Green River Preserve, a summer camp located on 3,400 private acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, has come to symbolize the exciting start of fifth grade at Ashley Hall. Every fall, students pack their sleeping bags and bathing suits for an overnight adventure designed purposefully to allow them to connect with the great outdoors and one another.
Green River Preserve’s educational philosophy is based on the belief that four specific types of experiences–discovery, growth, independence, and community–directly impact four important predictors of a healthy and happy life: curiosity, resilience, autonomy, and connection. With that in mind, their staff designs an 3-4 day itinerary for Ashley Hall students to explore their camp while feeling safe, secure, and confident.
“From the Polar Bear plunge to caving and climbing Lower Bald and Upper Bald, each student, parent, and teacher on the trip are given the opportunity to push themselves to challenge their minds and bodies at a comfort level that suits them,” says Intermediate Program STEAM teacher and trip leader Kiki Sweigart. The goal of the trip for every fifth grader is three-fold, according to Sweigart:
- Have fun challenging yourself.
- Take the opportunity to get to know others that you might not necessarily be in your friend group.
- Learn from others about the natural world as well as a variety of interesting tidbits of information.
Through each day’s adventures also comes incredible learning opportunities. “The academic part of each day comes with the amazing pieces of nature they are exposed to through their hiking mentors, from identifying and eating plants to the early geography of Long Rock,” Sweigart says. “Every day is always about having fun, taking in what you can in the moment, enjoying each other’s company, working as a team, and feeling the energy of inspiring each other.”
Here’s a snapshot of what a typical day looks like for fifth graders at Green River Preserve:
7:15 a.m. | Wake-Up Bell + Breakfast
The girls’ day starts with a full gathering for a family-style breakfast which they enjoy sitting together as their cabin groups.
9 a.m. | Morning Hike
The first morning hike starts about 9 a.m. “They are grouped in a hiking team that is a mixture of girls from all the different cabins. That way they are truly mixing it up!” Sweigart says. “Each group does all the same hikes at different times and different days.”
12:30 p.m. | Lunch + Afternoon Adventure
After a delicious lunch, students and chaperones head out again for an afternoon hike full of adventure options. “The girls have the opportunity to do the climbing wall, create a clay piece, and this year, we had the pleasure of meeting a Cherokee family member who taught us basket weaving,” Sweigart says. “Each day there is also 45 minute free period for swimming, zip-lining, board games, and just relaxing.”
6:30 p.m. | Dinner + Night Exploration
Nights at GRP are full of s’mores and stories around a campfire. The girls also learn outdoors skills, and love learning how to build a fire themselves.
9 p.m. | Reflection + Lights Out
“Each night, cabin mentors walk the girls back to their cabins and meet for their ‘Rose, Bud, and Thorn’ for the day.” For rose, the girls identify the best part of their day; for bud, something that they are looking forward to; and thorn, something that didn’t go too well.
Boat Building has become a rite of passage for Ashley Hall fifth graders, who partner with the Lowcountry Maritime Society on a year-long project crafting their own fleet of wooden boats, and the tradition continues this year! While the safety precautions have increased, the opportunities for skill building, confidence gains, and outdoor fun make this the perfect project for students to learn the ropes of an experiential education.
Research shows that girls decide as early as fifth grade if they will consider careers in the areas of math and science. For the Intermediate Program, sparking interest and solidifying skills in STEAM fields are key curricular goals. “I like Boat Building because it teaches me new skills like drilling, driving, and measuring parts of the boat,” said Marlowe Johnsen ’28. “It gives us new ways to learn.” Creating an outlet for girls to gain confidence and enjoy working outdoors is also a priority. “I love it because everyone is working together, we get to try new things, and we are making new friends while we do it,” asserted Brier Fava ’28. “Yes, we do use power tools a lot!”
During this unique STEAM project, students are guided through the process of learning how to read scaled plans and transform those plans into a wooden boat they build themselves. In addition to teaching building craftsmanship, the program places an emphasis on communication and teamwork. “I love Boat Building because you get to work together and make a really cool project in the end,” said Hannah King ’28. That finale comes this spring, when the girls will head to Colonial Lake to put their handiwork to the test. The year-long journey there is exactly what floats their boats.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was renowned as an advocate for gender equality and the rights of women, and it is only fitting that Ashley Hall’s Intermediate Program students honored her recent passing with a House competition activity that emphasized balance, team work, and collaboration. Taking Ginsburg’s quote “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you” as inspiration, students first learned more about Ginsburg’s groundbreaking achievements in their humanities classes and then worked in teams to design and build their own “scale of justice” as part of a STEAM activity.
In addition to strategizing how to balance their scale with different objects, students made weight estimates and charted their findings. In the spirit of the activity, teachers emphasized that final scores would be based not only on accurate estimates but also on each group’s ability to demonstrate collaborative teamwork, where all members showed guided, patient leadership. The resulting creations and display of cooperation were fitting tributes to the legacy of a woman known for her collaborative nature and quest for balance. “It was a truly awesome day of activities,” emphasized Intermediate Program faculty member Olivia Hipp ’10. “One of those ‘this is why I do this’ days.”
