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Blue Ridge

“Seeing the World Through Each Others’ Eyes”

“It’s been a rough year for all of us – teachers, students, and parents alike. Some of us fit in all 3 categories. Some of us have endured personal trauma or have been close to colleagues who have. The loss is overwhelming, and I’m not solely talking about loss of life. I’m speaking of a deeper loss we can all share. A loss of freedom and exploration; a loss of continuity and tradition; a loss of social interactions and mental wellness; a loss of smiles, hugs and high fives; a loss of normalcy. Yet throughout this loss, I feel we have gained something else. I have been amazed at how we have united to support each other emotionally and spiritually. I have seen everlasting friendships formed through synchronous trials and tribulations. We’ve all learned quite a bit more about technology than we thought we’d ever learn in our lifetimes. We’ve learned our own strengths and weaknesses, and how to survive on both.

This “adventure” has reminded me that there is more to these kids than reading fluency and math strategies. We were suddenly forced by the universe to adapt to our new surroundings without warning, and what we discovered while in this new phase was ugly, yet simultaneously wondrous. We got an 18-month long sneak peek into our kids’ lives, inside their homes, their personal relationships – we got to see the world through their eyes

One thing that remained consistent throughout virtual or face-to-face teaching was spreading my love of hiking and the outdoors to my kids, even to students in other classes. I would share my adventures on the trails (along with photos) with my students, especially if it was something really cool (like rappelling off of an 80’ cliff, ziplining through the trees, or summiting a peak alone at sunset) and explain to them jubilantly how I was conquering my fear of heights while immersing myself in nature. It lit up their faces. I want to continue to bring that joy and wonder to my students, to instill that curiosity, to see the good in the world – through my eyes.

When school ended in May and we said our goodbyes, all I could think about was the one thing that got me through this school year – anticipating the Educators of Excellence Institute in the Blue Ridge Mountains this summer. Learning more about my passion in an environment that has such meaning to me caused me to spend months preparing for this unique experience with fewer than a dozen other teachers from around the state. This, to me, is not work. This is my “play.” This is how I bring nature into the classroom, how I show them to explore. This is how we make connections and see the world through each others’ eyes.”

~Becqui Masters, First Grade Teacher, Central Elementary School, Perquimans County

 

Lenae Scafidi, Science teacher at Iredell High School in Iredell County, has also been eagerly anticipating her Educators of Excellence Institute by exploring with her family along the Blue Ridge Parkway. She heard we’d be looking for hellbenders and hiking, so she got a head start!

A masked teacher watches a hellbender in a tank

“Hunting” hellbenders at the Western NC Nature Center

 

Teacher and her son hike in a mountain forest along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Lenae had the opportunity to hike with her son earlier this summer along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

 

Blue Ridge

“Trees and Waterfalls”

Our morning started with a delicious breakfast prepared by our hardworking leaders!

We traveled to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and met Gary Kauffman, a botanist with the US Forest Service. He led us around the trail and into the old growth forest. Along the way, he shared a wealth of information with us about all the plants inhabiting the forest. Our two plus miles took us a few hours as we learned about all the greenery and such along the trail. He shared his passion and his poetry with the group. We were all in awe over the huge Tulip Poplar Trees which are estimated to be between 400 and 500 years old. It was an amazing feeling to be standing among such history and consider what all has happened in the world during the lifetime of these giants.

Man holding plant in forest

Learning about liverworts from botanist Gary Kauffman.

Group of people circling large trees with their arms

How many teacher armspans in circumference is a 500-year-old tree?

After lunch, we hiked to Yellow Creek Falls. The trail took us along the creek and we enjoyed the sounds and sights of the meandering water. As we approached the top, we all took in the beauty of the rushing water of the first large fall. We sat and spent time reflecting on the week as it comes to a close. We were challenged to a “writing marathon” while we sat by the waterfall. We each took at least a half hour to free write with intentionality. In addition to writing, we had the opportunity to spend time in the water and sitting on the rocks chatting about our Blue Ridge experience.

Three people sitting at the edge of a pool at the base of a waterfall.

Wendy, Amy and Stephanie chatting by Yellow Creek Falls.

We returned to the yurts and ate dinner together. We spent the rest of the evening and into the night sharing with each other the highlights of our trip. We enjoyed our last night together and appreciated the time to build on relationships that have formed during this unique experience. We do not want to lose the connections with one another as we go back to “normal life” tomorrow. The changes that we intend to make both personally and professionally will be strengthened by our networking with one another. A campfire and stargazing on this beautiful night capped off the whole trip. It is bittersweet — we don’t want to leave, but we are ready to go home.

