Days of Discovery

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Learning through Experiential Days, Breakaway, and Winterim



A 5th grader loving her time at Camp Hancock

At OMSI’s Camp Hancock, near the John Day River in eastern Oregon, we hiked and explored a gorgeous high desert landscape underlain with myriad fossils. Students discovered, touched, and dug up such things as fossil katsura tree trunks, oreodont skeletons, calcite crystalfilled equisetum stems, nimravid skulls, dawn redwood twigs, leaves from an ancient rainforest floor, and the shoulder bone of a great raptor with wings as much as 30 feet across. The children smeared their faces with red, brown, and green mud made from paleo-soils millions of years old during hikes, while the skies filled with snow flurries, rain showers, and sun.

We followed hikes the next day with a trip to the John Day Fossil Beds visitor center, where we could see fossils and reconstructed habitats, and comments like these abounded: “Hey! Look! We were just there—right there!” “We saw that yesterday in the Nut Beds!” Other highlights included learning to make string from native plants; a visit to a rock shelter with walls containing pictographs made from blood, fat, rock powders, and charcoal; and learning to use an atlatl to throw spears. Evenings were filled with after-dinner dish washing for 100 people, sing-along campfires, story telling, meeting Mariah the great horned owl, astronomy discoveries, playing the Hancock Trivia game, and a fabulous night hike.

Things kids learned: how to wash dishes fast and efficiently, make a bed, pack a bag, and sweep up a cabin; how natives moved seasonally through the landscape; that smilodonts preyed upon oredonts; that early horses, the size of cats or terrier dogs, lived in rainforests and had four toes; that central Oregon was once tropical ocean front, with avocados, bananas, and palms; how juniper trees preserve water in the dry climate; how to identify mule deer versus elk scat; how and why scientists collect, protect, and preserve fossils; and that not all really amazing fossils are from dinosaurs. So, how cool is that?

—Scott Bowler, Lower School’s “Mr. Science”
A 1st grader prepares to decorate a chair autobiographically in "My Life as a Chair"


A cupcake left for the fairies

Our children brought and shared books, gowns, experiences, wands, stories, enthusiasm, and hopes of finding a gnome or fairy. Our expectations were simple: to build relationships among peers of different ages, while exploring and identifying native habitat. After stories from around the world of gnomes and fairies, we headed off into various woods where we “walked like foxes,” not disturbing native life, participating in and deeply observing our surroundings.

Students learned about “manners” in the woods and streams, leaving no trace, something that the fairies would appreciate and the gnomes would respect. We baked cupcakes to give to the fairies, “because they are greedy and have a taste for sweets.” Some students created a fairy language, with translation keys, to write messages to the fairy folk. Others documented their days in drawings and detailed writing, finally publishing their findings and research in a shared newspaper full of beguiling class quotes and musings. We constructed colorful, jingly wands and pointy red hats. As we ventured out, students counted, collected, and pressed native plants to include in scrapbooks. They made copies of photographs, poems, and recipes to include.

The last day we practiced the life skill of quickly changing from muddy hiking gear to luncheon attire on a bus, to make a special date at the Heathman Restaurant. As we reviewed the different manners appropriate to fine dining, the students shared what they knew to be necessary: do not pound on the table when you want your food, remember to say please and thank you, don’t kick the table or your friends, try a bite before you say no thank you.

During Experiential Days students jump in, take healthy risks, and bond with one another. Maybe it is because there is magic in the woods, but more likely, I believe, with full, uninterrupted days given to exploration and creation, real magic happens.

—Mariam Higgins, 4th grade teacher



A student gets slimed, a badge of honor

"I was slimed three times!”

This was the magical moment I was waiting for. By our fourth day, one 7-year-old who had been a bit insecure about getting dirty could not get enough of the cows. We had talked all week about “getting slimed”— cows have wet noses and are incredibly curious, and “sliming” is their way of interacting with you. We wore it like a badge of honor.

These 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders learned about every step of the cheese-making process, watched the making of queso fresco, and ate cheese. We blind-tasted tiny cups of milk to identify which was whole milk, 2%, 1%, skim milk, half and half, and goat’s milk. A veterinarian told us how a calf is born, how and why cows are dehorned, how their four stomachs work, and how newborn calves have virtually no immune system and would die without drinking their mother’s rich colostrum milk.

One of the greatest lessons was about systems—we literally followed the process of milk from udder to grocery shelf. John, our organic dairyman, brought the children into the pasture and dug up the earth so the children could explore the soil, earthworms and all. He helped them see the connection between our earth and the food we eat, and why his cows are pasture fed. We talked about how his farm was different from the big, commercial farm we had seen. We learned about the concept of interdependency—and the consequences of choices we make—at its very basic level.

