Because Experience Does Matter
Sara Konek, 7th Grade Dean

By Sara Konek, Middle School Faculty and 7th Grade Dean

It’s September again, and right as the back-to-school business reaches a crescendo, the seventh grade sets down laptops and planners, laces up hiking boots and journeys to the shores of Lake Crescent in the Olympic National Park. We do this every year. We break stride just as we are getting familiar with our class schedules and locker combinations—trading these for the trails of the rainforest—and we do this very intentionally.

Part of the plan is to try to catch the tail-end of summer’s good weather, but more importantly, to experience a different kind of education. We step out of our familiar “comfort zones” and focus ourselves on building a new community together as we begin another year.  

Our experiential educational class trips in the middle school mean just what they sound like; we are continuing work on our curricular goals, but we are engaging with them in novel ways and interactive settings. We explore geology basics, such as erosion, by conducting rock angularity studies at different elevations and along the banks of Barnes Creek.  We listen to a tribal elder tell stories and share her hand-made examples of the local S’Klallam culture; and we learn how the giant cedar trees around us represent life in all aspects, from spiritual to economic basics, for the native peoples of the area. We discover how the Olympic Mountains formed by examining the shape of the glacier-carved valley around us and retracing the journey of the rocks we pick up at our feet. We are up-close and personal with the science, history and spirit of the Pacific Northwest; and we have time to pause and reflect on our connections within these ideas.

This trip also allows us to practice resilience and risk-taking. From the physical challenge of climbing Mt. Storm King to the personal challenge of being away from home, there is an opportunity for everyone to try something that might feel new and maybe uncomfortable but represents a chance to grow. We go 1,500 feet up in just under 1.5 miles on our mountain hike. This can be a daunting ascent for even those used to outdoor activity, so finding ways that we can help each other succeed and keep morale up is a necessity. Sharing this experience helps us build strength in multiple ways and helps us form connections as we find new things in common with each other.

Placing our class trip at the beginning of the year gives us an important opportunity to think about who we want to be together as a community as we look ahead. Not only does this unique experience allow us to support each other in different ways than we might in a normal week at school, but it also helps us create new patterns of communication with new people.

On our final night at the lake, we traditionally have a campfire that closes with what is known as a “cedar ceremony.” We are invited to reflect on our time together, all we are grateful for, and what we want to carry back to school with us. Then we toss cedar sprigs on the fire and let the smoke carry our thoughts and hopes up into the future.

As the bus pulls back up Somerset Hill and we ready ourselves to return to the world of technology and full schedules, it is my hope that we all carry a piece of this experience into the year ahead—that we remember the importance of actively engaging in our learning, being brave and resilient, and being a community for one another.

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