Students at Open Sky have the opportunity to earn 3.5 high school credits in six academic areas. In the following article, Education Director Dr. Melia Snyder describes the philosophy of Open Sky’s academic program, the ways it intertwines with the organization’s clinical approach, and the types of credits available. Melia has a Ph.D. in counseling and is a licensed professional counselor and registered expressive arts therapist. Prior to joining Open Sky in 2019, Melia was a professor and supervisor at Appalachian State University, directed the Appalachian Expressive Arts Therapy program, and co-wrote the book Nature-Based Expressive Arts Therapy. In addition to her role as education director, Melia is a clinical therapist for young adults at Open Sky.
Academic Program purpose statement: Open Sky Wilderness Therapy educates the whole person to inspire learning, living, and leadership that honors values and strengthens relationships.
As an educator and a therapist, I continually dwell on the original meaning of the word “educate”. It comes from the Latin root, educere, which means to lead forth and raise up. Often, education is viewed as more of a process for “filling in” with knowledge and information, rather than raising up. We believe that our students have the resources, the knowledge, the potential within themselves to thrive. Our job as educators is to help lead out and build upon those unique, inherent gifts within them.
The overall Open Sky approach is a holistic one. We use the model of the “4 Rooms” as a way to talk about human health and wholeness of our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual selves. From an academic perspective, we also educate from that model. Academics at Open Sky are fully integrated into the clinical and therapeutic aspects of the program. In fact, it’s hard to separate those two spheres. Education in and of itself develops self-awareness, which is the cornerstone of learning about ourselves, others, and the environment in which we live. I view it as three nested circles, starting with the self in the middle, then others/groups, and then the wider environment.
Every student is unique and our therapeutic and academic approaches are individualized to each person’s needs and learning styles. Our method is very dynamic and experiential, with a lot of opportunity for reflective learning. For students who have a writing disability, we’ll differentiate and have them lead a group instead. Some learn better kinesthetically, so we can support them in that by getting them up and moving. We can take many different angles to approach learning and meet students where they are. In the process, we help to shore up deficits, but more significantly, we build on their strengths and abilities. The students also feel more empowered with an awareness of their own strengths, learning styles, and ways to push their own growth edges.
Perhaps a student has social anxiety or has experienced bullying. The student may start out working on goals with a guide mentor, and then with a peer. Then they become more comfortable opening up in a small group and eventually, the entire team. The high emotional safety and flexible container in wilderness are nearly impossible to replicate in a traditional classroom. It’s even more difficult in the virtual setting during the time of COVID-19.
I also had a student who was incredibly bright and academically gifted. However, when it came to her therapeutic work, she was convinced that “coping skills don’t work for me.” With our educational approach woven in, she was able to learn the real science behind the coping skills. Rather than doing them for the sake of doing them or simply because she was told to, she was thinking critically. It wasn’t that they didn’t work for her; it was that she didn’t understand the why behind them. At Open Sky, she began to learn about the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system with breathing techniques, the bilateral brain stimulation resulting from butterfly tapping, and the somatic and neurological effects of meditation.
These examples illustrate that education helps the therapeutic work to click, and vice versa. Students internalize what they learn and practice. They can then integrate it all into their lives in personal and impactful ways beyond Open Sky.
Open Sky students have the opportunity to earn up to 3.5 academic credits in six high school subject areas: a ½ credit each for Environmental Science, Character Education, English, Psychology of Daily Living, and Health Education; and one full credit for Physical Education.
Our academic curriculum is a 10-week rotational model. So, students need to be enrolled for at least 10 weeks to receive the full credit. They also need to successfully complete the work of the “West Pathway” in the Student Pathway, which is a guide for each student throughout their therapeutic process at Open Sky. Field guides (several of whom are licensed teachers) and therapists must sign off that each of the standards has been met.
This is such a rich educational area at Open Sky for obvious reasons. We operate in course areas that have been inhabited by people for thousands and thousands of years. Students are immersed in the natural environment and are impacted by it daily in all areas of life. Expeditions bring them to view different geological features and archaeological evidence of the Native American people that lived on the land prior to us. They experience changing weather patterns and how plants and animals respond to and depend on weather and the seasons. We practice Leave No Trace and talk about the ethics of living in the wilderness. Our hope is that students recognize that the environment is taking care of them and develop an appreciation for the preservation of wilderness.
In the Student Pathway, students keep a log of various plants, animals, and constellations they witness. They take notes and draw pictures, documenting the changes and differences throughout the seasons, elevations, and ecosystems. Field guides educate them on the unique aspects of the flora and fauna, including any medicinal uses, which ones are edible, how they have been used historically. Guides also educate students on the history and ancient mythology linked with the constellations. Many students come from urban settings and have hardly seen the stars at all. Some have never seen them! Taking them out of the smog and light pollution of the city literally opens up the universe to them. With a simple laser pointer, students learn to recognize significant stars and constellations and feel a connection with people throughout time and with something bigger than themselves.
Our students live in a group setting with peers and guides, which is a microcosm of their role in society. We support students in recognizing how they impact and are impacted by the group. In learning about the communication continuum, for example, students become more mindful of their speech and the impact of words on their relationships. They begin to recognize their own patterns of passiveness or aggressiveness and experientially learn that when they are assertive they can be heard, stay in connection, and better meet their needs. The specific skills we teach, such as ‘I Feel’ Statements and reflective listening, actually have roots in nonviolent communication, a fundamental aspect of the civil rights movement. Much of what we are seeing in the world today with racial injustice, political polarization, and civil unrest stems from being out of touch with one another and not listening deeply. We become entrenched in pushing our own agendas and feel threatened by ‘the other’ rather than slowing down, emotionally regulating, listening, validating, and reflecting. We are fully capable of remaining in connection with people who live, act, and think differently than us. The skills students learn here aren’t just for Open Sky, they are tools that humans need in the world. It’s incredibly important right now.
