Mountain Schooling

Has it really been two months since the start of our fall Mountain School season? It seems like just yesterday I was welcoming my very first group of fifth graders from Carl Cozier Elementary. I’m certain that I was much more nervous than they were. The four years that have elapsed since I was a summer camp counselor had distorted my memory of what it is like to hang out with eight or nine ten-year-olds all day. As it turned out (contrary to my fears), fifth graders are the perfect age. They are old enough to understand concepts like photosynthesis, the rain shadow effect and watersheds. Yet still young enough to enthusiastically immerse themselves in a funky orange fungus, a mountain-building contest or a game of camouflage. Which worked out well for me as my inner child is around ten years old, too.
One of the primary goals of Mountain School is to spend as much time as possible in the natural world, which usually means some rainy days in the North Cascades during the fall season. However, we lucked out this year, as most Mountain School groups got to wallow in some fall sun while learning about glaciation, predator-prey interactions and ecosystems. Many of my favorite moments from Mountain School were times when my students were grouped around the base of Sourdough Falls or the shore of Diablo Lake, quietly sketching their surroundings.

Mountain School students sketch below Sourdough Falls

Another Mountain School highlight was taking the students to microscope lab, where we would borrow dead, down and detached specimens from the trail to closely examine. The microscopes would transform our moss into feathery forests, lichen into giant leathery lettuce, and bark into deeply terraced canyons. My students were always engrossed by their discoveries, and I was delighted with their constant calls of “Come here, you gotta see this!” This was only surpassed when their chaperones (parents, teachers and occasionally principals) would become just as enthralled as the students, asking to enter the magnified world of each student’s discoveries. A good reminder that we are always students.

Students explore a close-up view of the natural world in the microscope lab at North Cascades Environmental Learning Center

In addition to learning about North Cascades National Park and its ecosystems, Mountain Schoolers were able to experience a bit of camp here at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. During their stay, after the day’s activities, Mountain Schoolers attend an evening Ranger Program where they use observation techniques to examine skulls, then attend a campfire where they sing camp songs. The other night students perform Native American legends and go on a night hike, where they learn about night adaptations and sensory awareness.  
For many students, Mountain School is their first time hiking, and being out on a trail in the dark can be a challenging but thrilling experience. Some groups were lucky enough to hear a barred owl or see stars like they’ve never seen before. For many students, these three days at Mountain School will be a life-changing experience.

A student writes and reflects on his Mountain School experiences along a trail near the Learning Center

As an instructor, Mountain School has certainly left a big impression on me. For the last two months I was learning as much as my students. They taught me to be prepared for the unexpected, you never know what you will find along the trail, and organic opportunities are exquisite. As much as you try to plan ahead, there are moments when the curriculum flies off the trail and the students take over as instructors, sharing their insights on the name of a giant red-purple mushroom or caterpillar.

Students observe a trail-side discovery

Although the fall season has come to a close, we are still finishing post-trip visits back to the schools that attended Mountain School during September and October. For me, these visits have been one of the most inspiring parts of instructing these students. Each Mountain Schooler has the opportunity to write thank-you notes to their group instructors. When I receive these notes, it hits me just how impactful Mountain School is for these students: “My favorite thing about Mountain School was having the opportunity to be independent.” And, “Spending time with you was the best three days of my life! I learned a lot!”
I knew I had a great time teaching these students about their natural surroundings and North Cascades National Park. And I knew that our camouflage game was a huge hit. But getting this feedback from my students was the most powerful affirmation that I am doing exactly what I am supposed to, and that this Mountain School experience is invaluable for students of all ages. I know that as I continue my own graduate studies I will continue learning from these amazing students during our spring Mountain School season, and I look forward to more of these profound lessons.

Students use their sense of touch to get to know the natural world better
Photos courtesy of Larry Purpura.


  1. Brooke

    Beautifully written Kate. Thanks for sharing the stories.

  2. Mary R

    Your descriptions are so clear, I feel like I just watched a video of Mountain School. What a fantastic experience you are facilitating for these youngsters! I can see why they say their life has been changed or they will remember these 3 days all their life. Thanks to the Institute for providing these camps for the local youth to immerse them in nature.

  3. Larry P

    I was one of the chaperons for this, this is a first class program, all local schools should take part in it. It is such a learning experience for the kids that they just can’t learn in the classrooms.

  4. ALLAN P


  5. allan p

    and the 4th down

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