Blue Ridge

“The Mother Town”

It was a bittersweet morning as we packed up our tents for the last time and left the Mount Pisgah Campground bound for our next destination, Cherokee, NC. We traveled the last leg of the Blue Ridge Parkway over the highest point at 6053 feet and then made a brief stop to check out some stunning views through the clouds at Waterrock Knob. The trail to the top was steep but our determination was strong, and after a challenging hike we were rewarded by the sweat on our brows and a breathtaking view!

Group in front of BRP sign

Chris took a group picture at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s southern terminus.

Upon arriving in Cherokee, we ate a quick picnic lunch by the river and prepared for our guest speaker, Freeman Owle. Freeman Owle is an Elder of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. An educator himself, he shared his story of growing up and being systematically and forcefully stripped of his culture and how that impacts his work with children of the Cherokee tribe today. He educated, inspired, and left us with powerful words reminding us of our impact. These words will surely stick with us when we return home: “There is no job that is greater than what you do. No job is more important than what you do.”

Group sitting on benches

Cherokee Elder Freeman Owle talks with us about growing up and becoming a teacher himself

After our experience one of our educators, Talicia Smith, was inspired to write a poem detailing the impact of our day saying:

“I stood where the mother town was.
Stories of family, faith and love
Stories of struggle, the war of men
Lesson we are still learning from them

I stood where the mother town was
Where trees were healing for the soul
The soil underneath my feet
Beaten by dances moving for peace

I stood where the mother town was
Where rivers flowed with ease
And elks track through the leaves
I stood where the mother town was.”

Yurt in front of mountains and clouds.

View from our final home – the Sky Ridge yurt village.

Finally we headed for the premier lodging of our trip, our luxurious yurts! After a week in the damp heat of the Appalachian mountain region, it was a very welcome treat! We have learned and experienced so much together and we ended the night with a heart-to-heart, tear-filled reflection of our day. Even though tomorrow is our last day, this experience will follow us into our classroom and beyond.

Blue Ridge

“Adventure is Meaningful”

Last night brought boisterous winds and heavy rain, however we awoke to a new day. At 4:30 am we awoke, piled into the vans and began our trek up slippery rocks and muddy trails to the top of Black Balsam. The mist of the morning hid the rays of the sun but didn’t dampen our spirits. On top of the trail we experienced strong winds, strong coffee and created even stronger bonds with the team. Although we did not experience the sunrise we anticipated it was still an awesome way to begin the day.

Silhouetted person in front of dawn light.

Wendy catching one of the few glimpses of sunrise color from Black Balsam knob.

We left Black Balsam Trail and headed to Skinny Dip Falls where we spent time with our nature journals enjoying creative reflection. The beauty of the area and sounds of the falls behind us were meditative.

People on wooden bridge over waterfall

Group on bridge at Skinny Dip Falls

The day’s highlight was spent on the river learning about and looking for our most primitive salamander. With the help of a local biologist and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, we located the elusive Hellbender. This was an exhilarating experience, as we waded and swam through cold water, using snorkels and bathyscopes to see a Hellbender in its natural habitat.

Group of people in wetsuits and warm clothes next to a river

The group preparing to get into the cold water to look for Hellbenders!

The day ended with ice cream from the local ice cream parlor before heading back to camp.

Group eating ice cream under a brightly colored umbrella.

Ice cream at Dolly’s was a great finish to the day.

Blue Ridge

“Obey Your Way”

“Obey your way” – Dr. Mildred Barya

The team packed up camp at Briar Bottom and headed along the Blue Ridge Parkway towards Asheville for a day at the NC Arboretum.  Arboretum educator Michelle Pearce spent a few hours with us sharing about Citizen Science.  Our view of what we experience in the natural world expanded from our own perspective to the greater world and a bigger picture where all can contribute to the scientific community thanks to technology.  She also gave us a tour of the gardens and engaged the group in activities that we can transfer to our classroom.

Group of teachers standing on the grass

A tree growth game we played with Michelle

We enjoyed a catered lunch on the patio at the education center and then had a delightful afternoon with Dr. Mildred Barya, a professor at UNC Asheville who shared her gift of poetry with our team.  She beautifully led us through a process of engaging our senses in order to create an original poem true to ourselves.  Her approach was surprisingly personal to each team member and we were all moved and inspired by the experience.

Dr. Mildred Barya (UNC Asheville) leads us in a creative writing exercise

We traveled on to Mount Pisgah campground and set up our tents right before the rain.  We shared dinner together and then had our evening meeting.  As we talked, we were in agreement that the group has been wonderfully cohesive and each person has been willing and able to personally share themselves in a meaningful way.  We were twelve strangers from across the state just a few days ago.  But with our love of learning and the outdoors connecting us, we have found lots of fun and also refreshment for the soul.  We will go into the next school year as different educators because of this experience.  It is a unique week and we are all privileged to be a part of it.