Another aspect of our Character Education curriculum is learning about values. Both students and parents clarify and explore their personal and family values. Our students are hungry for something that feels solid because so much in our world is chaotic, shifting, and unreliable. Therefore, they have to be able to locate that sense of stability within themselves rather than seeking it ‘out there’. When they determine what really matters—their core values—this provides a concrete foundation for making values-based decisions, rather than decisions that meet basic needs in a short-term way while causing long-term suffering.
English is a very robust aspect of the educational program at Open Sky. Students write weekly letters, complete journal assignments, read books, write their life stories, and lead groups. We emphasize both the spoken and the written word for self-expression. We stress critical thinking skills and attention to language throughout all of these practices. Often, students come in writing in “text speak” and emojis. Through our formal writing assignments such as the Impact Letter Response and Letter of Responsibility, students practice formal grammar, punctuation, and precise language not just for the sake of doing so, but so that they can demonstrate effective communication which allows them to be understood. Students’ emotional vocabulary grows at Open Sky as does their ability to communicate clearly in both written and spoken language.
Creative expression is also a highlight of the English curriculum. Many students have creative talents and learn well with expressing themselves creatively. Therapists might include poetry or songwriting in a student’s weekly goals. They might tell a story in front of the team or act it out.
Additionally, each team has a “library” of books accessible to students at any time. Therapists might also assign specific books targeted to a student’s individual therapeutic work. For example, a book I like to share with my students is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. Perfectionism and self-esteem issues are pretty ubiquitous in my team of students. This book helps them reframe their thinking around messing up, failing, and feeling incapable or not good enough. I will also often assign the book, The Four Agreements. This is a short and accessible, yet very profound book that gives readers four main guidelines to support positive communication. After reading the assigned book, I’ll weave specific goals for incorporating these lessons into their therapeutic work. They may also lead a group with their peers on the themes of the book.
Our Psychology of Daily Living curriculum is grounded in humanistic psychology. In order to support our students in their capacity to thrive, we must tend their humanity and wholeness. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and William Glasser’s basic needs/choice theory are foundational to what we do and are woven throughout the Student Pathway. Students learn the relationship between thoughts, emotions, needs, and values. They practice skills for promoting emotional intelligence, effective communication, conflict resolution, and values-based decision making. Students learn not only about depression and anxiety, for instance, but also about how they can support themselves by changing their thinking and engaging in health promotion practices such as yoga and meditation. Therapists work with students to assign individualized goals related to personal work. Group therapy and psychoeducation groups throughout the week also support students in expanding their awareness, knowledge, and skills in the realm of psychology.
This component of our curriculum relates closely to our primary directive—to attend to students’ physical health and well-being. When students arrive, they begin engaging with the “Survive and Thrive” curriculum in the Student Pathway. This includes essential physical and self-care skills for living outdoors and for life in general. Through not only reading it but also being required to demonstrate specific skills, students learn about personal and group hygiene, body care, hydration, feminine hygiene, first aid, etc. Some students have never learned about their own bodies or developed proper patterns for personal health. We provide students with explicit instruction and guidance on how to care for themselves in the wilderness. These foundations are critical components of leading healthy and productive lives outside of wilderness.
Students also learn about nutrition and how to cook. They become aware of each medication they take, its use, and how it helps them, specifically. They learn to be advocates for themselves and how to be accurate self-reporters, which is helpful in treatment here and in life beyond Open Sky. Students make individual wellness plans which incorporate all areas of whole-person health.
Meditation and yoga are also central aspects of our Health curriculum. Informed by the evidence-based model of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction model, daily meditation supports students (and all humans!) in navigating stressful and challenging life situations. Likewise, our daily yoga supports students in connecting in an embodied way to the health-promoting resources within them, while also supporting balance, flexibility, and strength.
Almost everything students do can be tied back to physical education. Specifically, students are engaged in aerobic exercise through daily activities such as hiking and backpacking, playing games, and doing group chores. They learn firsthand about their own cardiorespiratory wellness, endurance, and strength. They also learn how to support themselves physically while being in relationship with the environment. The physical activity they experience is meaningful: hauling wood and water, making fire, summiting a mountain, dropping a canyon, building a shelter, packing a backpack. In physically meeting their own basic needs and working with the demands of the wilderness, students experience themselves as competent, perhaps for the first time.
The physical aspect of wilderness therapy also brings up students’ emotional work. Likewise, students’ emotions impact their physical performance. Students learn that they must care for both in order to thrive. Natural consequences also support students in learning to take responsibility for themselves and for their actions. If students tie a poor construction pack, for instance, they will experience pain or gear failure and the team will have to stop hiking and wait for the student to fix the problem. Recently, I met my team on expedition and one of the greatest moments of the whole day was seeing my students run through a field of wildflowers, tarp in tow, making a wilder-version of a kite that flew on the wind. So many of my students have body-image issues, but they also come to see their bodies as a gift—one that allows them to do things they previously thought they could never do.
Our experiential and dynamic approach to education takes learning out of the classroom walls and into the classroom of the natural world, where students learn in unique and powerful ways. They start to recognize the interdependent connections between humans and the environment, between emotions and physiological symptoms, and between communication and relationships. Throughout it all, the wilderness is the co-therapist and the co-teacher. It provides incredible metaphor for each student’s educational path, therapeutic journey, and life in general. And, in keeping with our educational philosophy, the wilderness leads out our students’ inherent gifts, internal resources, and untapped skills and capacities, raising them up to meet the demands of life—in a good way.