Learning By Doing
With traditional curriculum failing some students, a new wilderness program grows in the woods
Lorenzo Mussell did not have an orthodox childhood. He grew up in Kenya. He talks about walking around barefoot, squatting around an open fire, eating food with his hands, and making toys out of bits and pieces of trash.
He went on to attend school in Pakistan and the Philippines, and moved to Ashland where he earned a BA in Writing, followed by a MA in education with a focus on Health and Language Arts.
“The only jobs I’ve been involved in have revolved around education and learning,” he explains, ticking off jobs teaching Spanish at Ashland Middle School, teaching film as literature at Ashland High, to teaching everything from wilderness survival skills to poetry at Ashland Willow Wind Community Leaning Center.
This September, those experiences—and a desire to provide a specialized learning environment—synthesized in a wildness education program, AmanEtania. Located on 50-some acres of grassland and juniper forest bordering the Siskiyou Cascade National Monument, the “campus” is about 15 minutes from Ashland, where students are picked up.
The school debuted with 14 students; boys and girls, aged 10 to 18. The schoolhouse is largely built from materials found on the site, and students will design passive solar and water systems so that it can exist entirely off-the-grid.
“All curriculum starts from this question,” explains Mussell, “how is this knowledge relevant and applicable to living on this earth in a sustainable way?” He adds, “We are an experience-based program that addresses all curriculum with this question in mind.”
Mussell, an energetic 42-year old, continues, “Most schools teach concepts with very little or no actual experience to go along with the concept. In our program we take the opposite approach. We start with the activity and the real world need, and then through the act of creating the concepts emerge. Any given day we are working on building a horse barn from old pallets, a schoolhouse from mud and straw and discarded logs from the timber industry, harvesting and drying elderberries, picking and freezing blackberries, skinning rabbits and turning their coats into blankets, and so much more.”
He continues, “Kids are loving the interaction and they are thrilled and motivated when they get to see the results of their efforts.”
With class sizes in public school ballooning, one of the important tenants of this program is keeping students close to the physical nature of their lessons, and also maintaining a small teacher to student ratio.
“Large class sizes kill the learning connection and potential between teacher and students,” says Mussell. “A grade-less approach is crucial, where each student is recognized as an individual, their unique development and skills being recognized and nurtured. An immersion in nature and vast amounts of time spent outdoors is vital to the wellbeing and development of all beings. And finally, learning in a stress free environment is necessary. Chronic stress diminishes learning and impairs students’ potential.”
The program has been a decade in making, and finally Mussell just decided to take the plunge.
“The program is currently funded entirely by tuition,” he explains. “One of the tasks that students will take on will be to find local, national, and international grant money that will be used to directly offset the cost that parents paying out of pocket. The goal is to remain an independent parent partnership learning program while minimizing or eliminating cost to parents so as to avoid the rut of being a program available to only a fraction of the population. One of our first grant targets will be the business community in and around our area. Education is a community responsibility and giving local business owners a chance to contribute to local education programs will help bridge the gap between the health of our community and the education of our youth.”
Mussell understands the shortcomings of traditional programs for some students, and hopes that this new program both can connect with certain students, and also provide an important bridge between the classroom and the rest of their lives.
“It is both what is being taught, and how it is being taught, that is troubling with public schools in America today.”
He concludes, “We can identify countless concerns in our societies, but we fail to see that the problems are a reflection of a school system that is training and preparing more of the same.”
More information is available at AmanEtania.com, or by calling (530) 475-3471. There are still spaces available on a rolling basis.
Way to go Lorenzo! It would be great to see more photographs or video of your school endeavors linked to this article. Best of luck.