NEW HAMPSHIRE | Seven people, clad in sleeping bags and down jackets, are gathered in the tiny cabin atop Mt. Cabot, an elevation of 4,170 feet. Outside, the White Mountains roll for miles, sliding in every direction after hours of rain. Inside, there’s one picnic table, four large plywood bunks and clothes drying on every available surface. The conversation drifts from directions to the nearest water source to hypothermia to poetry. Each student was instructed to bring a few poems, found in the camp library, that address the concept of the unknown.
Four miles and three summits ago, the group had camped at Unknown Pond. They’d spent the evening reading short stories over the fire, fanning it with a frisbee to ensure its smoky survival in the damp forest. Now, the seven crowd around the picnic table, journals open and headlamps on. After someone pulls the instant hot pack from the first aid kit so one student can warm his hands, class begins.
Tonight, the students are far from Ann Arbor, Mich., the quintessential college town home to the University of Michigan, and instead are deep in the New Hampshire wilderness. Sitting in this cabin is a privilege. They submitted essays, sat for interviews, paid tuition and drove across the country to be here. I suppose I should say “we” because the student peeking out of a sleeping bag reading poetry by David Budbill is me.
We were the 45th class spending our spring semester on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee for the New England Literature Program. The 40 of the 53 of us (40 students, 13 instructors) were there to earn nine English credits in six weeks. Former Facebook interns bunked with medical school hopefuls and creative writing majors; the instructors ranged from published authors to a hairdresser, a law school applicant and an English professor. We filled our days with Emerson and Thoreau, Dickinson and Glück, Frost and Frederick Douglass — and with scrubbing toilets, baking bread, splitting wood, building fires, pitching tents and writing of this world we’d created, our newfound love.
Absent from this world was any form of modern technology, recorded music, alcohol or communication with the outside, other than through letter writing. It might be odd, but the recipe has proven successful and remained largely unchanged for 45 years.
What is alternative education?
The term “alternative education,” which can be “broadly defined as educational activities that fall outside the traditional K-12 curriculum” according to National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, has typically been reserved for students who are at risk of failing school: 35 states associate it with students who have behavioral problems. While such programs, who focus on the outdoors as a method of rehabilitation, exist, this reservation implies a correlation between “alternative” and “problem” — that those who don’t thrive in a traditional classroom are the issue, instead of questioning how everyone could possibly succeed in the same classroom. But NELP requires an entry fee, literally and figuratively, and every admitted student counts themselves as lucky.
So, there’s a huge spectrum of alternative education, and the terminology can be confusing. But as the definition explains, it can really be anything.
NELP is only one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of alternative education programs in the United States, and it’s not even the only one at the University of Michigan. The University also offers Camp Davis, a geological station just outside Jackson Hole, Wyo., and the Biological Station in Pellston, Mich. Both programs provide Michigan students a break from the traditional classroom structure and pull them across the country towards their subjects’ source: Walden pond for Thoreau readers and the Teton peaks for geologists.
Camp Davis operates on a rolling basis, meaning that classes drive out west from Ann Arbor one at a time, and periodically leave camp for one to three-day field trips into Yellowstone or City of Rocks, Idaho. The professors, many of whom have been making the trek for years, bring their families and dogs, and every so often a graduate student instructor’s significant other will turn up for a weekend. One evening in July 2018, there were over a hundred people — more than the mess hall could hold — so the kitchen staff threw an outdoor barbecue. A few weeks later, at the end of the season, only half of one class remained at the camp (the other half had gone camping), so the kitchen donned freshly-cleaned aprons and cooked a three-course French dinner. Though the kitchen staff was mostly U-M students looking for an excuse to live in the mountains (I know because I worked there in 2017 and 2018), meal flexibility is representative of the camp’s ethos.
The alternative education umbrella is wide. At the Alzar School, high school sophomores and juniors spend half their time at the Alzar campus in Cascade, Idaho and the rest in Patagonia, Chile, kayaking, backpacking and skiing their way through a fully accredited semester. Kristin Bierle founded Alzar with her husband, Sean, in 2004. The couple started out running one to three-week programs in the U.S. and Chile as they worked toward their vision.
