Skip To Main Content

Landing Nav


Traveling School Reflections

Traveling School Reflections
Julie Amberg, Head of School
Middle Schoolers Holding Hands on a Newport Beach at Sunset

With the completion of our Middle and Upper School Fall Traveling Schools earlier this month, this "Headwaters" entry offers an in-depth look at the design and purpose of this hallmark program. I was fortunate to be a leader on the 6th grade trip to Newport where students discovered the majesty and wonder of the Oregon Coast and navigated myriad experiences, both individually and collectively, that were joyful and challenging, engaging and exhausting, and purposeful and carefree.  

This year’s trips included adventures to the following destinations:

  • 6th grade: Oregon Coast Exploration in Newport
  • 7th grade: Shakespeare in Ashland
  • 8th grade: Backpacking in Three Sisters Wilderness
  • 9th grade: Water in the West in Southern Oregon
  • 10th grade: Coastal Communities in Astoria
  • 11th grade: Layers of Place in Mt. Hood
  • 12th grade: Land Stewardship in Joseph and the Wallowas

Cascades Academy alumni always light up when sharing memorable moments from their many traveling school experiences. In our early years, trip design often focused on “The What,” prioritizing the trip’s location, curricular ties, and activities. While these foundational elements are important, in recent years, we’ve added more intentional opportunities for our students to connect more deeply to the school’s core values: belonging, curiosity, learning by doing, challenge, individuality, and joy.

To do this, trip leaders facilitate time throughout the trip for students to lead, connect, and reflect. These design elements may take many forms, including:

  • Designated “Leaders of the Day” where students are in charge of the day’s logistics, pacing, and itinerary;
  • Daily circle times to voice hopes/concerns or something they are curious about;
  • Closing circles to offer reflections, observations, kudos, challenges, gratitude and appreciation.

As a trip leader, these are often the moments that I enjoy the most, when students demonstrate belonging, achievement, and authenticity — the three developmental stages Chris Balme discusses in his book, “Finding the Magic in Middle School.” As the parent of middle school students myself, I am all too familiar with responses to the proverbial question, “How was the trip?” Usually, the immediate answer is, “Great!” Rarely do students articulate meaningful academic moments or a profound life lesson right away. Yet, with a little more time and proper framing, students always impress me with their realizations and reflections.  

After all, as philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, John Dewey famously said: 

“We do not learn from the experience...we learn from reflecting on the experience.”

As experiential educators, we know that reflection is essential to meaningful learning, and we ask students to fill out a survey for us to get a sense of our “values in action.” Here’s a small sampling of what they had to say:

Middle Schoolers helping each other cross a river over a log

Embrace Challenge: Reflect on a challenge you faced during the expedition. How did you navigate this challenge, and what did you learn from it?

A challenge my group and I faced was the fallen trees blocking the trail, making us have to go through them. Most times there were multiple ways to go through the trees, under, over, around, or to walk and balance on them until it was easier. This taught me that there will always be problems, but you can always work through them, and that most of the time there are multiple ways to work through something. - 8th Grade Student

Empower Individuality: Describe a situation where you witnessed someone else's unique qualities or talents shine during the expedition.

One of my friends was very good at starting the fire with the flint and steel. She got it immediately and kept doing it again and again which was so cool to see. - 10th Grade Student

Cultivate Belonging: In what ways did you and your group work together to foster inclusivity and make everyone feel welcome during the expedition?

We were all in one lodge and all so close all the time that we always worked together and talked, so that we all became closer and more of one unit. - 7th Grade Student

Share Joyfulness: Share a personal reflection on how the collective sharing of joyfulness enhanced the sense of camaraderie and unity within your Traveling School group.

I feel like these moments came from our unity instead of causing our unity. - 12th Grade Student

Our new Director of Academic and Experiential Programs, Kelly Fast, led our Academic Leadership Team in a reflection exercise of our own in which we revisited the goals and purpose of Traveling School. Certainly we had many good answers: curricular connections, personal growth, community building, independence, increased belonging, fun, etc. In the end, we summarized that programs like Traveling School embody our school’s larger commitment to educational reform known as Deeper Learning. The Deeper Learning Hub describes Deeper Learning as:

“The higher-order thinking skills, learning dispositions, and collaboration skills needed for students to succeed in twenty-first century work and civic life. Deeper Learning competencies promote the ability to transfer learning and apply to new and complex situations in an ever-changing global environment.”

Upper School students holding nets in a field

While understanding Deeper Learning is worthy of a "Headwaters" unto itself, here are a few helpful links to get you started:

We were honored when Dr. Scott McLeod, author of the linked article/podcast and Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Colorado Denver asked to visit Cascades Academy at the end of last school year as part of the research he was doing with schools who modeled Deeper Learning practices. What a gift it was to share all that we were doing to create a learning community where students not only feel challenged, empowered, and engaged, but also find more joy and meaning in their day-to-day lives as well. I am grateful to our talented teachers who bring these experiences to life for our students and to each of you who has prioritized these kinds of deeper learning experiences for your children.

Traveling School Gallery

  • Traveling School