BELLE MEADE SCHOOL: Experiential education in practice

- by Alexandra Campbell-Forte

BELLE MEADE SCHOOL: Experiential education in practice

"[Here we] work as a community instead of being overly competitive. We encourage each other. It is an environment that encourages students to grow and explore." (12th grade student who recently started attending Belle Meade)

Lately, I have been reading a lot about "experiential education" and the importance of connecting the classroom to the world around us. As a teacher, I agree that this is a vital step toward a well-rounded and holistic approach to the education of our young people. In fact, the secondary school where I currently teach offers exactly this kind of experience. Although I only started working there this year, I have known about the program since moving to Virginia 7 years ago. In light of the recent experiential education hype, we want to share our school story with your readers:

"[Belle Meade] is so different from other schools in the US." (11th grade exchange student from Dresden, Germany)

Take a drive down F.T. Valley Road (route 231) between Rappahannock and Madison counties, and you may notice a set of tranquil blue and yellow buildings perched on serene farmland with a sign that reads “Belle Meade School & Farm” along the road. Stop in for a visit and you will expect to see a typical school scene: students sitting in classrooms hard at work and teachers standing at blackboards explaining the day’s lesson. However, more than likely what you will see is something different: students and teachers working together, engaging in valuable discussions and hands-on projects. Belle Meade School is one of few schools in the area that offers true “experiential education” in a natural environment. As someone recently commented: "This is the best kept secret in Rappahannock!"

"This moment matters. Some how we need to get people to understand that...Some parents struggle with sending students to high school. This is such a warm hug. [My daughter] has just fallen right in here. I am a little jealous...people have a certain idea of high school, but here students like each other and can work together...people should be beating down the doors to get in here...This is a gift. This is a gift that you give your child." (Parent of a new 10th grade student)

Nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Belle Meade School (in it's 8th year and VISA accredited) offers a holistic secondary-education program that functions on a working 138-acre farm. Grounded in the ideals of farming and sustainable living, Belle Meade strives to create an atmosphere where students can discover their passions, express their creativity, develop responsibility, and learn to be contributing members of our community.

"We drove in and I looked around and said: 'This is the school?' I came into one of the classrooms and looked at the mountains out the windows. There's a freedom...excessive freedom...the doors are open, so open, so welcoming." (Parent of an 8th grader)

Students and staff start each day with a community gathering called “circle” which allows each person a chance for quiet reflection followed by group discussion. Each day, members take turns reading inginteresting excerpts from favorite texts or discussing philosophical questions before the day begins. After circle, everyone breaks into their specific “chore groups” to complete many of the necessary morning responsibilities on the farm (i.e. feeding animals, collecting eggs, moving livestock, tending the garden, housekeeping, etc). Once chores are done, students begin their classes for the day with core subjects in the morning and electives/resources in the afternoon which rotate throughout the week. The usual courses are required (math, science, English, history, language), but students also have the option of learning and engaging in specific activities in which they are interested during the day. Some examples of these options are horseback riding, music, ecology, cooking/culinary art, gardening, multimedia/technology, outdoor education, etc.

"I grew up on a farm with chores and responsibilities. I can tell a change in my son. He has opened up. This is one of the best environments. A very quiet environment and a great experience. I would rather have a kid here than anywhere else." (Parent of a 6th grader)

Each day at Belle Meade ends the same way it began: with another brief community gathering(bringing everything full circle) during which students and staff members share their various experiences and thoughts from the day before departing. This allows everyone to come together one last time before going their separate ways. On a few afternoons during the week, there are additional extra-curricular activities and school "community work" days in which both students, parents, and faculty/staff participate. Additionally, at the end of each trimester, the school community as well as family members and friends gather for an evening of food and festivities in celebration.

"[There is a] connection and an opportunity to create something important here, being outside and seeing where your food comes from." (Parent of a 12th grader)

When one spends sometime at Belle Meade, he/she begins to notice the sense of community and support that each person has for one another. This is different than what we are used to experiencing in a typical academic environment. Schools often have a very dry and impersonal feel to them. But here, both students and staff come together as a family. Moreover, students learn lessons beyond standard secondary education: they learn about life and themselves. What Belle Meade offers is an experience, and it is not just a typical "independent school" or a "farm school" experience; it is a unique experience that cannot be expressed in a few words or even an entire article; a person must see and feel it for him/herself.

"[I appreciate] the community, the ability to express ourselves, and the responsibility that comes with it." (11th grade student who has been at Belle Meade for 4 years)

Our director, Susan Hoffman, has worked in a variety of educational environments for many years. Her mission in opening Belle Meade was to build a unique educational environment that fosters community support. She once said to me that "We want our students to care, to dare to care, to dare to strive, to dare to find their passions, and to care about the planet. We want them to know that they matter and that what they are doing matters."

"We have a lot more responsibility and freedom. That is very unique here. And variety. We are encouraged to try a lot of different things that we may or may not like which provide us with wider horizons and bigger perspectives." (12th grade student who has attended Belle Meade for 2 years)

What are the lessons that we want to teach the youth of today? What are the experiences that we want our children to have? What is truly important in life and growing up? How can we integrate all of this into a valuable education? These are the questions that both parents and teachers constantly ask when thinking about education, and these are the things that we constantly strive to answer at Belle Meade.

*Belle Meade School is open to visitors on Wednesdays or by appointment.

Alexandra Campbell-Forte

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