Science Teacher Jessa Agner addresses sixth-grade students in a boulder field on their class camping trip at Hickory Run State Park in the Poconos.

by Laura Jamieson

Many people remember the start of Middle School as an angst-ridden time of keeping up with rapidly-changing fashion trends, obsessing over hairstyles, trying to conceal braces and experimenting with “powder fresh scent” deodorant. But sixth graders at Germantown Friends School are digging out their oldest, ugliest sweatpants, borrowing older brothers’ oversized, flannel shirts and finding their warmest hats – no matter how goofy-looking – in preparation for four days of camping, hiking, exploring and roughing-it at Hickory Run State Park in the Pocono Mountains.

Any adolescent self-consciousness flies south with the birds once the students are out in the woods with no parents, homework, music lessons, sport practices or schedules. The kids are removed from their usual way of doing things and encouraged to step out of their comfort zone.

“I can’t think of a better way to start Middle School,” said Middle School Principal Ken Aldridge. “The students go out with the teachers and one another to have a bonding experience and figure out how to negotiate moments of adversity and personal challenge.”

This camping trip has bonded GFS sixth-grade classes for more than 50 years. In a parent newsletter from 1956, the first campout was called “an experiment in living simply.” That experiment has become an integral part of the GFS Middle School experience, and the Quaker tenet of simplicity continues to guide the mission as this year’s three sixth-grade classes – taught by June Gondi, Jeff Fetterman and Janet Kalkstein – head into the wilderness.

The students are not allowed to bring electronics – watches, phones or games.

“They simply don’t need to know what time it is,” said Kalkstein. “It’s now! That’s all they need to know.”

The kids can bring cameras, but they are encouraged to live in the moment instead of worrying about documenting it.

Science teacher Jessa Agner said that the time in nature “sets up the whole year’s focus on observational science.” She wants students to slow down and really see what is around them.

On hikes they stop in “magic spots” and sit alone in silence with their sketchbooks.

“It gives the kids a chance to practice those Quaker ideals of simplicity and being in the moment,” Agner said.

The trip fosters both independence and interdependence.

“Collaborative learning is part of the whole Middle School experience,” said Fetterman. Ninth-grader Zack Crenshaw remembers, “It helped create new friendships and enrich old ones. It also helped establish the teachers as not only teachers, but normal people who you can talk to.”

Classmate Sookeun Jung ’17 recalls, “The camping trip made the transition into sixth grade very easy. I think the trip made sixth grade my favorite year in Middle School.”

The students rely heavily on one another.

“They are actually feeding each other,” said Fetterman. “There is no camp staff taking care of them.”

Before they depart, the students prepare menus and grocery shop for the night when they will be responsible for cooking, serving and cleaning up for the class.

Each student is also expected to be self-reliant. The sixth-grade teachers give a “layering assembly” to teach the students how to dress for the weather and the wilderness. They are also told to pack their own bags.

“We don’t want to hear, ‘I don’t know where my mom put it,’” said Fetterman.

The trip is as rugged as it is personal. The students hike to a boulder field, wade through a stream to an icy cold waterfall and participate in nighttime woods walks – without flashlights.

“You can really seize the moment because on every trip we see something different,” said Kalkstein. “One year there are interesting spiderwebs everywhere and another year there will be an amazing variety of mushrooms growing. Sometimes the waterfall is a torrent and sometimes it’s a trickle; and the weather – well, the weather will do whatever it wants, so you just have to go with the flow.

“We’ve had some of our best moments in horrible weather,” she added.

One year, when a hurricane dumped rain, “the kids just romped.” They hiked in the rain to a meadow that had become a mud pit and, Kalkstein recalled, “everyone immediately went to the same place, which was run, run, run, belly slide – even the adults where belly sliding. Everyone was covered in mud. It was great.”

The sixth-grade camping trip, with all of its fun, challenges, successes, obstacles and adventures, provides a great foundation for the beginning of the rich GFS Middle School experience.

“It’s a right of passage,” said Agner. “At the end we tell the kids ‘Okay, now you are really Middle Schoolers.’”