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Experiential Learning at Mountain Sun Community School

Kim Skeen | Brevard, NC

Our journey began with a silent hike down a steep and winding trail, minds full of anticipation and excitement for a different kind of school week. As the trail came to an end, the landscape opened up into the beautiful valley of Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education Center. This is where the Monarch and Coyote classes spent the next 4 days fully immersed into frontier life in Western North Carolina in the mid 1700s.

Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education Center is located in a deep valley just outside of Lenoir, NC.

Going to Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education center has become a yearly fall tradition for the upper elementary and middle schoolers at Mountain Sun. The students look forward to this trip all year and eagerly work hard to raise the funds to help make this trip happen. This was our 6th year attending Buffalo Cove. Each year the staff at Buffalo Cove work closely with the Mountain Sun staff to align the curriculum.

This year, we are learning about Native Americans and European settlers. Buffalo Cove designed a program for us that focused on the the Cherokee and the Gaelic Settlers coming together in Western North Carolina. Lessons included learning about the fundamental needs of these two cultures and how they came together to share methods, materials, ideas, and ways of living in this environment. The students learned to make fire using flint and steel, learned about how the Gaelic settlers dressed, learned how to make fiber using natural materials and sheep’s wool, and how to cold forge copper to make traditional blanket pins. Every aspect of frontier life was explored, we even ate like settlers on the frontier, eating the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash) cooked in a cast iron pot over an open fire. The experience culminated with a collaborative art project that represented our reflections on our experiences throughout the week as well as our personal connection to the natural world. Each year, the students are deeply affected by their experiences at Buffalo Cove. To be immersed in their learning is truly unforgettable for most students.

Experiential Education seems to have become the buzzwords in the education world over the last couple of years. However, it has always been an integral part of the Mountain Sun mission. Experiential Education is defined as “a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities.” What this essentially means is learning by doing.

The Buffalo Cove trip is just one of many ways that Mountain Sun incorporates experiential education. This type of learning is happening daily in each classroom at every age level. For example, students in the Otter Class are making apple cider and creating beautiful apple prints while learning all about apples, and the students in the Acorn class visited the Oconaluftee Indian village to further their learning of the Cherokee. Students are able to apply what they are learning to their own experience. These types of learning experiences allow for opportunities for problem solving, creativity, and reflection.  This is a very natural way to learn that actively engages the student in learning compared to the traditional ways of teacher giving lectures on a subject and the student is sitting and “listening.” Experiential education helps to answer that age old question of “why do I have to learn this?” The experience creates a relevance to the students life and their reality which in turn helps them to develop their own love of learning. As a parent and teacher at Mountain Sun, that “love of learning,” is what I want my students to carry with them when they graduate or move on from here!

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