Not Your Typical First Day of School, October 3, 2017

A minivan pulls up in front of a rustic cabin, surrounded by towering oaks. As the doors slowly open, sleeping bags, backpacks, duffels, and kids burst out of the vehicle. Staff members greet parents, direct children to their cabins, and prepare them for a swim test. Parents are ushered to their cars and encouraged to leave sooner rather than later as their children are consumed with excitement, anxiety, and curiosity about the week that lies ahead.

While parents of overnight campers might recognize this scene, it is actually a description the first day of school at the French Broad River Academy (FBRA). We begin each year with our “Induction Week” at Camps Mondamin for boys and Green Cove for girls. Both camps are located on beautiful Lake Summit just south of Hendersonville. Students spend the entire week at camp learning new paddling skills while meeting and getting to know their classmates and teachers. Induction has been a part of the FBRA experience since day one. But why commit over 100 hours and all the resources and planning to start the school year when we could simply begin in the classroom like most other schools do?

The short answer is that it sets our students and staff up for a successful year. While it is not easy for teachers to leave their loved ones and comforts of home for five consecutive days, the “buy-in” is tremendous because the staff see the results of their investment of time and energy in the students immediately. Teachers learn every student’s first name and develop relationships through unique shared experiences in the outdoors. Induction week also creates the capacity to communicate and establish the FBRA cultural values such as high expectations from the beginning.

While other schools, both independent and public, might outsource an orientation program for their students and staff with an outdoor adventure program such as Adventure Treks or Outward Bound, I am unaware of any other middle school that designs and implements its own multi-day orientation program. The FBRA staff plan the meals, organize the multi-day canoe trips, lead canoe instruction, as well as campfire at night. The result is an intentional and relevant orientation program that is linked directly to the FBRA mission and culture since it is designed by the school itself. This type of experience would be impossible for an outside organization to facilitate or attempt to replicate.

Lastly, being at Camps Mondamin and Green Cove allows us to reconnect with the institution that inspired and shaped so much of what the French Broad River Academy is today. The following quote from the founder of Mondamin, “Chief” Frank Bell, Sr., compelled me to get students outside of the classroom and use the French Broad River and Costa Rica as a classroom:

“If education is instead a series of continuing experiences that build the knowledges, the skills, the habits, the appreciations, the attitudes, the values, and ultimately and hopefully the wisdom that enrich living, then we need to go far beyond the classroom.”

Much like Mondamin and Green Cove still do today, FBRA builds character and integrity not only in the classroom, but in the magnificent surrounding rivers and mountains of the French Broad River watershed. From van driving start-up chants to our musical assemblies on Monday mornings, much of the FBRA programming, rituals, and culture have evolved from our experiences as campers and counselors*.

*Co-founder David Byers and I met during the summer of 1991 as campers, and then worked several summers together as counselors. Liddell Shannon, Katherine Saul, Willy Kates, and David Clarke all worked at Green Cove and Mondamin and/or were campers as well.

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