“When we sat down looking at the school, and what we need, what we wanted education to mean, we saw tremendous opportunities for growth and leadership development at the intersection of really engaging academics with cultural exchange,” Bierle said in a phone interview with The Daily.
The school typically has 40 students per semester, many of whom haven’t spent much time in the outdoors (in fact, all three programs don’t emphasize previous outdoor experience upon entry, though enthusiasm for leaving your comfort zone is a requirement). Alzar instructors teach the regular high school classes — honors and Advanced Placement math, science, English, Spanish and history — but are also leading expeditions, traveling internationally with the students and pairing the outdoors with the class material to teach leadership skills.
“We're not an organization where you're going to have someone with a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard, who has been teaching the AP physics class for 25 years,” Bierle said. “I think that's a tremendous educator, and there's tons of space in the educational landscape for that educator to exist and it's really important, but for our model, that’s not where our power comes from.”
Her ideology is echoed in most alternative education programs, but specifically at Deep Springs College, which calls itself a “unique institution of higher learning.” L.L. Nunn, an electricity mogul turned philanthropist and education experimenter, founded the school in 1917 around three pillars: academics, manual labor and student self-government. Total student enrollment caps out at 30, and the school isolates itself in Deep Springs Valley, Calif.
There is no set form for what an educator looks like. Kristin Fisher, who led the Unknown Pond trip, has taught at NELP for the past five years and, like most of the instructors, is a program alum herself. She’s been in almost every kind of classroom throughout her teaching career.
“When I'm planning a class, especially when we're outside, I’m planning for a five-hour chunk of time. And I have to scout where we're going and I have to know about the weather and I have to make sure that students are prepared with gear,” Fisher said in an Ann Arbor coffee shop, in February of 2020. “This is stuff that I don't need to do in a classroom. I'm taking care of bodies. And in a classroom, I'm taking care of minds a little bit more.”
But what does it look like?
The NCEE’s study found four criteria to measure alternative education programs by: “whom the program serves, where the program operates, what the program offers, and how the program is structured.” Between Camp Davis, Deep Springs College, Alzar School and NELP, there were a few important similarities: Class sizes are small and instructor-to-student ratios are high. They’re structured more like a community than a classroom, and the goal is to offer more than educational learning. They’re selective, and students want to be there.
U.S. Highway 191 winds its way north through the rolling Gros Ventre wilderness, toward Jackson and the sharp peaks of the Teton range. It’s punctuated by turn-offs to ranches with names like Bourbon Whiskey, Broken Arrow and Spotted Horse. Like NELP, the trip to Hoback, Wyoming begins in a U-M van, five students each. Camp Davis’ driveway is signaled by its hanging wooden sign, emblazoned with the University’s block ‘M,’ but anyone will tell you it’s the large metal moose, property of Bourbon Whiskey, that declares the geology students have made it. From above, the driveway looks like someone draped a ribbon across the land. It’s a full mile of packed dirt and gravel road with a 15 mph speed limit. On the group’s third day of driving west, a caravan of tired strangers inches their way toward Mt. Anne and the small camp tucked in at the base.
Even though all four programs are housed in the realm of alternative education, they operate differently. Camp Davis, Alzar and Deep Springs have campuses designed for educational use, meaning they have classrooms, labs and computers for some lessons. The rest take place wherever the instructors deem appropriate. At Alzar, that means anything from English class on the banks of the Payette River, though an empty classroom is nearby, to learning about environmental stewardship in the woods with a drill in hand. Camp Davis students chatter about their upcoming Yellowstone trip over the morning’s scrambled eggs and bacon. An hour later, they’re running across the driveway, towing tents and hiking boots and the occasional floatie for relaxing after class.
Unlike the other three, NELP doesn’t have a permanent space. All of its materials — tents and camping equipment, kitchen utensils and hundreds of books for the camp library among other things — are packed into a shipping container for the winter. All 53 members of the community participate in Work Day, where the camp transforms into a working, educational space. In my six weeks there, I attended class on three different docks, in the woods, in a tent on a backpacking trip, in the camp kitchen and taught my optional, student-led elective class in a treehouse.
