Connecting Learning to the World Around Us

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By Lark Palma, head of school

Head of school Lark Palma leads students in Turkeys Saklikent Gorge

I remember the anticipation I felt as I got on the train to Tacoma in the fall of 1995 for my first experiential education trip with Catlin Gabel. Fifty-two 6th graders, Middle School teachers Hannah Whitehead and Brenda Duyan, and I were going to Charles Wright Academy. Together we slept on the gym floor, went to class, ate delicious food, and enjoyed spending time with our colleagues. I marveled at the way Brenda and Hannah played the role of social engineers, delicately dealing with gender issues, social disappointments, and the balance between having all-out fun and being considerate guests.

Many other experiential trips have followed that first satisfying foray. On numerous adventures to Mt. Hood with seniors we’ve worked together building buck and pole fences, enjoyed the warmth of the fires, wandered the periphery of the cabins with flashlights against a starlit sky—reveling in the beautiful and utter silence—and woken to the early morning sound of clattering pans and the smell of coffee. We’ve learned to work as a team and value one another’s skills, enthusiasm, and senses of humor.

My latest trip with students, to Turkey last summer, was remarkable. Together we experienced an absolutely unfamiliar culture and tried to grasp, each of us, how to incorporate into our own lives the sights and sounds—the bustle and smells of the market, the call to prayer, the starving dogs and cats, the kindness of the people, the dankness of the cisterns below the streets of the city. We talked about ancient history as we saw the panoramic views of the Aegean and Mediterranean seas from the plains of Troy and the battlements of Crusader castles, as well as Lycian, Phoenician, Greek, and Roman ruins. We reflected on war, life, and death at the Gallipoli graveyards, where Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims lay side by side.

I’ve enjoyed these times with students and faculty over the years; my memories of each trip are vivid. But it’s the changes of heart coming out of these irreplaceable experiences that matter: watching students grow and gain the courage and confidence to make decisions, being with them as they stretch their ideas of what is normal and familiar.

Hands-on learning certainly takes place on trips, but more often these experiences happen on campus. I have seen students determining the circumference of Schauff Circle, constructing fairy habitats in the woods, building sophisticated robots for competition, moving the goats and sprucing up the campus, freshening Corkran Pond, and studying our food service for its sustainability and healthfulness. We know, as Ruth Catlin and Priscilla Gabel did, that education happens best when children connect their classroom learning to the world around them—testing their knowledge through nature, activities, and other people. In all these activities, by doing something concrete, children actualize what they are learning, taking knowledge out of the realm of abstraction and into reality, coming to see how they will move through their own lives.

Experiential education is part of Catlin Gabel’s core identity. This issue of the Caller includes many examples of our commitment to this important aspect of learning. I hope you enjoy these stories and remember what these kinds of experiences meant to you when you were young and eager to figure out the world for yourself.