Close Encounters of the VCS Kind
October 4, 2012
So often my September letter is a reflection of the Fall Encounter Week, and as this year we delayed our autumnal adventures later into the season, I include a few belated musings about this truly unique aspect of life at VCS. I have been part of many schools in my day but have rarely witnessed a program quite as uniquely reflective of the mission of a school as VCS Encounter Weeks are. They provide an exposure to the environs of Burlington, the state of Vermont, New England, and even the world that simply cannot compare. EWeeks have a particular genesis and design that is as unique as the program itself, and I would like to highlight that here.
The original philosophy behind EWeeks was a simple one: live our mission of creating educated and ecological citizens by giving them extended exposure to the outside world. Combine those goals with faculty who love to spend time with kids beyond the classroom, and a schedule dedicated to making it happen, and you have a recipe for true adventure. Longtime teachers Peter Goff and Cara Simone will tell you that as with many things at VCS, in the early days the programs were designed with one thing in mind: get kids to enjoy learning. And what better way to do that than to dedicate extended and intensive time to learning beyond the traditional confines of classroom walls, with their favorite teachers.
All of the “encounters” start with faculty members creating the offerings about a month before they actually happen, or in the case of the bigger trips, up to a year ahead. Staff are encouraged to devise trips based on their own interests, and share those with kids. As with the classroom instruction at VCS, a teacher’s love of a topic is often manifested in original ways during this process. A germ of an idea can be translated into reality by creative brainstorming with kids and fellow faculty members. Sometimes the ideas are combined with other groups, and sometimes they never make it off the drawing board, but the best ones actually happen and provide a full week of uninterrupted fun and learning. Interested in climbing the six highest peaks in the six New England states? Take a group of kids to try it in five days. Interested in plein air painting? Bring students to see the impressionist exhibit at Shelburne Museum and then have them work outside with oil and canvas. Interested in aquatic biology? Muck around in the tide pools and rub noses with the harbor seals of Acadia National Park. That which makes an adult light up with interest and excitement will undoubtedly be absorbed by students given the right environment, the right topic, and of course the right teacher.
The larger trips have a special feel of their own but they start with the same passion embedded in every EWeek adventure. Love the Indie film world? Create a trip to Sundance where kids can see top films, meet directors, and schmooze with famous, and maybe not so famous, actors. Love Italy? Take a group of twelve wide-eyed kids to Rome and guide them through the actual Roman Forum. Love to learn about sustainable agriculture in a foreign land? Take students to Belize to visit an organic cacao plantation and have them converse in Spanish with the inhabitants.
Fortunately, in my time at VCS, I have had the ability to visit many of the Encounter Week offerings and experience first hand what makes these three weeks each year so special. Whether it is rafting a white water river in Maine, working in the kitchen at American Flatbread, or riding the last leg of the famed circumnavigation of Lake Champlain, I have seen for myself the magic of students and faculty learning together outside the walls of Green Mountain Drive. In January, I will be leading a group of hearty SCUBA divers to the island of Eleuthera, Bahamas on a fantastic dive week, and I will get a full taste of encountering the world the Vermont Commons way.
Starting as a seventh grader, six years at VCS will produce at least eighteen terrific adventures for any student fortunate enough to go that distance. Some of these adventures will be less exciting than others, some will push the limits of endurance, and some will be life changing events that will light up an imagination forever. From the teacher’s perspective, imagine a career at Vermont Commons providing dozens of wonderful opportunities for passionately teaching kids the things that most excite them – you can’t beat it.
VCS has many unique programs that strike at the heart of what we do as a school, and unquestionably EWeeks fall into that category. They often provide kids and faculty (as well as a veteran administrator), with a whole new way of seeing the world. They reflect the best of what we offer, and the unique way we instill in children a passion for the world around them.