Return to the Cave, January/February 2019

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.”
-Joseph Campbell

Make no mistake, the memories of being in Worley’s Cave back in 2010 are as permanent as the stalactites that hang from the ceiling of the cavern. The fear of the unknown, the inescapable darkness, the pervasive wetness, the cold mud, and the incredibly tight spaces all combine to make the annual sixth grade overnight caving trip a rite of passage unlike any other. I had not been on that trip since the founding year of the French Broad River Academy, and I decided a while back that it was time to reconnect with the cave. Would I discover the “treasure that I seek?” Despite some initial fears, something inside me told me the answer would be “yes.”

I met up with trip leaders Dave Clarke and Felix Dowsley at Winged Deer Park just outside Johnson City, the small eastern Tennessee town where I grew up and graduated from high school. Coincidentally, the spot where we ate lunch happened to overlook my parents old house on Boone Lake. After a quick lunch, we headed to the trailhead where we would stage our overnight expedition into Worley’s Cave.

Co-founders David Byers and Will Yeiser at Worley’s Cave in 2009.

As we pulled into the open field of grass to park, the memories of being there with the founding students of the academy came flooding back to me. It was me, along with co-founder David Byers and the original twelve students that signed up for our unproven and untested program, and a volunteer parent who would serve as our guide. At that time, I had never spent a night in a cave, nor explored a cave more than a couple hundred feet. Basically, everything we were doing was a pioneering effort, and we did not know exactly what to expect, much like the entire first year of the school.

Will with current sixth graders in Worley’s Cave.

We checked our headlamps, made sure our bags were water proofed, and headed inside. The beauty and tranquility of the silence and darkness of the cave immediately took over. I remembered that moment like it was yesterday, and there was comfort in the familiarity of a place I had visited almost a decade ago. As we continued our journey into the deep recesses of the cave, the trip leaders would periodically have the group stop, find a comfortable position (relatively), and sit in silence.  Part of this was to help the students acclimatize to the darkness and silence of the cave while preparing them to spend the night in the cave.

During these prolonged moments of silence, I found myself entering a deep meditative state, reflecting on the caving trip, our outdoor program, and most importantly, why we commit the time, effort, and resources to these types of experiences. The natural beauty of the cave and its unforgettable formations are what initially stands out to the students, and I thought I would experience the same overwhelming sense of awe.

Mr. Yeiser and Mr. Dowsley emerge from Worley’s Cave with current sixth graders.

However, the epiphany I experienced had little to do with the cave itself, but rather the realization of how the sixth grade caving trip brings together all the parts of our mission and program in an intentional and powerful way. So many of the transformative moments that occur in the cave are the outcome of the planning and preparation that occurs beforehand.

The clearest example of this occurred immediately after assembly on the morning of the trip.  After a couple of sing-a-longs, the seventh and eighth graders dissipated into their different vans and left for the Congareee Swamp and Grandfather Mountain respectively. However, the sixth graders were told to stay seated. Mr. Clarke and Mr. Dowsley asked the students to unpack the bags they had so carefully prepared the night before. I initially thought this was an excessive step for the sixth graders. Over an hour later, I entered the multipurpose room to find all the students seated with their bags open organizing all their gear in trash bags to make sure everything was 100% waterproof. It then dawned on me that the real work of the three-day caving trip was occurring right before my eyes. Everyone likes to reference the moments when the students are in the cave posing for a picture next to an elaborate rock formation. However, it suddenly clicked for me that the reason that the “photo moment” in the cave even occurs is because of the countless hours of thought and preparation that happen before the trip even leaves the school campus.

Students organize their bags in preparation for the cave.

The bouldering and swimming experiences our students receive through our PE program before the winter three-day trip equip our sixth graders with the skills to navigate successfully through challenging tight spaces and over slippery boulders in the dark. I imagine there would be significantly more slips and falls if it were not for the countless hours of bouldering both indoors and at Rumbling Bald on field lessons. Wading and swimming across a swollen creek in a cave would deter even some of the bravest adults. However, the deep level of practice and familiarity of these skills empowers our students to successfully overcome this type of challenge both inside the cave and when we are on the rivers.

