Beyond PE

Back in 2001, Evergreen Charter School invited me to be its physical education teacher. The small, recently established school could barely afford its rent in a West Asheville office park. The loosely structured PE program leaned heavily on conventional games—Red Rover, etc.—for the elementary grades and mainstream sports such as football, basketball and soccer for middle-school students. Overall, the program was fairly generic, hewing closely to state physical education guidelines.

Solid education: Evergreen Charter School graduate Ashley Hughes scales a rock face during one of the school’s Outward Bound expeditions. Photo Courtesy Evergreen Charter School

In time, though, the vision began to shift toward Outward Bound’s “expeditionary learning” model. Using hands-on, project-based instruction, EL aims to lead students to both high academic achievement and personal growth by means of 10 “design principles” that emphasize self-motivation, personal responsibility, collaboration, the natural world, personal reflection and service.

Most of those early activities came off without a hitch, but a few trips still stand out in my mind as having called for more planning than a casual “Who wants to go?” and a simple show of hands. Some days, I took home more lessons than the kids did: Take more time to explain trust to eighth-graders before having them “trust-fall,” blindfolded and backward, into one another’s arms. When briefing a nature educator on class dynamics, advise her not to give hands-on examples of how plants can be used as natural dyes, or you’ll end up with purple berry juice everywhere. And don’t just ask students whether they can ride a bike before leading a mountain-bike trip—have them demonstrate their skills.

By the time I left Evergreen in 2004, it was transitioning from those office-park suites to a 10-acre property in Haw Creek with a huge soccer field and a full-size gymnasium. The school was also pushing for a PE approach that would go beyond the Outward Bound model, reinforcing core-curriculum skills such as English and math.

Jo Smith, who took over the PE classes after I left, has gone a long way toward realizing that goal. “A relay race may actually be a contest to create sentences with word cards,” she explains. “An elaborate tag game may actually be a different way to add decimals. A parachute game may be the ‘Aha!’ moment in learning left from right.”

Outdoor adventures can be equally instructive, she notes. “Whitewater rafting fits perfectly into the fifth grade ‘healthy ecosystems expedition,’ and rock climbing relates to the third grade’s ‘healthy bones and muscles expedition.’”

During my recent visit, the fourth-graders filed into the room and sat quietly in a circle as Smith gave them a rundown on the day’s planned activities. First up was 45 minutes of “blackjack basketball.” As in regular basketball, the object was to dribble to the opposing team’s goal and try to put the ball into the basket. But there was a twist: A successful shooter would then pick up a numbered card and bring it back to his or her teammates stationed on the other side of the gym. As the game progressed, the students arranged their cards into groups of 21. Besides learning to play basketball, they were using strategy and math to outscore their opponents.

After class, a few 10-year-olds stayed behind to share their outdoor adventures. Max Schenk and Kevon Held-Salm told me how cool Evergreen’s yearly snowboarding and ski trips are. “Me and Kevon usually go to the terrain park and do jumps—some really pathetic ones—and the half-pipe too,” said Max. Isabel Zelman-Parnall told about her trips to the Montford climbing wall. “We all cheer one another on the wall,” she said. “When we’re done, we write an article on our trip and get to reflect on it.”

At the end of the school year, the older students go on an Outward Bound field trip that’s designed to promote deeper personal growth. Students returning from the trip show “a greater sense of comradeship” as well as a “willingness to take on new challenges, both academically and socially,” reports middle-school science teacher Stuart Miles.

Eighth-grader Sequoia Christian, who plans to go on this year’s trip, says: “I’m really excited. I know it’s going to be a great experience, and I’m looking forward to spending quality time with friends and peers.”

Sophie Guciardo, now a sophomore at Asheville High, recalls her last day on an end-of-grade Outward Bound trip: “It was 5:30 in the morning; everyone slowly started packing up. I looked around and saw a 360-degree view. The sky got lighter, and the sun started coming up. It was a deep red—definitely the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I felt like I could fly, because I was so high up above the rest of the mountains. Then I realized how much I had learned.”

Adventure appears to be at Evergreen to stay. And besides fostering stronger students today, it’s teaching tomorrow’s young adults a mind/body approach they can use to negotiate life’s hurdles—whether with a compass or a calculator.

To learn more about Evergreen Charter School, visit www.evergreenccs.org.

[Asheville resident Jonathan Poston can be reached at www.prnut.com]

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