The blog title for the day is “Obey your way,” a quote from Mildred.  She was directly speaking about us developing our poems that we wrote this afternoon.  However, this evening we all agreed that this is a fantastic motto for each of us personally.  We all have our different teaching styles and we need to be true to how we educate scholars best.

Mountains cloaked in mist

Our view at sunset from the Pisgah Inn

Blue Ridge

“Birds in the Mist (Net)”

“Thank God I have seen an orange sky with purple clouds. How easy it is to forget that we have the privilege of living in God’s art gallery.”—Erica Goros

We crawled out of our tents before the sun had risen and the owls were still hooting. Why did we get up so early? To see a beautiful sunrise along the Blue Ridge Parkway and to get an early start on our birding adventure.

Sunrise view from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mount Mitchell

Sunrise view from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mount Mitchell

After a beautiful sunrise (that we had to be dragged away from), we made our way to an elevation of 5,100 ft on the Big Butt trailhead to start banding birds. Ornithologist John Gerwin taught us about his research on the Hermit Thrush and then we pulled out the nets to actually catch and band some. We used recorded bird calls and a wooden decoy to draw in a male bird, and it was only a matter of minutes before we had one caught in our spiderweb-like net. Once we had him in hand we confirmed his sex, took his weight, aged him by looking at his tail feathers, and added two different types of bands to his legs. After a morning of calling and netting birds we had tallied a Hermit Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco, and Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Sarah with a Golden-crowned Kinglet that we caught in the mist net.

Sarah with a Chestnut-sided Warbler that we caught in the mist net.

Although bird banding was amazing, the draw of going to the summit of the highest mountain east of the Black Hills of South Dakota led us to our next destination, Mount Mitchell. Once we arrived at the summit, we learned about the history of Mount Mitchell and the establishment of North Carolina State Parks. We were joined by Amy Tomcho, local birder and Audubon representative.  We then took a hike along the summit nature trail where we learned about salamanders, owls, and the spruce-fir forest.

The group at Mount Mitchell

The group at Mount Mitchell.

One of many salamanders we caught!

One of many salamanders we caught — a pygmy salamander!

We ended our day with nature journaling, hunting for salamanders, exploring the South Toe River, and an amazing group dinner at the campground.

Blue Ridge

“The Journey Continues: A New Road for a New Deal”

As tents were packed, the Educators of Excellence caravan headed to our next adventure at the base of Mount Mitchell. Driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the group explored the scenic view while making a stop at the historic Linn Cove Viaduct. The team enjoyed “pie in the park” while having lunch (and pie for dessert!) and learning the historical connection between Linville Falls and the American Revolution from Ranger Jonathan Bennett.

The group at Wiseman's View overlooking the Linville Gorge

The group at Wiseman’s View overlooking the Linville Gorge.

The team arrived at our next destination at Briar Bottom Group Campground just in time to set up camp before experiencing the soothing downpour of rain and the rumbling of mountain skies. We prepared for bird banding in the morning under the picnic shelter.

Learning about bird banding with Museum ornithologist, John Gerwin.

Learning about bird banding with Museum ornithologist, John Gerwin.

There were a couple of quotes of the day that we’d like to share to give you a sense of our experience.

“Don’t let me forget to get the dead weasel out of the van.”
—Melissa (After collecting a road-killed weasel for the group to observe, which was later returned to the forest.)

“When you’re a lifelong learner, you are always able to be surprised by nature when you open yourself up to the world around you.”
—Nikki (While reflecting on how we’ve been impacted by the natural world around us.)

Blue Ridge

“Inquiry Fever”

Inquiry Fever:  The fervent desire to explore, observe, and learn.

We all have “Inquiry Fever”!  The excitement is contagious.  We spent the day in Stone Mountain State Park, starting with a hike up to the summit for a geology lesson on how the region was formed.  Along the way, we encountered a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, a Red-spotted Newt, a deceased Eastern Red Bat, fence lizards, a goldfinch, and so much more!!

Next, we went to Roaring Fork River and met representatives from the NC Wildlife Commission. We put on waders and wetsuits and went seining and snorkeling in the river in order to identify a variety of fish, including a Brook Trout, Smallmouth Bass, and a Redlip Shiner.  We were also able to identify three different kinds of crayfish. It was a cool experience — literally — the water was quite cold! To cap off the afternoon, we hiked to Stone Mountain Falls and splashed in the water there.

We are all learning from each other and especially from our leader scientists.  It is awesome to be among like-minded educators who are willing to stop and explore!  For example, we spent a significant amount of time observing and inquiring about two Broad-necked Root-borer Beetles laying eggs.