FBRA student practices safe swimmer position as part of safety training.

Another outcome of the caving trip has to do with preparation for the homestay experience in Costa Rica. It never occurred to me that one goal of the overnight caving trip was to put all of the sixth grade students in a completely unfamiliar and uncomfortable setting to prepare them for the homestay component of the international field experience in Costa Rica. As disorienting and unnerving as the cave overnight is, it pays huge dividends when students are expected to complete an extended stay with a family in a foreign country. The cave becomes a powerful metaphor and reference point as students try to manage the anxiety and stress of another unfamiliar situation.

“Think back to the cave when you were unsure about how things would be. At the end of it, you were jumping up and down with excitement and you wanted to go back in. That’s what this homestay will be like…you won’t want to leave your family.” That type of conversation would not be possible without the groundwork that is laid in the cave.

I was not sure what to expect from my return to the cave after all these years. However, after emerging from the infinite darkness of Worley’s Cave, I knew that I had found “the treasure that I sought,” an affirmation of our mission of building character and integrity in young people for a lifetime of learning and service.

Serving the Community, November/December 2018

During early winter, our students and staff use our weekly field lesson days to focus on service learning, a key component of the FBRA experience. We partner with local non-profits like Greenworks, Manna Food Bank, and RiverLink to contribute over 2,000 thousand hours per year of important service work in our community. From removal of invasive species to collecting tires from the river banks, the signature bright neon shirts of the Salamanders can be seen working throughout the Western North Carolina Region.

While it creates a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment to, say, prepare meals for the homeless, there is a deeper purpose behind our service learning curriculum that is greater than the act of the actual service project itself. First, however, I would like to share how service learning was woven into my life and eventually became a core piece of the FBRA program.

Throughout my high school years, I participated in several volunteer clubs and service project programs through my church and school. I admit that my initial efforts were partly inspired by college applications and my desire to have a well-rounded resume. Over time though, I came to enjoy service work opportunities as much as I enjoyed whitewater kayaking, playing sports, or any other after-school endeavor.

My passion for service learning continued into my college years at Vanderbilt, where I participated in a program called “Alternative Spring Break (ASB).” ASB is just that, an alternative to the traditional spring break trip to the beach or to the mountains out west for a week of skiing with friends. Participants spend the week completing service projects in different locations across the country.  I spent my first year in rural West Virginia addressing rural poverty issues, and my sophomore year we helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity in Beaufort, South Carolina. By my junior year, I co-led a group of Vanderbilt students to inner-city Detroit to work in the failing public school system there. This experience of seeing first-hand some of the inequities in our education system later inspired me to apply for the Teach for America program to directly confront social justice issues.

My experience with ASB allowed me to step out of the Vanderbilt “bubble” and receive a healthy injection of grounding and perspective on a variety of social issues in our country.  As Gandhi reminds us, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”  ASB provided the capacity for me to “lose myself in the service of others” and provide a new lens on topics and issues of which I was unaware.  I discovered more about my passions and what I wanted to pursue in my life through these intense weeks of service than I did in any of my undergraduate course work.  It was a transformative experience for me, and I am a strong supporter and advocate for this type of programming for any student at almost any level.

It should come as no surprise that service work has been an integral part of the FBRA experience since our doors opened back in 2009.  We work very hard to immerse our students in meaningful service projects so they can begin to “find themselves.” During the critical middle school years when identities and values are forming, our students are exposed to a variety of service projects throughout the year.  Our hope and aspiration for our students is that through the work, action, and ultimately the habit of service, they will experience the joy and fulfillment of serving others. And in that moment of reflection and growth, our students may discover a new passion or pursuit that they would otherwise not experience.

Service learning, like all of our programming, is designed to accomplish our mission of building character and integrity in young people.  While consistently providing thousands of hours of service work per year in our community has a significant impact, the most important outcome is a generation of graduates inspired to contribute to the betterment of society grounded in an ethos of service unto others.

Happy Holidays to all, and I look forward to an incredible year in 2019!

