CA Curious

I’ve Been to the Mountains, ISEEN It All

January 27, 2022

Cary Academy’s commitment to discovery and innovation keeps us looking for ways to improve, and one of our key avenues for growth is paying attention to what other excellent educators are doing around the world. Back in 2015, I first connected with an awesome group called the Independent School Experiential Education Network (ISEEN), made up of over 100 schools and service providers, primarily in North America.  

ISEEN folks are serious, thoughtful educators, but if you saw them from a distance, you might mistake them for summer camp counselors. As a longtime summer camper, that might be part of the reason I felt so at home in this group from the start—they love to keep learning, and they do their teaching and learning mostly outside of traditional classrooms. ISEEN members often wear several hats in their home schools—focusing on everything from outdoor adventures to global studies to sustainability. They are the folks linking students up with chances to learn on field trips, special co-curricular programs, and internships. These are my people! 

Increasingly, though, they are not just mine. I’ve been sharing ISEEN with CA colleagues in yearly Winter Institutes around the country (in places as diverse as Hawaii, Cleveland, Vancouver (BC), NYC, & Portland, OR) as well as the Summer Institutes for classroom teachers in Santa Fe. This year’s Winter Institute in Sedona, AZ, was last week, and it was a doozy—gorgeous red rocks and stunning blue skies; educators contemplating belonging in a land where the Indigenous population was dispossessed yet endures; and phenomenal networking with super-talented colleagues able to gather face-to-face (vaxxed and masked!) for the first time in two years.   

The eight-person team from Cary Academy was the largest we’ve ever sponsored. Here are some of their reflections on the Institute: 

“At the ISEEN Institute in Sedona, 100+ educators found time to discuss educational philosophy and practice, finding ways to ground those discussions in place and practice.  Several of us became students again as we biked the red rock trails outside the Valley Verde School. We learned history and physics and that incredible connection involving small changes that make a big difference.  Want to brake more effectively, especially when going down steep trails?  Drop your heels while keeping your pedals level, and you’ll increase your braking power.  For me, ISEEN was about unexpected connections, small changes, learning outside of silos, and the pure joy of action.” 

–Robin Follet, Head of Upper School 

“My experience at ISEEN was something I couldn’t imagine. I was overcome with feelings of belonging as we shared stories about the places we came from and reflected on the path we’re on. The most impactful moment I experienced while at ISEEN happened as I was sitting in the science classroom. As we prepared for our experiment, I became excited to learn which prompted me to think about my students. This must be what they feel when we do experiments in class. What a wonderful feeling to truly be curious! I’m excited to share these valuable lessons I learned at the ISEEN Winter Institute with my team here at CA.” 

–Tamara Friend, MS Science Teacher 

It was amazing to connect with passionate, like-minded educators from all over the nation. Each day we were asked to dig in and do the hard work of designing education programs that were rich with integrity and meaningfulness. I can’t fully articulate in a brief statement how fortunate I feel to have had the opportunity to network with such talented educators of experiential education.” 

–Charlotte Kelly, US Science Teacher 

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“The most impactful part of being at ISEEN for me was seeing how passionate everyone was about creating programs for students that will challenge the way they define learning.”  

–Megan Hirst, Community Engagement Assistant 

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“My ISEEN colleagues have such palpable energy and zeal for crafting fun and relevant learning experiences! One phrase mirrored back to us in the closing session “Voices of ISEEN” — Do and reflect, do and reflect, do and reflect. — really speaks to the good work which unifies the wide variety of disciplines represented. While in Sedona, I spent a whole day with fellow educators and school leaders from across the country studying the waste stream of our host school. We took an eye-opening tour of campus with a student following the flow of table scraps, recyclables, and landfill items; got our hands dirty shoveling compost that had been aged on campus by student “work-job” teams over two years; and then took a field trip to Sedona Recycles to see for ourselves the importance of proper sorting back on campus. Then on the van ride back and in our “homeroom” groups later that night, my peers and I discussed how we might bring seeds of what we learned back home with us to germinate in our own unique contexts.” 

–Palmer Seeley, Entrepreneurship Director 

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“At Cary Academy, we have been fortunate to be a part of a network of educators who believe in and are being innovative with experiential education. For years Cary Academy has done experiential education with Discovery Term, World Language trips ,and the Work Experience program and we are now in a place where we are being recognized as thought leaders in the field.” 

–Danielle Johnson-Webb, Director of Equity & Community Engagement 

“The ISEEN event in Sedona really got me thinking about the role of Ex Ed in the cultivation of mindsets (e.g. empathy, risk-taking, or entrepreneurial thinking) and how reflection activities could be designed to both fuel and track student growth in these areas. When ISEEN 2023 comes to Cary, I look forward to sharing the many ways our students are creators or co-creators of their own Ex Ed opportunities.” 

–Martina Greene, Dean of Faculty 

This brings me to the primary reason for this blog post; Drum roll, please… 

Cary Academy is honored to announce that it will host next year’s ISEEN Winter Institute! We will be finalizing plans during the spring, but we have identified an Institute theme that captures part of what makes Cary Academy special: Empowered ExEd: Student Leadership & Sustained Partnerships

The theme highlights our school’s long commitment to empowering our students with chances to grow as leaders and community members. Almost nothing at C.A. functions without student involvement and co-creation. Think about our clubs, affinity groups, Discovery Term, athletics, and a host of interscholastic competitive programs (debate, HOSA, robotics, SciOly, USAYPT, startup challenge, etc.)—all of them feature students leading, guiding, and mentoring their successors. 

The theme also points to myriad sustained partnerships that our students and employees leverage to enhance learning here. Our Service Learning program alone connects our campus to dozens of excellent organizations that serve people in need in our community, state, country, and planet. Collaborators like District C & Essential Partners build our capacity as both students and educators to work effectively in teams, and those lessons carry over to work in the classroom and throughout the campus. In the last six years, over 150 different local businesses, nonprofits, artists, and government agencies at every level have hosted Chargers as part of our Work Experience Program.  The list of partnerships is long, and we keep growing it. 

So, we have a lot to share with our ISEEN colleagues next year, just as we always have more to learn. 

Watch for more about the ISEEN Winter Institute, Jan 17-20, 2023, hosted by Cary Academy. We will need a lot of help to pull this off, and we have no doubt that the students and employees in this dynamic and innovative learning community will shine. 

Written by Dr. Michael McElreath, Experiential Learning Director


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