When we helped empty last year’s swallow houses, a student announced that she found what might be a dead baby bird inside one. A dead baby bird?! Everyone gathered around, wide-eyed, while Farmer John casually explained why many of the baby birds don’t survive. After a few minutes of furrowed brows, the children went back to their tasks. I learned about life and death on a dairy farm growing up, something I realize our youngsters don’t “get” as readily in the confines of city living. Life and death are all over farms. It’s simply the cycle of life

Our learning was deep and rich—and every bit of it experiential. Ask any one of our “cows” kids about it and they will go on and on. I was astounded at the connections they made in their learning. How could it be that children could learn major life lessons in just four days?

—Vicki Swartz Roscoe, head of the Lower School




Middle School students and teacher David Ellenberg work hard in Costa Rica

Dropping off brave students at homestays scattered throughout Monteverde, climbing a high tower dwarfed by tropical jungle to begin a zip-line tour, thrilling to an encounter with Capuchin monkeys checking us out from perches in trees, pausing with journals to sit and reflect on all the Spanish phrases washing over them: these are some of the many images I conjure from two weeks in Costa Rica, over Breakaway time and more, with eighteen 8th graders.

Global travel is a challenge to provide, yet the payoffs are immediate and extensive. Students quickly transition from unsteady newbies filled with trepidation to comfortable travelers who know their way around a town with no street signs or numbered addresses. Seeing them process so many unknowns and work through unfamiliar situations, I find their personal growth truly inspiring.

—David Ellenberg, MS world history teacher
These students were part of the FooDelicious group, which explored commercial food through visits to a bakery, wheat lab, donut shop, cheese company, pasta restaurant, and beachside candy shop. They came to understand where the typical foods they eat come from and how each component of the process is linked.


Learning about Shakespeare through an acting workshop in Ashland

Live theater in Ashland, Oregon, opened the bill of this trip, exposing Middle Schoolers to a worldclass ensemble with first-rate music, costumes, staging, and venues. Diversity was key to the works they saw: Fences, a contemporary American play, The Clay Cart, a traditional East Indian play, and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream— set in a 1970s disco, which the students really connected with. To further immerse them in the Shakespeare play, an Ashland actor and teacher led a workshop explaining Shakespeare as a person, discussing the play’s plot and historical context, then involving the students physically through movement and acting.

Hands-on fun continued at the science museum in Ashland, which is totally experiential in its nature. “You have to touch and move everything, and the students loved it,” said trip co-leader Mark Pritchard, Middle School music teacher.

One important lesson of Shakespearience for students was learning to stay within financial limits. They stayed in a dorm at Southern Oregon University to save money. They had a strict group budget for eating out, so everyone was responsible to the group and had to make good decisions, both monetarily and in terms of healthful eating. “The other fundamental lessons were learning to act responsibly in public, support each other, and do the right thing so the group represents the school well, and we stay welcome,” says Mark.


HOOP DAYS, a joint project with the Middle School and the 5th grade

Visiting the Rose Garden, home of the Portland Trailblazers

Hoop Days was the most wonderful four days EVER! I got to meet Jerome Kersey and wear his NBA championship ring! I got to go to the Blazers locker room and see Brandon Roy’s locker and touch his shoe! I learned all about the Rose Garden arena—did you know that Paul Allen built a secret apartment in it so he could spend the night after the games? I learned how radio and TV broadcast sports and I got to design my own shoe at Nike and meet with a designer who talked to me about it. It was also great to learn basketball tips and tricks from Pee Wee Harrison, of the Harlem All-Stars. This is just some of what I got to do.

The places we went all said they loved having the Catlin Gabel students, and even though they never did this kind of thing before they would love to do it again next year!

—Matthew Bernstein ’15, who had the original idea for the Hoop Days experience




Online meeting with students from Gaza

Upper School history teacher Peter Shulman and IT director Richard Kassissieh first gave us a quick overview of the history of Israel and Palestine, focusing on land ownership and the conflict over thousands of years. We took in a lot of information that day, and we gained a lot of understanding for both sides of the conflict. Our teachers also had us go around the room and explain who we are here and now, what we stand for, and where we come from. As people spoke around the room, every person had something special and unique about their origin and what brought them to where they are. Despite our different backgrounds, we all wanted to learn more about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The next day we met at 7 a.m. to speak with a group of students from Gaza through Skype, an online audio and visual connection. Remembering the experience continues to remind me how I want to change policy and injustice in the world as I continue to grow up. We were told that the group that we’d be speaking with was made up of Palestinian students my age living in the Gaza Strip, where attacks on both sides of the conflict continue to cripple the two fighting powers and prevent them from reaching an agreement.

As I walked into the room that morning, our mentor Richard, who is of Palestinian descent, explained the guidelines to my peers and me. “Withhold any questions you might have in regard to internal fighting between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza. As you know, Gaza is very small and very isolated. Words fly fast to the ears of harm-doers and direct, honest answers about these questions might have serious consequences for these students,” Richard told us.

The question that one of the Palestinian girls asked that will remain in my memory was, “Does the conflict here in Gaza, where we live, affect the daily lives for you guys?”