The Pursuit of Excellence, September 2018

Almost exactly one month ago, Girls School teacher and trip leader Liddell Shannon asked me to speak at the closing campfire on the final night of the Girls Induction Week. I was honored to have the opportunity to address the entire Girls faculty and students in the the unique and intimate setting of the fire circle at Camp Green Cove. She asked me to talk about the significance of the school entering its tenth year and to share what was the most compelling factor that helped guide the French Broad River Academy during its start-up phase and through its early years.

I initially thought this would be an easy task. However, I quickly felt overwhelmed as I considered all the different influences and experiences that shaped the institution over time. Was it a class or specific lecture I heard during graduate school? Was it the mentoring and advice from founding board chair John Dockendorf? My mind was swimming in ideas as I tried to formulate my thoughts and words for the quickly approaching closing campfire moment.

And then finally it hit me in a moment of clarity while taking an early morning run around Lake Summit. My epiphany happened to be one of the core character traits we instill in our students.  It was also the key message of a commencement speech I recently heard from former First Lady Michelle Obama. The most significant factor that helped FBRA establish itself and sustain its success was and remains the pursuit of excellence.

I made it very clear to co-founder David Byers and founding math teacher Frazier Worth that everything we did in that first year would be in an effort to achieve excellence. Whether it was teaching algebraic equations or washing our donated minivan on a Friday afternoon, we would do things the right way, or not at all. I knew we had the capacity to be excellent in all that we endeavored, and I wanted to establish that habit and cultural piece right from the get-go. I was not interested in pursuing anything that was second-rate, and I was not willing to be associated with any semblance of mediocrity. I believed that if we made excellence our standard, success would only be a matter of time.

Despite lots of skepticism and pushback from fellow educators, friends, and even family, we marched forward with our agenda of excellence. I recall hosting a gathering of outdoor leaders and educational experts in the spring of 2009 to evaluate the school concept and its likelihood for success. I will never forget the comment of one prominent outdoor leader from a reputable and established outdoor school. At the conclusion of the meeting, he commented, “To be honest, I do not think this will work at all.”

I paused for a moment and considered the “post 2008” economic conditions in Asheville and our nation. I thought about the abundance of existing private and newly emerging charter school options in the area. I briefly wondered if I should have taken that job offer in Boston or Charlotte after all. There was definitely a moment of second guessing my decision.

But only a tiny moment. I refocused on our vision and what I knew we were capable of doing with these young men. Ultimately, I did not waver or falter at the remark. I did not lose a minute of sleep that night wondering over the infinite “what ifs” of starting a new business in the gloomiest economic hour of our time. I simply focused on not only doing “the next right thing,” but also making “the next right thing” excellent in every way possible.

In the summer of 2009, we opened the French Broad River Academy. As the end of July approached, we had yet to meet our goal of recruiting twelve students, nor had we secured a lease for a school facility. We did, however, have six families that trusted us and our mission, a donated Pontiac Montana minivan, and a lead on a quirky industrial space in a former leather tannery in the River Arts District that might serve as a school space.

We eventually secured our space, which now serves as our current Girls Campus at 191 Lyman Street, and filled our remaining six openings by October to meet our enrollment goal. Growth has been strong and steady ever since for both the Girls and Boys programs.

Future Boys and Girls Campus,191 Lyman Street in 2009

The pursuit of excellence has been and remains a cornerstone of our organizational culture.  Whether it is students performing on the stage of the Orange Peel or a Salamander’s first homestay experience in Costa Rica, we strive for excellence in all that we do. It has served us well during the start-up phase of our organization, and is what will sustain us into the future.

And whenever  the questioning or skepticism arises about our ambitious goals for the future, I think of Michelle Obama’s response for the doubters: “Excellence is the most powerful answer you can give.”

First Back-to-School Picnic in August, 2009

Why Single Gender?, May 2018

I have been and still remain a firm believer in the benefits of single-sex education during the critical middle school years.  My experience at an all-boys summer camp, combined with my own research about the benefits of single-sex education, were largely what compelled me to create an all-boys middle-school opportunity in the Asheville area.  Founded as an all-boys school in 2009, the French Broad River Academy now also serves middle-school girls with the opening of our girls school in 2015. The boys and girls programs are located on separate campuses located along the banks of the French Broad River, with the girls school in the River Arts District school and the boys school in Woodfin.

