By. Whitney Strubhar, Leanni Javier, and Asher Douchant, Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School
Every year, the seventh-grade students of Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School (MRHMS) take a week-long trip to Tennessee to learn at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. The Tremont trip is considered to be the climax of the seventh-grade year and gives students numerous opportunities to explore the world around them, learn self-reflection, collect scientific data, engage in physical activities, have fun with their friends, and stretch beyond their comfort zones. There are no worksheets at Tremont. Instead, students are sent out to learn in the wilderness, free from projects, electronics, and, more importantly, stress.
The week in the wilderness benefits everyone who goes on the trip, teachers and students alike. It provides a new view of the outdoors that students and teachers might not have had before. It also provides students a break from the stress school may be putting on them and gives them time to breathe. “Every year I look forward to seeing students come alive on these trips. This change of environment also offers opportunities for leadership to students who may struggle inside the walls of the classroom,” explains Whitney Strubhar, Expedition Coach at MRHMS. “I love to see that newfound confidence rise up in each student throughout the week.”
During the week at Tremont, students participate in a wide range of activities, from citizen science projects to history-infused hikes. While there is a heavy focus on the natural and social sciences, students are engaging in physical activity during every lesson at Tremont. “Students embark on an eight-mile hike which allows them to discover a variety of flora and fauna while at the same time burning perhaps thousands of calories,” explains John Harbaugh, PE teacher at MRHMS. “Students learn while working hard. With physical fitness I believe that getting students to be active while doing something they enjoy doing is the key. Expeditions provide a perfect backdrop for this to happen.” A perfect example of physical fitness combined with natural exploration is the day trip students make to Cades Cove. Here, students spend the day learning about the history of the area and its people, including the divide that existed within families in the pre-Civil War era where some sided with the North and others the South. Conversation then turns to the current day and how some families and communities remained divided. History comes alive when students walk in the steps of the people who called Cades Cove home, helping them to connect with and understand their experiences, something not easily accomplished by reading a textbook.
While on expedition, students learn to appreciate the beauty of nature and acquire a newfound appreciation for their surroundings. They are also given the space to learn new things that they may not have fully grasped from a textbook or lesson. For example, one of the citizen science projects involves students working with teacher naturalists to catch salamanders and then use a dichotomous key to identify their sample. This data is then used by scientists to monitor locations and patterns of salamanders in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which is considered the Salamander Capital of the World). When students collect salamanders, they are not only exploring a creek or climbing a mountainside, they are creating and testing a hypothesis and gathering first-hand data. “Former director of Tremont Jennifer Jones always said she had never seen a standard that could not be taught in nature. I believe this and know that providing rich experiences outside of the four walls of a classroom is the right thing to do!” explains Michael Dittrich, Principal of MRHMS.
Along with content knowledge, there are countless opportunities for personal reflection and growth throughout the trip, and many students who travel to Tremont come away with increased levels of confidence and a sense of personal empowerment. For example, on the solo hike, students are sent out to walk by themselves for a mile-long stretch of trail. Besides letting them take in the wonders of the world surrounding them, it also provides a sense of independence and allows them to reflect on the experiences they have had. “Many never would have dreamed of spending time alone in the woods, and every year students return saying that this was their favorite part of the week,” adds Strubhar.
Of course, there is time for fun too and students participate in a number of activities with their classmates. These activities give students opportunities to meet new people and work together to solve challenges with others they might not usually turn to. Teachers facilitate this learning in small and large groups, depending on the activity. History is brought to life at Tremont when students gather around the campfire to hear from local musicians who introduce them to instruments native to the area and sing songs that have survived for hundreds of years, all while relating the history of the region.
One of the main themes of the Tremont trip is self-reflection. Self-reflection allows you to see your experiences on a large scale, and use them to inform your goals, values, emotions, and motivations. Students decorate and bring journals to answer prompts given by teachers, as well as sketch what is around them and write using their surroundings as inspiration. The students are given many opportunities to reflect during their journeys through the wilderness of the national park. At the end of the trip, students share their wisdom with their peers. These practices are forever valued by the students.
Tremont provides a new environment for students, one that not only engages them in deeper learning around content standards but increases the likelihood that they will engage in physical activity for the rest of their lives. Students who may have been intimidated by the woods or had never hiked now know that it is a practical and enjoyable way to stay healthy and fit and enjoy nature on their own for years to come.
Whitney Strubhar is a looping language arts teacher and the Expedition Coach at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School. She is passionate about helping students see the real-world application of their learning and discover their strengths. Along with her husband and two-year-old son, Whitney enjoys exploring, learning about, and creating memories in nature.
Leanni Javier is a rising eighth-grader at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School. Born in Brooklyn, New York, her family moved to St. Louis when Leanni was five-years-old. Leanni is passionate about equal rights for others as well as what they believe in. She enjoys exploring new places and learning about them, reading a good fantasy novel, and listening to rock music. Leanni lives with her mom, dad, younger sister, younger brother, and their dog.
Asher Douchant is a rising eighth-grader at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School. He has lived in St. Louis for his entire life, although he has moved around quite a lot. Asher is cultivating his entrepreneurial interest as well as interest in his faith. He enjoys walks in the park, cereal, reading, and playing sports with his friends. He was having so much fun being outside he almost forgot to write about it! His family is awesome and he loves them very much.