All four programs also emphasize isolation. Though Camp Kabeyun had perfect cell service and sat only a few miles from two towns, NELP's world rarely extended beyond the camp’s grounds. Just across Lake Winnipesaukee sat our flashing green light of civilization, visible and audible all hours of the day. We were self-isolating.
“We value hard work and simple living at NELP,” the educational philosophy explains. “As a way to build a solid foundation for our intellectual explorations during the program, free of unnecessary distractions.” As it turns out, reading that sentence and living it were two very different things.
During the seven-week academic semesters at Deep Springs, no one is allowed in or out of the campus, except the student driver. Camp Davis students are allowed to leave only on their off days and at their professors’ discretion. NELP students can drive into town once a week for supplies or stop on the way back from a backpacking trip. Alzar students live and study on campuses on two continents, but the focus rarely leaves those two places unless it’s an expedition. And, of course, physical isolation is just the first step. Such small, remote communities are key to tight-knit, high-functioning ones.
“You just have to have higher expectations of your students. They're embedded in it. They don't get to go home,” Fisher said. “And that’s a privilege. That's a privilege to be able to do without — some people need to go home.”
During the last week of NELP, I attended Maya West’s class on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in the art room. Maya has been teaching at NELP for years and was probably in the double digits with this text, but because this wasn’t a lecture, the lesson changed every time. A handful of us sat on the freshly stained porch, frustrated with each other and with what felt like a book devoted to contradictions. Across the camp, another instructor rang the bell to signal that class was over, and the group split off into different directions to unwind. Maya and I walked to the kitchen together (for week five, we both worked for the lunch crew).
“Honestly, where does Thoreau get off?” I asked, exasperated. “He comes from a huge seat of privilege to be able to refuse government services on the grounds that he, himself, is in a position of not needing it.”
Maya swung open the screen door as Sayali Amin, a fellow student, walked in from the mess hall. A rising junior in LSA who splits her time between studying neuroscience, English and working in The Daily’s newsroom, she’d taped the NELP flyer to her refrigerator weeks before she applied.
As we went through the walk-in fridge for leftovers, heated-up stew and washed lettuce, our frustration with Thoreau’s essays spilled over into the cooking. We kept poking at his ideas, asking questions while chopping vegetables, until we plated the food and I felt like I’d finally cracked open the meaning of his writing.
“Learning never ended,” Amin said months later on the couches of The Daily newsroom. “Which was really cool. It just kind of bled through every part of your day, like into your meals and into cooking and into cleaning and everything that I really appreciated where it just never felt isolated. It never felt super concentrated and it never felt overwhelming.”
The emphasis on community in alternative education landscapes is essential to the entire operation. NELP and Deep Springs thrive on a co-op style of living, where everyone contributes and cultivates the living environment. At Deep Springs, work shifts divide up the farm, ranch and everyday chores. Each rotation typically lasts for two months. “The labor pillar is valued most for its pedagogical function,” the college explains. It’s designed to harbor responsibility, trust, leadership, and appreciation for everything in your community. NELP conducts interviews during the application process, but I didn’t realize until after that it was mostly to see who would — and wouldn’t —thrive in such a small community. There is no invisible janitorial or kitchen staff to ensure camp runs smoothly and food appears when the dinner bell is rung.
“There’s an obvious necessity to the work we do here,” Michael Leger, a 2016 Deep Springs graduate, explained about the school. “Cows need to be fed. The garbage needs to be taken out. Eggs need to be rinsed so that they can be used for breakfast. You need to take your responsibilities seriously because there are immediate and urgent consequences if you don’t do your job well.” These programs are framed as educational experiences, with the understanding that education doesn’t come solely from classes.
At Deep Springs, current students choose the next class, and about 200-300 people apply for 12-15 spots. After writing six essays and sitting for interviews, a small portion of the pool spends a few days at the school. They mimic Deep Springs life to see if it’s the right fit for them. Maybe, more importantly, it’s a test to see if they’re the right fit for Deep Springs. All of these programs assemble a class of strangers, place them into an isolated area, add on pressures like academics, a new environment and shared responsibilities, then use whatever happens as teaching moments.