Can coed middle school programs produce successful outcomes? The answer is “yes” of course. I successfully taught both boys and girls in a coed classroom for years as a Spanish teacher and led coed trips on the French Broad and to Costa Rica. However, I would argue that there is something unique and special about the classroom and school culture that can be created in a single-sex environment. For instance, I recently observed an all-girls math classroom where classmates eagerly researched and designed aeronautical features to improve the trajectory of their rockets for an upcoming launch at the end of the year. I also witnessed eighth-grade boys trying to “out conjugate” each other during a Spanish review activity as they prepared for their Spanish placement exam.

In each scenario, the students were focused on the objective of the class, the content of the curriculum, their learning, and their outcomes instead of stressing over whether a classmate might ridicule their response to a teacher’s question. Without the dynamic of “coed competition,” student academic performance improves, confidence and self-esteem rises, and students are prepared with the character and integrity for success in high school, college, and the competitive world beyond.

Undoubtedly, the growth and success of FBRA is largely due to tailoring its program to the specific needs of boys and girls. However, as we grow and reflect on how to improve the FBRA experience, we have discovered that there are some amazing opportunities for coed interaction within our programming.

I joined the eighth-grade classes from the boys and girls schools on a recent trip to Purchase Knob in Smoky Mountains National Park to see for myself. Students from both schools were divided into groups and after some initial introductions and activities, the boys and girls rode together and discussed how their year was going, where they would be attending high school in the fall, and so forth. Once we arrived at the site, students enjoyed a picnic lunch together with breathtaking views of the Smokies in every direction.

The staff at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center facilitated an amazing experiential lesson for the group that involved locating and examining tardigrades (microscopic invertebrates-click link for more) under a microscope as well as conducting a field study of salamanders.

Students collaborated on the collection of specimens, analysis of data, and reporting of findings. It was real science in action, but even more impressive was the experiment of mixing our students together. The eighth graders from both schools demonstrated outstanding character and integrity in a truly unique setting. It was evident to me that our shared culture allowed us to succeed in this type of setting where many other school groups fall short in terms of the impression made on the outside facilitator.

Each spring our sixth graders do a coed canoe trip  This allows the students and staff to build relationships based on unique shared experiences in the outdoors. Sadly, this is an increasingly rare practice that is being supplanted by interactions via social media platforms like Snapchat. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, tandem (two-person) canoeing creates a unique communication dynamic where there are real, tangible consequences if communication and teamwork fails. The natural need and structure that a whitewater canoeing trip provides creates the ideal context for young adolescents to interact in a positive and healthy way.
Let me be clear, FBRA was founded as a single-sex middle school program and will continue to be that. However, as opportunities for coed interaction present themselves in a variety of formats, we will continue to evaluate them based on the following question:

“Are we building character and integrity for a lifetime of learning and service in a physically and emotionally safe environment?”

If the answer is yes, you can expect to see more “coed crossover” in the coming years!

The River Experience at FBRA, February 2018

I am often asked why we commit so much time, effort, and resources to take our students canoeing one day a week throughout the fall and spring. My short answer is that “it creates the capacity for us to fulfill our mission in the best possible way we know how.” In this edition of The Current, I will provide a longer answer to this question and break down the “why” of our canoe program, as well as share our rationale for our unique approach to middle school experience for young people.

Our mission is to build character and integrity in young people for a lifetime of learning and service. Paddling whitewater in a tandem (two-person) canoe creates the most unique, unforgettable opportunities for our students to develop their character and test their integrity in a variety of ways that no other classroom or program can replicate. Co-founder David Byers captures the essence of our program with the following quote:

I still believe that tandem canoeing is a great way to build social skills in middle school boys. Canoeing with a partner not only develops whitewater paddling skills and teamwork, but it also strengthens self-confidence as the boys progress down rapids and are forced to make quick decisions with instant feedback from the river. Tandem canoeing also forces socialization and communication at a level that few other outdoor pursuits do.

