Ask a former Sennett Student what their most memorable experience was in middle school and they will undoubtedly give you two words – Upham Woods. Their enthusiasm is genuine. Lifelong memories are created from the time they take that final turn off County Highway N into the parking lot until the moment their tired arms reload the school buses. Upham Woods is not just a field trip, it is a formative journey.
Students spend three days at Upham Woods with environmental education as a focus. Their teachers instruct them in archery, canoeing, camping skills, aquatic life, and crafts. Students are also led in team challenges, such as safety catches and taken on hikes where they might find themselves cheering their classmates on as they squeeze through caves. During recreation time, laughter can be heard as students work to capture the other team’s flag or sit on an uncooperative balloon in a team relay. Running, investigating, and playing while learning is what makes outdoor education a success.
With all that learning, students need frequent refueling at Upham Woods. Each meal is an event in itself. Some students arrive to the meal early with a designated job of either “hopper” or “scraper.” Surprisingly, this is done without mumbles or groans. It is an important part of being in the Upham community. “Hoppers” and “scrapers” are the hosts of the dinners and listen carefully to their duties before everyone else files into the cafeteria. Hats and bandannas are hung neatly in the hallway upon entrance and students seat themselves. All meals begin with appreciations. Students stand to give praise to others for being supportive, succeeding in a challenge, or for being a good sport. These appreciations are given some time to sink in during the moment of silence that follows. As the meal gets officially under way, students can be seen passing dishes of food around, striking up conversation, and practicing their table manners. “Hoppers” get up and get the food to be served, serving others before they get a chance to eat. When it comes time to clean up, dishes are stacked and our “scrapers” are armed with rubber spatulas that are their namesake. This “family style” eating brings diners even closer together.
Each night ends with a campfire in the lodge, where student leaders amp up the participation by leading their peers in song, teachers put on skits that make them look quite ridiculous, and stories are told. The second campfire night undoubtedly leads to tears as students participate in a candlelight ceremony. One by one students light a candle and tell their story about how Upham Woods has changed them and given them refuge. Students talk about how they hung out and got to know people in their class in a new way, a way that couldn’t have happened back at school. New friendships were formed and old ones strengthened. Students are just different at Upham Woods, more open, accepting – more themselves.
I will never forget my first candlelight ceremony. It had been my first year teaching and it had been a trying one. I had replaced a strong, African American teacher who is now one of my heroes. However, taking over her classroom meant that I had my young, inexperienced hands full. The kids had tested me at every turn, yet one by one, they got up and gave eloquent recollections of not only Upham Woods, but their school year. Many candles were lit with apologies for the hard time they had given me. One of my Latino boys who hid his books and only turned in his homework secretly, stood up to speak. His words are engraved in my memory, “The thing about Ms. Vieth is that she has heart. You can hear how much she cares in her voice with everything she says.” At that point, I was the one crying. My students had acted so tough all year. Until that moment, I had not realized that I had gotten through.
It is the spirit of Upham Woods that makes this trip so important. It couldn’t be done without the teachers. Prior to Upham Woods, Sennett teachers and parents work selling concessions to bring down the cost of Upham Woods. With over 60% of our population on free and reduced lunch, scholarships are necessary. Teachers write letters to obtain scholarships and students even participate in some events, like Scoopie Night at an area Culver’s.
During the trip, teachers spend time away from their families to be with their students. Some staff, including our Learning Coordinator, stay up at Upham Woods from Monday through Friday to ensure that everything runs smoothly. And when it comes down to it, the staff who go to Upham Woods work hard to ensure a successful trip. One Sennett teacher describes her day as follows, “On Tuesday I was awake and talking with students from 6 AM until 1:00 AM the following day (19 hours without a break). After I fell asleep at 1:00 AM, I was awoken 2 hours later (3 AM) to help a student who had wet herself. I am not trying to brag; I amazed even myself that I could give for this long straight.” While it is truly the marathon of field trips, every minute is worth it.
Students return to Sennett with what staff refer to as the “Upham Glow.” They have learned a lot about each other and a lot about life from the trip. There is a new sense of camaraderie and a new way of being together as a class. There are stories of wildlife they viewed, campfires started without a match, amazing accomplishments, and hysterical failures. The rainy days or frozen fingers are soon forgotten as they seek out a new friend at lunch to reminisce. Upham Woods puts learning where your heart is.