The essence of any school is found in its values, and Ashley Hall’s Honor Pledge is embedded deeply within its community: “I pledge that I will not lie, cheat, or steal nor tolerate those who do.” For the last two weeks, Intermediate Program and Upper School students have been challenged to think deeply about the place of honor within their own lives and the ways in which they uphold this most vital promise to themselves and others. “During times of caution and change, it’s easy to lose sight of the morals and values that bind this great school together, and that is why the Honor Code is so vital,” said Head of the Honor Council Kayla Kirkland ’21. “My goal is to make sure that this school year, though it looks so different than years past, remains true to the same values that Ashley Hall has always embodied.”
Having investigated the meaning behind each of the School’s Hallmarks throughout Lower School, Intermediate Program students are fully prepared to take the next step. “At this age, the responsibility of making a pledge to uphold our school’s Honor Code is truly significant to them and goes along with a deeper understanding of what it means to be an honorable person,” noted Intermediate Program faculty member Olivia Hipp ’10. For the first time, students at this age are asked to sign their name to the pledge, both as a commitment to upholding its tenets and as an acknowledgement of honor’s central role in their life. “I think that the students learn early on the Hallmarks which are built on our foundation of honor,” emphasized Intermediate Program Coordinator Mary Schweers. “We go over the pledge with them and ask them moving forward to write it on their tests so that we are embedding and promoting a culture of honor because it is a cornerstone of our entire community, and it is what sets Ashley Hall apart.”
In the Upper School during each day’s Morning Meeting this week, students have focused on a different element of the Honor Pledge in preparation for their signing of the pledge. As part of their virtual assembly on Wednesday, they listened to Upper School faculty member Andrea Muti, the keynote speaker for Honor Week, who offered a moving and inspirational look at honor’s place within a community and its role in his own development of character and integrity. He emphasized:
“I learned that role models are not individuals that always seek the attention of their peers but leaders who lead their community in silence because their actions speak for themselves. I learned that making mistakes is human, but we can stand up with dignity if we have the courage to take responsibility for our actions. Finally, I learned that the most honorable people are not those who seek honor for their personal glory but those who, while leading honorably and following their conscience, expect the same from the people around them. They are not scared to let you know that you are wrong because they see the potential inside of you and sincerely want you to be the best version of yourself.”
“When we have the fortune, ladies, of finding a community like Ashley Hall, made of individuals who support us and value us for who we are, we have the duty to protect it and place it before our individual needs. So when you sign the Honor Pledge and you promise that you will not cheat, lie, nor tolerate those who do, remember that you not only commit to honorable behavior but also become part of a larger community that loves you, that believes in you, and that trusts that with your actions you will shape and inspire the integrity of your little sisters. After all, this is exactly what a tradition is: committing, generation after generation, to the same shared principles and values, so that when you one day leave Ashley Hall to go to college, your honor and examples will continue to live reflected in the actions of those who will come after you.”
That enduring legacy of honor continues to bind Ashley Hall’s many generations, both those who have gone before and those still to come.
What does it mean to be great at math? For sixth graders in Intermediate Program faculty member Kelly Brinson’s class, their approach to this question can influence their perception of their ability, as well as themselves, for the rest of their lives. “I think it is important for students to have the confidence that they can do anything,” emphasized Brinson. “One of the great myths of all time is that being ‘good’ in math is a gift and something that you either have or you don’t have. I’ve had students come into my room at the beginning of the year and tell me ‘I am not a math person. I can’t do this.’ Of course, that is not at all true, but squashing that mindset is the first thing that has to happen.”
To combat any preconceived negative connotations, Brinson purposely began her classes this year by asking her students to draw on both their strengths and weaknesses to redefine what makes a good mathematician. Working virtually for the first two weeks, her students used the Padlet app to offer their thoughts, acknowledge their doubts and biases, and share their budding confidence. “I can do math pretty well, but I don’t know all the answers,” wrote Lillie Jackson ’27. “I think to be a math person you have to be willing to pay attention in class and study a lot so you know and can learn all the answers.” Agreeing with her classmate, Genevieve Gouvernet ’27 noted, “You need to be open to learning and open to new ideas. To put it simply, you just need to have the passion for learning to be a ‘math person.’”
Many students’ posts reflected Brinson’s lesson of perseverance. “I also think that being great at math doesn’t just mean that you are smart; it also means that you don’t give up even if everyone else does,” wrote Belle Raffle ’27. For Brinson, such beliefs are the first step in the right direction. “I wanted to give my students a voice immediately, even if it was through a virtual means using Padlet, so they could be ‘heard,” she said. “It also has allowed me a way to connect and get to know them better.” That certainly is an equation for success.
Did you know? According to the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, girls’ school grads are six times more likely to consider majoring in math, science, and technology compared to girls who attended coed schools.