Whitewater rapids are not the only place where tremendous learning and growth take place. The level of communication and collaboration required for a group of sixth graders to successfully load multiple canoes on to a twelve-foot trailer is tremendous and rivals that of a highly trained military unit. The empathy shared for a student who took a long, difficult swim at Nantahala Falls by a classmate is impressive and authentic. The planning and execution of a successful 3-day trip on the Chattooga river requires an attention to detail and level of preparation that sets our 8th graders up for success as they prepare to tackle the unpredictable challenges of high school and beyond. I have witnessed all of our students demonstrate these skills first hand on countless occasions.

I attribute my own success and accomplishments to my river and camp experience. While I cherish and appreciate my traditional schooling experience at Harvard and Vanderbilt, I learned early on that education requires much more than high levels of numeracy and literacy. It requires opportunities to safely experience failure and to have the capacity to learn and grow from that experience. Yoda reminds us all in the most recent Star Wars, “The greatest teacher, failure is.”

 Education also requires a sense of community built around unique shared experiences with shared language and metaphors. During the first week of school at camps Green Cove (girls) and Mondamin (boys), each student at FBRA quickly learns that they are part of something bigger than themselves. This sense of being a part of a team carries over into the math classroom when a group of students collaborate to solve a math problem, or when a class is challenged with a difficult service project in rural Costa Rica. The shared language and metaphors instilled from day one are applicable throughout the three years at FBRA and extend into high school and the world beyond.

While many of these skills and habits can be obtained through programs outside of the traditional school environment, the FBRA experience cannot be replicated because the same person teaching you 7th grade science is also your international trip leader, your PE teacher, and your whitewater canoeing instructor. Therefore, the expectations and culture of FBRA are consistent, and as a result, the outcomes and growth are consistent.

Do we canoe for the sake of canoeing?  On a certain level, yes. Being outside on rivers with children and exciting rapids is fun, even exhilarating at times. It rejuvenates our spirits and reminds us of the sheer joy and pleasure we once experienced. However, on a deeper level, canoeing is a means to a different end. It allows us to build the character and integrity in young people that is so desperately needed in a society where children are increasingly detached from the natural world and where the line between “virtual reality” and what is actually happening in young people’s lives is becoming more blurred and indistinguishable each day. It allows us to create a special community built around unique shared experiences with common language and metaphors.  The river experience is not the only way to accomplish these goals, but it absolutely makes the most sense to me.

So, peel out, read, and react!

On Mindfulness, November 28, 2017

While working as a teaching aide back in 2000 at Kelly Elementary school, I met Dr. David Shlim. His two children attended the unique K-5 public school of 46 students that borders Grand Teton National Park outside of Jackson, Wyoming. David shared that he had traveled to Nepal and studied Tibetan Buddhism, and he invited me and my wife, Kelly, to stop by his house one day after school to learn more about his practice. I casually accepted his invitation with no idea of the significance this decision would have on my life. He explained some of the background of meditation and then modeled some basic techniques. He invited me to try, and as I slowly closed my eyes and sat upright on the floor of his living room, I experienced my first intentional breath of meditation and deep mindfulness.

I will never forget that moment, and I am forever indebted to Dr. Shlim for making me aware of the practice of meditation. Over the course of the next year, I slowly built upon my practice, and to this day, I begin most every morning with a brief meditation followed by a visualization exercise of the upcoming day. I attribute my personal and professional success to my mindfulness practice, and I do not believe the French Broad River Academy would exist if it were not for meditation. In addition to providing health benefits and balance, my practice provided the clarity and capacity to envision the French Broad River Academy. Furthermore, mindfulness expanded the space between stimulus and response enough for me to manage the stressful and unpredictable challenges that a small start-up school inevitably faces.

It should come as no surprise that in recent years, we have formally incorporated mindfulness into our FBRA culture and daily routines. I remember speaking to board member and mindfulness practitioner, Scott Wilkerson, about my own experience with mindfulness. He shared his journey with mindfulness and how it changed his entire organizational culture at his various car dealerships across the country. I was initially hesitant out of an unfounded fear of parents being upset with the use of instructional time for something that might be perceived as a religious or faith-based activity. He assuaged my fears and challenged me to take some basic steps to incorporate mindfulness in the school. I accepted his challenge and slowly, mindfulness began to spread throughout the school.

