Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Learning Community (TLC): Black Mountain, NC

Twenty minutes east of Asheville sits The Learning Community. The vision of TLC is "to foster the traits of compassion, commitment, creativity, courage, curiosity, and collaboration." Students from K-8 work together to build their minds and a strong community; said one glowing 7th grader over our picnic lunch: "I love it. This is my second home. Everyone loves it here."  

TLC is situated on a 600-acre campus that functions as a summer camp and event space when school is not in session. Students benefit from access to miles of hiking trails, organic gardens, a lake with a zip line (!!!), sport fields and courts, and acres of pristine forest. In addition to more traditional, classroom-based lessons, learning happens outside every day. The campus itself has a storied history: it is the site of the former Black Mountain College where Buckminster Fuller built his first dome.

Students work in mixed aged classrooms. We visited the 2nd-3rd grade class during their writer's workshop dress rehearsal; half of the students would be sharing their stories onstage for the whole school the following day. As a warm-up, they worked themselves into a tongue-twister frenzy, then their teacher guided them into a breathing meditation. 

"Your hands should be resting on your lap. If you want to do some kind of mudra, you can, but it should be to help you focus, not to turn your hand into some kind of pretzel." The students giggled, but settled down. She guided them into a focus on the breath. I couldn't help myself: I was the naughty one who opened my eyes during silent meditation time, and besides two small boys who had a terrible mutually-contagious case of the giggles, every other child in the class appeared to be totally focused on the meditation.

After reviewing together all of the components of successful reading performance, the children volunteered to read aloud their finished pieces. Some of the writing was truly incredible. I noticed that there were only positive feedback given from each student to the speaker. This was a part of the school's TEAM program. (Multiple students volunteered to explain the acronym to us, unprompted, during our visit. Clearly, the students had "bought in" to this curriculum). 

During the lunch break I sat down at a picnic table that happened to have representatives from 5th-8th grade present. They jokingly argued about which grade was the best, then got down to the business of talking about why they loved their school. First in many students' minds was the outdoor time. One student volunteered that the teachers "teach in a way where I actually learn. At my old school, if I didn’t "get" something they told me that I needed to pay more attention. Here, I’m friends with my teachers and they want me to really learn." Stories that students shared demonstrated over and over the interactive, outdoor elements infused into daily life at TLC.

The students had been told that we were visiting, and many of them were very excited to meet us. The joy of talking to a group of 11-13 year olds who were excited about school and learning was so, so wonderful. They were very aware that their learning environment was, in their words, "a bubble," and told us that their teachers prep them to deal with a new group of peers who may not have the same social and emotional skills after they graduate. One mother shared that her daughter's biggest challenge in transitioning to high school was learning how to interact with students who were unkind; according to the children, it's not an issue at TLC. 

A few more highlights:

TLC produces a regionally famous annual, all-school musical. Parents serve as costume and set designers, every student is on the stage, and the 75 students attract enough interest to necessitate renting out a 2,000 seat auditorium. Friends in Asheville mentioned it, unprompted, as a must-see.
Every Friday is an outdoor education day. Lake day; rock-climbing; hiking; archery; 
homesteading: shucking beans, work in organic garden, processing sorghum, caring for goats and chickens... the list is endless.

Thank you, TLC students and staff!

I'm feeling more and more convinced that a daily outdoor program is a necessary component of a successful learning environment for young people (and for adults too, likely). What do you think? Is there an ideal balance, time-wise? Does anyone know of any great resources and gardening/farming programs that work with children who live in a more urban environment? 


  1. Amazing! Thanks for sharing.