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MAR. 26, 2021

“We Are Semester School Teachers”: An OA Faculty Roundtable (Part 2)

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Last week, we caught up with four of our amazing faculty members to learn about their experiences as faculty at multiple schools within the Semester School Network. As one of the founding members of this unique consortium of experiential high school programs, OA is honored to work closely with the SSN in many ways. 

If you haven’t had a chance to read Part 1 of this discussion, or Julie’s post about the 2019 semester school study from the University of Utah, check them out! 

In this second installment of the Faculty Roundtable, Chelsea, Emily, Nish and Jeffrey discuss what makes OA unique among experiential schools (hint: our four cornerstones make an appearance!) and what they would tell prospective students who are just beginning their admissions journey. 

 

What makes semester school education different? Why should a student consider leaving their sending school for a semester at OA? 

Nish: For me the vibe is what’s different, especially at OA with technology. Imagine walking into a building here and there’s a bunch of kids Facetiming a friend or complaining about wifi – it would be so weird! I think that lack of technology really contributes to that ability to be present here and that group bonding. 

Emily: And that is so valuable for so many students. At the end of the day, I think it really is about finding the best school fit for each student. 

Jeffrey: So some schools you go to just to do research or go backpacking. That’s what they do, and it’s unique and awesome for the right student, and they do it well. 

Emily: Whereas here we do community, and we do it really, really well. The CIRCLES curriculum, that also strikes me as unique. [referring to OA Dean of Students Susan Daily’s Community, Identity, Relationships, Communication, Leadership, and Ethics seminar]

Nish: Totally! I’ve only seen small snippets of that curriculum in my own life – like in college, or other jobs, or study abroad. Susan’s curriculum feels by far the most complete and fine-tuned. It’s amazing that she’s created that. 

Emily: I think our style of classes and that lack of technology in the classroom sets us apart, too, more so than just the students not having access to the internet. For example, today in my math class, one of my students said, “Wait, I get it, it’s like being on trek! You’re not going to just give me the answer.” And I was like, “Yes! That’s it!” 

Jeffrey: That’s awesome! 

Emily: Right? So that constant student ownership in everything, both in academics and in the field, that’s critical. 

 

How do you see OA as unique among semester schools?

Emily: I would say it’s absolutely our small size, and what I always call the warmth of this place. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but there’s a warmth in our community and what we draw from [Eagle’s Nest Camp]. It’s the singing at meals and the discussions at community meetings…I’m not sure how else to put it! 

Chelsea: A lot of schools talk about community, but we can actually do community. If you have 50+ students, many more faculty, it doesn’t get to the same level of depth that we do here. That is far and away one of our strengths.

Jeffrey: And we are really good about making that small community mesh. So, we don’t shy away from “storming” [from Tuckman’s stages of group development] because we’re getting to that level of deep friendships. 

Nish: Also, for me, Craft really stands out at OA. So few places teach traditional crafts in the way that OA does. The significance we put on it, the whole tradition of Giving Day… 

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s so true!

Chelsea: Craft is so unique, and it extends the hands-on learning and character development in such a cool way. You really have to learn how to fail, and then come back and try again. You’re not just waking up one day as a confident person, and craft is one of those key spaces that allow students to fail in a supportive environment and then try again and eventually succeed. 

Emily: Our language of Craft also infuses everything we do. I find I’m pulling on it more every semester, pulling it into classes and realizing just how incredibly powerful the whole concept is of doing things well and with intention. And that’s the reason Craft is one of OA’s Cornerstones!

 

What is the most important thing a prospective student should know about the semester school experience? 

Jeffrey: The intensity of these programs. They’re designed to be one semester. They’re designed to really challenge you in some way. All the challenges look different, but not any of them are “easy.” And I don’t say that to scare you away. I really love it when students know it’s going to be challenging and are embracing it. Because that means they’re ready. They’re in that mindset to grow. When I get a student who says, “I’m deciding to accept a challenge” in coming here, or in my class, or when backpacking, I know that kid is ready for anything. 

Nish: I think Jeffrey put it really well there. Also, there tends to be a lot of simplification of the experience, which I understand. I see some students, before coming, say “Oh, I want to go to school in the woods.” But I hope that doesn’t undercut the depth of experience and the values that are actually being provided. So, I would ask students and their families to be intentional about the huge value of this decision. 

Emily: More than just “Oh, this is just going to be fun.”

Jeffrey: Exactly. I love fun as a byproduct of it! Obviously it’s going to be fun too, because this is definitely not “traditional” school. 

Chelsea: Right. OA is a school where you can come and we’re going to nurture the whole person. We’re going to try to push you to own your learning in a very hands-on way. You’ll be hard-pressed to find things that aren’t applicable to real life here.

Emily: It makes me think about [former Eagle’s Nest Foundation Director and OA founder] Helen Waite’s statement of “This is a school that will use all of you.” That’s so powerful, and I think that all of the semester schools do that. So, if you want to go to a school that uses all of you, transforms all parts of you, then come on over! We’d love to have you. 

Ready for your Outdoor Academy semester school journey to begin? Apply today!

By Katie Rowlett, OA Admissions Counselor