Whether at a school-wide assembly, the beginning of a science class, or on the banks of the French Broad River, the practice of mindfulness can be seen in various contexts at FBRA. Both students and staff comment frequently on the benefits of practicing mindfulness. Students focus on their breath before a major math exam or before a challenging whitewater rapid to reduce anxiety. Teachers begin each staff meeting with a mindful moment to ground everyone in the room and ensure that all staff are present as they delve into important topics and conversations.  

One of my most memorable mindfulness moments occurred last spring on the boy’s 8th grade Costa Rica trip. We had hiked down from the village of Mollejones to the majestic Pacuaré River and completed a jungle hike to some nearby waterfalls. As we were preparing to begin the long, steep climb to return to the village, the Boys School Program Director, Andrew Holcombe, instructed the students to spread out and find a spot along the banks of the river where they would not be disturbed. He explained that we were going to take a moment to be silent and practice mindfulness in this incredible setting. As the 8th grade boys scrambled over rocks to find their space, I thought to myself, “this will maybe work for 10-15 minutes at the most.”

Once everyone was settled in to their spot, I sat down strategically amongst one group and waited patiently for the laughter or sounds to begin. Five minutes passed with no sound or movement. Another ten, then twenty minutes passed with no disturbance. I found myself able to enter a deep, meditative state as the sound of the rushing water and chirping birds relaxed my mind. Eventually Andrew called for everyone to return to the trailhead, and to my disbelief, we had been practicing meditation silently with a group of twelve middle school boys for over forty-five minutes!

This was the moment when I realized the progress we have made with our meditation habits at FBRA. There was no forced requirement or coercion for the boys to be silent. The riverside moment on the bank of the Pacuaré was simply an outcome of years of gradual practice and integration into almost everything we do here at FBRA. In recent years there has been an abundance of science and news articles supporting the benefits of mindfulness both in and outside schools. However, my own observation and experience with that group of 8th graders provided all the proof that I needed.

Mindfulness at FBRA has been and will continue to be a major part of our culture. It enables us to fulfill our mission of building character and integrity, while allowing us to connect with ourselves, each other, and our community in a powerful and transformative way. Most importantly, it allows us all to discover and experience peace, happiness, and fulfillment both in and outside of the school environment. If you have not already, I encourage you to explore mindfulness with your child. You will find that he or she already possesses a great deal of depth and knowledge from their experience at FBRA; how amazing would it be if your own Dr. Shlim turned out to be your child?

Now just focus on the breath…

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.

World View, July 20, 2017

I am delighted to share that FBRA has just wrapped up its eighth successful year, but not many realize this is the tenth anniversary of the very first Costa Rica trip led back in 2007. Therefore, I thought it would be appropriate to share how one of the most unique and powerful elements of the FBRA experience came to be, as well as how it has evolved.

Thanks to my parents, I had a unique middle school experience that had a direct impact on what FBRA is today. It also proved to be one of the most transformative moments of my adolescent life. Our family moved to Porto, Portugal for my father’s work during the middle of my fifth-grade year. During the two and a half years that I lived there, we traveled throughout the country, as well as a variety of other countries throughout Europe.   

The experience of seeing a completely different part of the world completely changed my perception of everything I knew up until that point. I was able to connect with and become part of the local community and culture. I had friends from Portugal, as well as all over the world, because of the international student body at my school. I still keep up with former classmates from Zimbabwe, Holland, and Scotland. The lens through which I viewed others changed forever, and I became a firm believer that middle school is the best time to travel and live outside the United States. While many people study abroad during the college years and occasionally during high school, I believe that the identity-forming years of middle school are the most important years to step out of our American “bubble” and be immersed in another country and culture.