At that moment I felt embarrassed because it didn’t really enter into my mind daily. I attend school with the freedom to learn what the teachers have the autonomy to choose to teach us, and as citizens of the United States we have the freedom to travel. When it was my turn to speak, I stood up, and sat in front of the screen. I played with my hands, rearranging my scarf, and began to bite my lip, nervous and full of anxiety, thinking that the girl on the screen must hate us, the Americans, who get to be free.

I was wrong. She looked at me as a peer, a teenager, just like her. I found the words tumbling from my mouth easily as I addressed her.

“I go to school, and I never have to worry for my safety. My family and I don’t live in fear. The conflict doesn’t really cross our minds at all; in fact, many of us, in this room, never knew how profound and wrong the world still is in your part of the world. I know about it now, though, from taking this seminar, and I will do what I can to make your voice heard,” I said, wanting to speak more, but I didn’t.

Next, another one of my peers spoke from his heart, “I am sorry. I’m sorry that you can’t go to the movies and play with your friends in safety. I just want to say that our leaders’ actions do not reflect how the people in this classroom feel, because I know I’ll follow this conflict and have your life conditions in my mind from now on.”

The girl on the screen, a citizen of the world just like us, replied, “What you just said is enough. The fact that you understand what we are going through every day here in Gaza makes me have a smile on my face.” As she made this statement, the dimple in her cheek was visible. As she sat, wearing a headscarf that covered her hair, her body language shifted, her arms opened, and she sat forward in her chair; she was happy.

I noticed that the teacher coordinator beside her began to cry. She told us, “You see, the Palestinian youth never travel or meet anyone who isn’t Palestinian. I was lucky. I was able to travel, and I have friends who are Israeli and from other places around the world. These students do not even have that; they are isolated from the world.” I have an opportunity to make her problems and concerns heard.

I have the opportunity to learn and get an education that fits my characteristics and interests. Now I can look at the conflict from both sides, understanding that the conflict is not based on religion, but on land and power. Dialogue with these students made this conflict more real in my mind than I had ever previously imagined.

I know that my role in the lives of others will continue to strengthen and grow through my education. I hope to help the students who are not being given the chance, like my peers in Gaza.

—Aurielle Thomas ’08



Upper Schoolers reaching the summit of Iztaccihuatl

Nine intrepid students and three adult leaders traveled in central Mexico for 10 days during Winterim to combine cultural exploration with a mountaineering adventure. The group gained an appreciation for the rich and deep culture of the country during their stays in Mexico City and the small town of Tepotzlan. The trip culminated with an ascent of Iztaccihuatl, a 17,373-foot peak.

The Mexico expedition achieved some deeper goals, too: students learned to live and work together; they were challenged physically, socially, and culturally; and finally, they came to understand more than they could before about the communities and people in a far less developed country.

—Peter Green, outdoor program director
Community service is an important Winterim option. Gwen Survant-Kaplin ’08 and a group of students helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity and worked at a building materials recycling center.



Students learn how the fire department works

This year for Winterim, I had the rewarding (and somewhat taxing) opportunity to take on the responsibility of a student organizer. It all started when student activities director Mark Lawton asked me if I’d like to investigate “what makes Portland tick.” His idea was nebulous: travel around the city by foot, by bus, and by sheer ingenuity in order to get a feel for the kinds of minds behind our social and civil services, entertainment, and media organizations, and to see what really goes on behind the scenes. After recruiting my friend Rohan Jhunjhunwala ’11, we joined Mark and librarian Sue Phillips to begin the daunting task of scheduling trips to such places as fire departments, bowling alleys, fine dining establishments, Portland Impact, the Portland Planning Bureau, and the newspaper headquarters of Street Roots and the Oregonian, in addition to the Oregon Department of Transportation control room and the newsroom of television station KATU. Even before we set out, I became adept at navigating the information superhighway in order to locate interesting people to speak with, getting in touch with and speaking to important city officials, and juggling the agenda as it evolved out of the minds of the four of us.

Imagine how rewarding it was when it all finally came together, when I realized that our grand scheme no longer looked good simply on paper, but had taken on a life of its own. What really struck me was that wherever we went, there were people who enjoyed what they did, who took great pride in telling us all about it. Their excitement transferred onto us, and we found ourselves filled with questions such as, Whose responsibility is it that individuals who have been arrested maintain their human rights? How does a homeless newspaper operate? How are you making the Pearl District more environmentally friendly? And the most important question, How can I get involved and make a difference? By taking a bit of a risk in order to answer a deceptively simple question, our small group came away with a deeper understanding of the community at large, and thereby armed ourselves to make a positive difference in it.

—Josh Langfus ’11
Counselor George Thompson ’64 and arts teacher Tom Tucker ’66 led “Guitars, Guitars, Guitars!” Students of all levels improved their guitar skills through workshops with visiting musicians and hours of playing music together.