As Fall Comes to A Close

On September 17th, the first Mountain School group of the fall season arrived at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. It was a bright, warm, cloudless, sunny day. The mountains were still snow-free and the ground was parched from the summer drought. Now, eight weeks, approximately 779 students, and more than 15 inches of rain later, we have just watched the last group drive away in their yellow school bus.
What’s ahead for the Learning Center folks now that our usual Monday through Friday commitment is gone? For the full-time staff it’s time to hunker down and start planning for next year, for the seasonal staff it’s time to head off on new adventures, and for the graduate students it’s time to put the “student” hat back on.
Before all that happens, however, it’s time to reflect on the past few months. And to celebrate.

Some of the students, teachers, and parent chaperones from Fidalgo Elementary enjoying the beautiful fall day

As I sat down and tried to reflect on this whole season, I found myself thinking about how much I’ve grown and changed as an educator these past two months. I thought about the ownership I feel over the curriculum, a feeling that has allowed me to switch up how I teach the lessons and how I convey certain concepts. I started thinking about next spring, after which I probably won’t come back to Mountain School. In that moment, I found myself both happy and sad, excited and nervous about new adventures yet to come.

This was my fifth season teaching Mountain School. I love all of it—working with all kinds of kids of all different ages, being outside, teaching, playing in the forest, asking questions, and learning from my students. I try to think of creative ways throughout each session to assess how much my students are taking in and what they’re learning. My final assessment of them is guided by some prompts for the last activity they do—writing themself a postcard that we deliver to their school several weeks after their trip to the North Cascades. I ask them to write down three things they learned while at Mountain School, two ways their Mountain School community and their school/home community are connected, and one thing they learned about the North Cascades National Park. This is helpful in gauging their learning as well as how I’m doing as a teacher. Below are some examples from this week’s students:

I bring out colored pencils for my students to color in the drawing on the front of their postcard if they finish early. This student had a Douglas Fir cone.
5th grader from Fidalgo Elementary: “I learned about habitats that they need a place to have their young and they need water and food. I also learned that abiotic and biotic and that water is abiotic and so is a rainbow. The last thing I learned about the mountains like Pyramid Peak and I also learned how glaciers are formed by a lot of snow gets in packed together.”
5th grader from Fidalgo Elementary: “Dear Mitchell, Did you know that when you compost food it turns into dirt! Did you also know that this National Park has been around for 96 years! You should not waste food and should always, always go with healthy. Two ways our communities are connected are by Skagit River and the mountains. One time I learned that North Cascades National Park used to be a glacier, and has 316 glaciers!”
5th grader from Fidalgo Elementary: “Dear Zoe, I learned some things here but three were orographic lift, about glaciers, and watersheds. Two ways my Mountain School community is connected to my school community is that I was always in a group and had a teacher. One thing I learned about North Cascades National Park is that they’re known for the bison, water, and trees.”

We have a tradition for the last day of each Mountain School season here at the Learning Center. All the instructors who aren’t teaching that school, along with some of the office, kitchen, and maintenance staff dress up and have a spontaneous dance party in the parking lot. The kids love it. The instructors who are just getting off a 3-day teaching shift love it. Today, after the bus finally pulled away, we retreated to the dining hall, where our wonderful chefs had made us a big pizza lunch.

c12 graduate students Kim and Hillary, trying to camouflage in the woods while we waited for the music to start nearby in the parking lot
Mountain School instructors formed a conga line and danced around the bus
The final Mountain School group bids the Learning Center farewell
Instructors Liza and Matt, dressed as the mules Johnny and Ginny from local Skagit Valley history, give Sabrina a ride to the dining hall in a cart
Thank you Matt, Myles, and Shelby for the delicious homemade pizzas!

 After lunch, we were treated to a performance by two of our instructors, as they parodied the Hot Cheetos and Takis rap that has gone viral on YouTube. You should watch it. It’s fantastic, and was created by a bunch of young kids at an after school center in Minneapolis. A variety of games wrapped up the afternoon of celebration, after which there were some well deserved naps.

c12 graduate students Liza and Lindsay rapping about cheesy cubes and pretzels

 As the sun set over the mountains and a chill crept into the air, everyone up here at the Learning Center is beginning a new chapter…

Sun coming through the clouds over snow-covered Colonial and Pyramid Peaks. A perfect end to Mountain School.
A rare glimpse of the sunset as it fades away behind the mountains
Leading photo: A drawing of Salal, colored in by a Mountain School student. All photos by the author.


  1. Saul

    Great season everyone! Thanks for sharing your skills, passion and outrageous enthusiasm for THE NATURE! (and the kids, of course).

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