Therefore, during my second year of teaching Spanish at Asheville Middle School, I set a goal to create an opportunity for my advanced eighth-grade Spanish students to be able to apply the Spanish language they had acquired in my class in a Spanish-speaking country, as well as be immersed in the culture of a foreign country. Costa Rica was chosen after I discovered that Lynn O’Hare, one of my student’s parents who had led multiple trips as a professor at Warren Wilson College, volunteered to co-lead the trip.

he focus of the trip was, and still is today, centered on the triad of service, learning, and adventure. I wanted students to see and experience the amazing beauty of Costa Rica, but more importantly, I wanted them to connect with a local community and stay in the homes of local Costa Rican families. Toward that end, we partnered with the Peace Corps in Costa Rica and set up homestays for each student in a rural area away from the larger cities and tourist areas. Although stressful and challenging, the trip was a success. While the students enjoyed zip-lining and seeing volcanoes, the highlight for all of them was the homestay experience and getting to know the members of their host families. This trip created much of the momentum and interest that led to the “push” for the eventual creation of the French Broad River Academy.

As I reflect on my most recent trip to Mollejones with the 8th graders from the class of 2017, I have come to realize that the trip has evolved from much more than an opportunity to practice Spanish in an authentic setting. More than mangrove restoration efforts or trail-building with a local elementary school, the trip creates the capacity for FBRA students to make a human connection with people from another place and to understand the universal qualities that connect us all. As we continue to return to some of the same communities in rural Costa Rica, we are seeing our presence as one of a distant family member or friend versus an outside school group that simply wants to participate in an international trip.

I used to believe that the service-learning aspect of the trip was the most important take-away for our students. However, I now believe that the community-building feature of the international field experience is the most important piece. Whether it is through our Induction program during the first week of school at Camps Mondamin and Green Cove, or through closing assembly on a Friday afternoon with staff and students, we are building a community that transcends borders, age, gender, among other things. The intentionality of our efforts to build community are evidenced in almost everything we do.

I hope you can witness our community-building efforts … please come experience our FBRA community in action this fall!

Sincerely, Will Yeiser

On Honesty, May 5, 2017

I come from a long line of educators in my family. My great grandfather Madison Sarratt was a math professor at Vanderbilt University, and he eventually served as Vanderbilt University Dean of Students. He was so respected and beloved by his students and colleagues that the current student center is named after him. His famous quote on honesty not only shaped the present-day honor code at Vanderbilt, but also engrained my belief that character and integrity are paramount to high test scores.  

Today I am going to give you two examinations, one in trigonometry and one in honesty. I hope you will pass them both, but if you must fail one, let it be trigonometry.” Madison Sarratt

I constantly reminded my students of the quote before a test and “to not ever sacrifice your integrity over a Spanish exam.” His legacy of character and honesty is a key piece of FBRA’s mission statement and continues to impress and influence not only the students at Vanderbilt University, but the students and staff, and the entire FBRA community.

Our mission is “to build character and integrity for a lifetime of learning and service.” We believe that one’s level of character and integrity will define their success and, more importantly, their happiness more than one’s ability to read complicated Spanish text or solve a complex algebraic equation. While recent FBRA graduates are gaining acceptance to the prestigious NC School of Science and Math (Deron Bakker ‘15) and are being awarded as Morehead-Cain scholars (Caleb Walker-Wilson ‘12), the unforgettable and character-building lessons learned while paddling a challenging whitewater rapid or the growth and confidence that result from performing on the stage of the Orange Peel in front of hundreds of people (insert photo here of OP concert?) are what define the FBRA experience and produce leaders that stand out from their peers.  

A parent of a recent graduate recently shared the following about their son’s experience at FBRA:

We saw a confidence emerge in him that we’d never seen before. This school developed strength of character, organizational skills, self-reliance, confidence in challenging and new situations, environmental stewardship and respect for teachers and school. Setting personal standards of excellence in these areas was expected, and he rose to that challenge. When he graduated in eighth grade, staff and fellow classmates considered him a leader with integrity who treated everyone with kindness. He transformed from a boy with tears in his eyes on the first day of sixth grade, to a mature, confident, young man who didn’t want to leave what he considered “the best school in the world.” The many lessons he learned during middle school positively shaped who he is today and remain inherent in him.

As our salamanders grow and follow their pursuits whether it be higher education, work, or travel, they will be equipped with the skills and tools to not only succeed, but to emerge as leaders committed to contributing to the betterment of society. We look forward to sharing their extraordinary stories in this publication, and please feel free to comment on this blog post in the space below.
Sincerely, Will Yeiser