We are now gathered together at camp working on our projects and smelling delicious burritos cooking.  Can’t wait for tomorrow’s adventures!

Blue Ridge

“Salamanders Team in the Stream”

Group of teachers in the forest.

Cohort #1: Educators of Excellence

The day started off rainy and dreary but as we packed the vans and headed towards North Carolina’s Stone Mountain State Park the skies cleared. During our trip we listened to a podcast “Ologies — Cervidology.” “Cervid” means neck and is the study of deer. We learned some crazy things like the fact that deer will sometimes prey upon baby birds.

Upon arriving we quickly unpacked the tents and set them up; some of us for the first time ever! We spent the early evening getting to know each other through poetry and self-introduction. We also covered the schedule for our trip and norms.

We spent time getting in tune with our senses and observing the natural wonder all around us. After some exploration, we found a Leaf-footed Bug, a Broad-necked Root Borer Beetle and a raven, and one group found an Eastern Box Turtle. Nature is all around us!

Broad-necked Root Borer Beetle.

Broad-necked Root Borer Beetle — check out those mandibles!


We enjoyed a camp prepared dinner and took a quick journey to the falls to swim in the brisk water before tucking in for the night.

Melissa and two Sarahs from Team Salamander appreciating Widow Creek Falls.

Melissa and two Sarahs from Team Salamander appreciating Widow Creek Falls.

Blue Ridge

“The Mountains are Waiting”

woman backpacker surveys a distant mountain range

The Educators of Excellence are all looking forward to our upcoming Blue Ridge Institute July 8-16, 2021. Here, Wendy Hall surveys the mountainous landscape.

“As classrooms were packed and cleaned an elite group of teachers were doing other things.  The school year had come to a close but select teachers from North Carolina were preparing for the next adventure, exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains. These educators are a part of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Educators of Excellence Program and will be spending over a week together in the North Carolina Mountains. Along with closing down their classrooms the notable nine— Wendy Hall, Stephanie Ingram, Amy Jordan, Sarah Laws, Lindsay Smith, Sarah Trinidad, Bill Wade, Nikki Walker, and myself– began preparations to explore the great outdoors. Sarah Laws used her creativity to create a flyer to promote the trip. The flyer contained information so that her students and others could follow her journey.  Others collected camping gear, trekked along hiking trails, researched habitats, explored wildlife manuals, made lists, and tried to avoid reading all the articles about recent bear shenanigans.

Somehow the pending trip had me looking at nature in a new way. My morning walks became more of an outside classroom where the breeze felt different, the sounds of chirping birds became louder and various vegetation left me with a sense of wonder. Somehow just the thought of being in nature for an extended period of time, had initiated a greater appreciation of nature and the vibrant world around us. I can only imagine how much more this curiosity and delight will be heightened as we hike through the Blue Ridge Mountains. This sense of awe and wonder is what I desire to encapsulate and then share with my students, colleagues, and friends along the journey and into the upcoming school year.  I am sure that I speak for the team when I say that we would love to have you travel with us via our blog and be a part of all the wonderful adventures yet to come. The Mountains are waiting.

~Talicia Smith, Science Teacher, Douglas Byrd Middle School, Cumberland County

 

“I am so looking forward to my time this summer as a part of the Blue Ridge Institute. I was talking and dreaming about it all through Spring Break when I backpacked on the Appalachian Trail for 4 days! Two of my friends and I hiked about ten miles a day and camped each night. It was fantastic to walk from Winding Stair Gap to the Nantahala Rec Center. While I did, I talked about all the natural aspects surrounding us that I would hopefully better understand after experiencing the Educators of Excellence program and learning from the experts. In addition, during this trip, I got my trail name. I was named, “Charmed” and it’s a fun story that you should feel free to ask me about sometime!

In addition, my foster child was moving with relatives at the end of the school year and his last request was for us to “hike a really big mountain.” So one weekend in May, we did the six miles to the top of Mount Mitchell for his final hike with our family! That’s the highest peak East of the Mississippi (6684 feet), so we were glad to fulfill his request together!

It will be great to connect with other teachers and learn about our amazing state of North Carolina over the course of nine days together immersed in nature.

~Wendy Hall, First Grade Teacher, Fairview Elementary School, Union County”

woman inside a green tent

Wendy practices camping during her spring break along the Appalachian Trail. Teachers on our Blue Ridge Institute will also camp outdoors in tents during our trip.

 

While we won’t be backpacking to get from point A to point B as we travel the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, teacher participants in our Institutes can expect numerous hikes, as well as camping in tents, and daily educational adventures as we meet researchers and experts in each location.

 

woman with backpack in front of sign post for Appalachian Trail

Wendy poses with the Appalachian Trail sign.