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Why a Junior Trip?

By Jim Hendrix, Ravenscroft Headmaster, 1987-91  |   Back to Table of Contents


I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
 —Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

I came across the Thoreau quote at some point in my graduate school education and it remained in my mind in the early days of my teaching career.

After a few years teaching at the university level, and finding myself increasingly disillusioned with the rigidity of such places relative to curriculum, I left a tenure-track position to go to the Greenhill School in Dallas, Texas, where I found a wonderfully open mind to interdisciplinary teaching and experiential learning.

The school was experiencing some concern about the transition adjustment of ninth-graders from middle to upper school, especially incoming ninth-graders new to the school. I suggested that we implement an Outward Bound-type orientation program for them in the mountains of Colorado, where I had done some backpacking. In the wonderfully creative, flexible and innovative way good independent schools operate, the powers that be said, in effect, Why not? So, the entire ninth grade loaded three buses one early morning in late August and drove overnight to the San Juan mountains of Colorado for a five-day experience.

After four years at Greenhill I was named headmaster of Greensboro Day School in 1977. My second or third year there, I suggested to the administrative team that we implement a backpacking trip, with a rock-climbing component, for our 11th-graders. Having become convinced in my by-then six or so years in independent schools that a strong senior class was a critical factor in a good school year, I felt that a well-designed outdoor education program, placed at the end of the 11th-grade year, would strengthen a sense of unity among the class, give them some leadership skills and position them for a positive role in the coming school year. As best I recall, the first such trip took place in May of 1980.

And so it began, and subsequently continued during my headships at Ravenscroft, and then Lovett. By the time I retired from Lovett in 2003, more than two thousand students had participated in such trips. And for me, the personal growth, self-awareness, bonding of classes and much, much more represented the most positive and powerful learning I witnessed in my 40 years in schools.

Because all of the trips not only included the entire junior class but also many faculty and staff members (and even some parents, with the caveat that they could not be in the group in which their children were placed), the five days in Pisgah Forest afforded all the opportunity to see, and get to know,  one another in a different light from life in the city and at school. I vividly recall a student, in the nightly sit-around-the-fire conversations, say to another, “Julie, we’ve been in school together since kindergarten and have never really gotten to know each other until this trip!” Beyond these broadenings of relationships, all involved often learned more about themselves, their abilities to stretch their horizons — indeed, more than a few of them had never even spent the night in their backyards! — and to learn of both the beauty and fragility of nature. Five days in the woods, for example, gives one a very different appreciation of the fundamental necessity of water.

The trips were designed in such a way that the students, obviously with careful but “detached” supervision, were expected to do everything: divide and carry all the foodstuffs and group gear (cooking, tents, etc.); set up their shelters, do the cooking, lead the group on the trails (after some preliminary map-reading skills were taught) from the morning to the evening camp site, and more. They were required to write in journals every day, and these were used as part of the first few weeks of Senior English the next school year. They also were given a small booklet of readings (the Thoreau quote is an example) from which they were asked to select favorites and explain why they made that choice, at the evening campfire discussions.

Classes were divided into groups of 10 with two adults assigned to each group. The routes were designed to keep the groups completely separate over the five days, and when, as inevitably occurred with the routes, students passed one another on the trail I, at least, wouldn’t let them talk to one another but pass quickly by.

At the end of the five days, all convened to the same location for a huge picnic, and it was there that some of the most joyful reunions you’ll ever see took place.

The groups were 50:50 female-male, and were selected, with the help of advisors and counselors, so that boyfriends and girlfriends, and “best friends,” were not in the same group. And, as headmaster, I always made sure that the incoming senior class president, or president of the student body, was in my group, as I wanted to get to know this person well so that I could comfortably turn to her or him for advice, etc., in the coming school year.

Looking back over a long career, establishing and participating in these programs, along with designing and starting the American Studies program at Lovett, are the two most rewarding and enjoyable things of my career.

Black and white archival photo of juniors resting in the woods on a hike

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