Mountain School students skipping rocks. Photo by Carson Yach

Graduate Students Reflect on Mountain School 2019

North Cascades Institute graduate students wear a lot of hats during their year-long residency at the Environmental Learning Center. From taking on work study jobs, to designing lessons and curriculum to diving into natural history explorations in the surrounding wilderness, the experience of the residency is diverse, engaging and challenging. Perhaps to most immersive experience that we engage with is teaching Mountain School during the spring quarter. While we were not all in our comfort zones wrangling groups of rowdy 5th graders around campus, the experience provided many of us a unique opportunity to learn, grow and experiment with and develop our own teaching styles.

Now that the season has drawn to a close, I decided to reach out to a few of my cohort members to see if they could express in a few paragraphs how the experience was for them:

Mountain School students arriving on campus.

Spencer Gee:

Near the beginning of my graduate program experience, I was given the opportunity to shadow a Mountain School instructor to get to know the program better before I became an instructor myself. During that time, I greatly enjoyed getting to know students and interact with nature and education in new ways. Now that I have worked as an instructor, I find the same enjoyment in teaching my students about the environment around them and providing hands-on experiences in nature.

One of my favorite parts about the Mountain School program was the opportunity to create, develop, and implement a variety of lesson plans for trail groups. For my graduate education part of the practicum, I created and revised lesson plans in a setting that allowed me to continuously improve upon them with different students each week. This is an extremely valuable part of the program for me, as in a traditional classroom I would only have one or two opportunities to revise and teach a lesson to students in the class.

At the same time, my experiences in Mountain School have shown me that what works well for one group of students is not likely to work as well for another. Each group of students is unique and comes with their own experiences, challenges, and interests. This causes some difficulty for educators, as the lessons, hikes, discussions, and snack breaks for each trail group must change and adapt to fit students’ wants and needs. While I have found this to be challenging, I have also discovered that the ability to adapt and teach concepts in a variety of different ways helps me become more familiar with the content and brings diversity and change to my everyday schedule.

Overall, I enjoyed my time teaching 5th grade students about the natural wonders in the North Cascades National Park. Mountain School is a wonderful opportunity for instructors, students, teachers, and chaperones to become more familiar with the place they call home and recognize the connections between all forms of life in both cities and wilderness. While I only have a few weeks left to teach Mountain School, I am excited to see the discoveries each of my students make while out on the trail.

Mountain School instructor Bernt ( ) on a hiking down from Buster Brown Lookout.

Dianna Green:

We end every Mountain School session with a closing ceremony and we pose the question: What do you want to take home with you from Mountain School? As an instructor, I have so many things that I want my students to take home with them: the definitions of concepts we learned while I was teaching, how to apply that to their personal life, that eating Vegetarian for a few days was not the end of the world, new friends that they can talk to at home. The main takeaway that I want my students to have is that nature isn’t scary and you can have fun playing outside.

Going into the Mountain School season I was not very excited at the prospect of teaching 5th graders for three months. I had previously spend a season working as an environmental educator in Texas and did not love the job. Honestly, I preferred working with older students. Several weeks into the season I was pleasantly surprised to be so wrong. Every day was new and exciting building rapport with my students. Every day I learned something new from exploring the North Cascades ecosystem.

Mountain School Students Hiking to Diablo Dam. Photo by Emily Bedker.

As an instructor, I am a firm believer in the work hard, play hard teaching philosophy. I teach my lessons filled with information and games. School should be fun. My favorite games (and my student’s) are camouflage, pink fluffy unicorns, and rocky handy. Strange names for games that I spent hours playing each week. I love the ability to be competitive in a fun matter.

It is not always rainbows and unicorns. Some weeks this job was tough. No matter how hard you try, you will not reach every student you work with. It is worth it though for the little moments that occur on the trail: when a student makes a new friend and laughs on the trail, when a student learns something new and can answer questions correctly, and especially when you get a hug from a student as they get on the bus to go home. It’s important to take a step back each day and remember the little things; it’s those things that made the job worth it.

Thanks to Dianna and Spencer for sharing. Mountain School is on summer vacation right now, but the program will be back with new (and a few returning) instructors next Fall. In the meantime, there’s lots to do at the North Cascades Institute this summer, so come up and see us!

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