With that community comes redesigned relationships, specifically between students and teachers. Sometimes, on the third day of a backpacking trip, an instructor gets tired. They’re hungry, someone in the group twists their ankle and everyone’s frustrated. The instructor is only human, and that’s just as much of a learning opportunity as when a professor lectures to a roomful of scribbling hands. It’s just different material.
“A lot of (the instructors at NELP) didn't have Ph.D.s. Actually, I don't know if any of them did, but they were fantastic teachers,” Amin said. Maybe it’s because, to us, they were also just people. “I feel like our education system at the collegiate level, like what it values in terms of its teachers is not necessarily what makes people good teachers.”
In traditional education, there’s an unspoken set of rules dictating the student-teacher relationship. Some are there for good reason, to preserve the NELP principles each student agreed to upon applying, but others can be broken. Alternative education cultivates space for the latter option.
In the second half of NELP, students can pair with an instructor to teach a class on something they’re passionate about (linked, of course, to some form of literature). The first tip Fisher gave me was that having a lesson plan is crucial, but so is flexibility. NELP was an intensely personal environment, meaning it wasn’t uncommon to discuss topics that might be hushed or uncomfortable in a regular classroom. As an opening activity to my class, I gave everyone a sticky note and asked them to write down their biggest fear. I invited them to share their fears with the group if they wanted, and from there, my job was to steer the class ship around everyone’s participation. I left time in the end for us to collectively tackle one student’s fear together — we returned to camp soaking wet after jumping off Far Dock, in support of a student whose fear was swimming.
As an undergraduate science student, some of Amin’s classes at the University are gigantic, and nothing like NELP.
“They're super quantitative … it’s just four exams for scores and that's your grade. And that's who you are. And you come to class and you being there doesn't matter, like my presence doesn't shape, in any way, the learning that takes place,” she said. Of course, this isn’t the same for everyone in every classroom. But traditional education tends to lean more towards the latter than the former.
Can’t I just send my kids camping?
There’s an overwhelming amount of research to support that when kids get outside, it positively affects and fosters pretty much everything — their standardized test scores, mental health, classroom performance, community involvement, physical health and curiosity about the world, among other things. If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you already know that. But alternative education takes it two steps further: Not only are students absorbing infinitely more than they do inside, but they’re also learning that traditional classroom education isn’t the only route.
NatureBridge is an organization that runs environmental science and leadership programs for 35,000 kids each year. Stephen Lockhart, chairman of the NatureBridge board, elaborated on this idea with Outside magazine in a 2011 roundtable discussion, stating, “To me, place-based learning promotes a more sustainable environment, encourages development of a lifelong relationship, health-enhancing habits, appreciation of nature, and really stimulates learners to discuss issues, particularly the democratic issues that are central to our civic life.” Deep Springs’ mission statement and emphasis on student self-governance echo this. The college believes that strict rules and minimal outside distractions allow its students to become a self-sustaining community, farm and school.
Outdoor education doesn’t have to be that rigid, however. “Whether it's on a trail or in learning to have dialogue with one another, that's just as much as a challenge is trying to climb to the top of the mountain or paddle a rapid or anything along those lines,” Bierle said. “But that's where we use the outdoors as a tool … a lot of those skills transfer into a number of environments.”
Fisher and I meander away from Mt. Cabot cabin and out of the mountains, engrossed in conversation over how the instructors could possibly sum up six weeks of life into three letter grades, with passing queries about serious relationships and femininity. The steady clack of her hiking poles on the rocky New England terrain tells me time is passing, though it feels still.
“We're actually feeling the texture of the land,” she told me nearly ten months later, amid the noise in an Ann Arbor coffee shop. Everyone on the Unknown Pond trip chose the backpacking loop for its difficulty, and just backpacking it would’ve taught me something. Reading David Budbill while curled up in the camp library would’ve taught me something.
But smash it all together: drenched, hungry, exhausted and reading about the unknown, guided by a professional? For Fisher, as an educator, it’s a dream come true. “We’re having an epiphany about understanding language better because (we’re) doing the thing that the poem is doing,” she explained to me.
