many years, it’s evident that Ted’s vision is still true. As he describes it, “thinking and doing can be work, but sometimes just setting the stage is all it takes, and this is where OA’s Classes in the Field excels.”
To me, spending time at Cataloochee as a student, and coming back to Cove Creek years later, I can easily see how the stage was set in both places. It’s hard not to get excited about learning in a space that inherently teaches you about yourself.
While the students at Cove Creek had some free time, I was able to ask OA faculty members how spending time away from academic classes ends up helping their academics. Sydney, OA’s math teacher, described how “being out here helps them develop a love for learning that they bring back to their regular classes. We’re here for the point of learning.” Chelsea added on that “this will do nothing but enhance what we’re doing on campus. Mornings expand on past classes, and afternoons are case studies.” By case studies, Chelsea is talking about the workshops students get to participate in for the afternoons of Classes in the Field. Today, those workshops included The Ethics of War, Appalachian Cooking, Salsa Dancing, Embroidery, Calligraphy, and Wood Carving.
As I packed up to leave for the day, the students were faced with picking which of these sessions they would attend. It was clear to me that even though they may be taking a break from algebra and essays, they were learning things that would stick with them for the rest of their lives. I said my goodbyes to all the students and faculty at Classes in the Field as they were taking advantage of the sunshine to swim in the creek. In a mere ten minutes they would start their afternoon sessions, and yet they won’t be late at all by spending a few more minutes soaking up the sunshine and sliding down rocks with their friends, as well as their mentors, continuing to make memories, connections, and likely, the best learning environment possible.