Colorado Academy aims to send graduates into the world who are independent critical thinkers, curious when they encounter new things, and able to grow and evolve through lifelong learning experiences. To accomplish this, we focus on the development of each student through academics and social and emotional learning. Each and every moment that a child spends in CA’s Lower School is in some way pursuing the growth of the whole child by giving students a variety of opportunities to be successful.
For the past 19 years, a trip to Crow Canyon, an archeological and educational center located in Cortez, Colorado, has been the culminating event that brings all of those Lower School experiences, lessons, and opportunities together.
The Crow Canyon experience is an annual tradition where all Fifth Grade students and a team of teachers travel by bus to the Four Corners region of Colorado to spend five days together. This is the longest overnight trip offered in Lower School, and it combines outdoor education and academics through experiential learning. The students dig deep into archaeological studies and get to see with their own eyes what they’ve been learning in the classroom about the Ancestral Puebloan people. They participate in hands-on learning experiences, hike, play outside, perform everyday tasks to help keep Crow Canyon clean and tidy, and visit both Hovenweep National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park.
For CA students, Crow Canyon isn’t just a week-long learning experience. It is experiential education in practice—learning from within a topic, rather than at a distance from it. However, the key to making the Crow Canyon experience successful is the academic foundation that we lay out for Fifth Graders prior to boarding the bus. Students put in hours of study about archaeology, the Ancestral Puebloan people, and the history and environment of the Four Corners region. In Mrs. Simmons’ science class, students learn about archaeological excavation, build their own middens (trash heaps), and put that knowledge to practice by excavating an anonymous classmate’s midden and seeing if they can figure out whose it is. In their classrooms, students also learn about the different Puebloan eras and the artifacts that identify each time period.
CA sets students up for success by preparing them ahead of time, so that while they are in the Four Corners area, the students can ask well-informed questions. They meet teachers, scientists, and historians from Crow Canyon who augment their teaching with hands-on experiences. The Crow Canyon educators are amazed by the depth of our students’ knowledge—and so are we! “The educators love our kids, because they ask really good questions and they take it beyond the simple,” says Diane Simmons, who has been organizing the Crow Canyon trip since it started in 2000. “They go much deeper.”
When looking at experiential education, most think of it only as an opportunity to get more hands-on experience and to learn from within the topic. Few realize the social and emotional challenges it can provide for kids, especially those asked to be away from their families for the first time in a completely new environment. What do four nights and five days away from family mean for a Fifth Grader? Well, this is where the word “independent” in independent school shows itself, and this is what experiential education is all about.
Students pack their own bags according to the well-planned packing list provided by the school and are responsible for all of their own belongings for the entirety of the trip. The students are teamed with different groups of old and new friends throughout the week in their bus, cabin, and education groups, calling for flexibility and adaptability throughout each day. They are in charge of keeping their water bottles filled, backpacks equipped with the appropriate academic materials, and wearing layers of clothing for each day’s adventure. They learn that being prepared for the day means that they will be at their best to take in the beauty of the area, focus on the learning, and enjoy the company of their peers and teachers.
Crow Canyon is the first intensive, overnight learning experience our kids have at CA, and they’re not just challenged to be independent, curious, and persevering, they are asked to excel academically and put their social and emotional learning to the test.
Even with the support system of CA teachers guiding them through the week, the students are asked to be independent. They are challenged in new ways, and sometimes it is hard, and sometimes they are tired, yet they persevere. Crucial to student success at Crow Canyon are the relationships that the Fifth Graders have built over the years.
In their time at CA, students have bonded with one another,—not just as peers but as friends— they have built a positive rapport with teachers as mentors, and they have truly become a part of the larger CA community which they can rely on for encouragement. Teachers and students, together for 24 hours a day at Crow Canyon, see very human sides of one another that aren’t as evident within the walls of our CA classrooms. We all get to be more real with one another, and be there for one another through all the routines of the day from sunup to sundown. Crow Canyon strengthens the relationships that kids already have and helps them form new friendships and build new support systems, as they prepare to head into Middle School, where their community will grow.
Crow Canyon is a transformational experience, because it combines so much of what we value as a community: independence, academic preparedness, support of friends and family, and the deep connections that are made through a shared adventure and new challenges. Fifth Graders learn that they can be successful in a new environment far away from home and gain confidence in their abilities to connect with others in an unfamiliar setting. Evidence of how well our students meet the personal, physical, and academic challenges of the week are in the compliments they receive throughout the week. On every visit to Crow Canyon, says Simmons, our students get recognized for “how polite they are, how interested they are, what great questions they ask, the connections they make—all of the things we have emphasized leading up to this trip through the entire Lower School.”
When students board the buses for their departure to Crow Canyon, they are Fifth Graders in every way. When they return Friday evening, they’ve matured into Middle School students. Crow Canyon is the final step we take in the Lower School to ensure that our students are ready to take on Middle School and any challenges they may face. On every trip to Crow Canyon, year after year, the students make us proud and prove that our focus on academics and social and emotional learning is putting them on a positive and successful path forward into the world.