But, education is, of course, not a one-size-fits-all.
The outdoors is, for the most part, a white, able-bodied and overwhelmingly privileged space — so much so that a 2017 study on diversity in the outdoors declared that “outdoor experiential education (OEE) programs often cater to white, upper-class individuals.”
One semester’s tuition, room, and board at Alzar School in the 2021-2022 school year cost $32,450. “It would be absolutely a misunderstanding to think that all the students that are coming to our school are paying that full tuition price,” Bierle noted. “We have students who are on full rides and students who are full pay and everything in between.”
On the other hand, all admitted students at Deep Springs are offered a full scholarship. “In exchange,” their website reads. “Deep Springs students are expected to dedicate themselves to lives of service to humanity.” But they’re not immune to diversity problems: The college didn’t admit women until 2018, 101 years after its founding.
There are a few reasons why OEE programs are geared toward privileged demographics. The authors of the study, Sara Gress and Troy Hall, wrote that “researchers have theorized that socioeconomic inequalities, different cultural values, differing levels of cultural integration into the dominant society, and perceived or actual discrimination are some of the causes of low racial and ethnic minority participation in outdoor recreation.”
In simpler terms, it means that while the outdoors should be accessible to all, it’s mostly marketed toward white people.
“People of color don’t see themselves in the picture. When I see someone like me in the picture, then it’s talking to me — it’s diverse, it’s inclusive. Otherwise, it’s talking to the white majority,” Audrey Peterman, a longtime conservation advocate, explained in the same 2011 Outside roundtable with Stephen Lockhart. Peterman mentioned Carolyn Finney, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studied 44 issues of Outside magazine, published between 1991 and 2001. Of the 4,602 images containing people, only 103 had African Americans. And of those 103 images, most were “well-known male sports figures in urban settings,” Peterman said.
This brings us to another point. “The outdoors in the U.S. is very, you know, it's masculinized. And when I'm with students and we're hiking a mountain, the examples they see are either women who act a lot like men or very bro-y men,” Fisher stated. “And I think that that’s leaving a lot of different people out. It's creating a power hierarchy about who gets to access the outdoors when it's not a space anyone shouldn’t.”
So the question is, who isn’t in these spaces? And how do we get them there? Alternative education is largely about being uncomfortable, usually with isolation and physical rigor. What about those who without able-bodied privilege? Those who have a physical or mental disability, or chronic illness, that prevents them from hiking or living and working in tough conditions? If the core demographic of these programs is white and upper-middle class, how will these spaces tackle their social and racial privileges? The NELP curriculum made a point to include Black nature writers, address the nuanced privilege of the white writers it studies and discuss the political and social makeup of the New Hampshire land we made our small bubble in. But until these programs, and the outdoor world as a whole, address their inclusivity problem, they will continue to mainly benefit the demographic that needs it the least.
A final, and grateful, reflection
I sometimes forget I once lived in an unheated cabin on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, awoken each morning by a watch alarm and the unforgiving New Hampshire cold. It’s a far cry from taking Zoom classes in my bed and finishing semesters by pressing “submit.” In February 2020, nearly a year after arriving at Camp Kabeyun, Amin and I reminisced together in The Daily newsroom. “It was only six weeks of my life,” she said. “I've almost been (back) at school for six weeks now. And it's been the most insignificant moment of time. I don't know — I couldn't even tell you three important things I've done.”
Back in the New England wilderness, NELP students Mikah, Joe, Chad, Div, Austin and I sit around the picnic table in Mt. Cabot cabin, writing on Fisher’s class prompt: In what ways has “unknowing” shown up for you today? I start scribbling about NELP itself, and how much control I’ve had to give up to be part of the community, and how uncomfortable it’d been. What are the limits of discomfort? When are they beneficial? What has it given me? We squabble and concur as class rolls on, the seven of us the only ones around for miles. “It’s important to be here, for the chance of knowing something,” Mikah says.
Until it’s normal for students to realize these kinds of learning opportunities exist, and until they’re available to everyone, “It's a privilege to be able to go away and come back. Right?” Fisher asks.
It absolutely is.