Ophir School is highly experiential. In an experiential classroom, students learn by doing and are actively engaged in learning experiences that have “real” consequences for them. Ophir’s teachers and students are immersed in action and reflection in a non-traditional way that frequently takes them away from the traditional desk and often outside the brick and mortar of the school walls.
Ophir’s location just outside of Yellowstone National Park permits us to use the Park as an instructional venue. Nestled into the mountains alongside a blue ribbon trout stream at the mouth of the Porcupine Creek drainage, the Ophir campus is a natural site for experiential learning. The location has placed a great responsibility on the school. Traditionally, Ophir’s staff and students have risen to the challenge and have learned to be stewards of the pristine Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s environment. Students are able to study invasive noxious weeds, elk adaptation in a wolf-occupied environment, the effect of nitrogen on river water quality, and many other environmental problems. As Big Sky continues to build out, Ophir students will learn about the effect construction has on our environment.
For several years, Ophir School has had a relationship with Montana State University – Bozeman and the Big Sky Institute. This relationship has recently strengthened not only due to a sizable grant but also due to diligent attention to growing the relationship through an “embedded” partnership. Ophir students learn and work right alongside university scientists. Students’ data become part of the body of research on elk, on river water quality, and other study projects. With the prospective construction of the Big Sky Institute’s research center adjacent to Ophir property, Ophir will continue to expand this relationship. As Ophir teachers design curriculum, they learn more about the art and craft of their instruction, and they can more clearly focus and articulate the benefits of students’ working with scientists “doing real science.”
Service learning, another component of experiential learning, has been an integral part of the Ophir experience since the late 1990s, beginning with the “Cabin Project.” Motorists passing the school on the road can’t help but notice an original Michener family homestead cabin, restored by students, staff, and alumni. Through that experience, students handled historical artifacts, learned local, state, and national history – and an awful lot about construction! That project spawned a curricular trend at Ophir. Service learning helps students to grow in many ways: Young people realize that they have the power to improve their surroundings. Students learn to work together toward a goal and sometimes form friendships with community members. Service learning fosters self-esteem building as well as leadership, organizational, and public speaking skills. Students are exposed to a wider environment beyond the school walls. Ophir’s service learning projects often have a science or a history theme.
Although Ophir School is decidedly focused on environmentalism, who says that science and art can’t coexist? Ophir is strong on art, despite the lack of a specified art teacher on staff. Through the efforts of artists in residence and Sharon Holtzman’s connection with the National Art Gallery’s Art Around the Corner, artists from the community are connected to the school, using their expertise to equip our students with a sense of aesthetics and a set of skills. Art is visible everywhere. Ophir students walk through hallways that double as art galleries. Seasonal art hangs next to art that has been selected and framed for a permanent collection. Each year 8th graders look forward to a visit to the National Art Gallery as part of their Washington and Philadelphia trips.
We are fortunate in that we can offer music to our students. Each year students have an opportunity to demonstrate their musical and thespian talents. This year every middle school student plays an instrument.
There are so many groups in the Big Sky community that keep a special eye out for Ophir to help us strengthen our instruction and our relationship with the community. The Big Sky Association for the Arts’ Peggy Dicken Schwer Fund tries to include an Ophir performance each time a musician comes to the community.
It is difficult to imagine living in the Big Sky community and not partaking in the great outdoors, yet that would be the fate of many students were it not for the largesse of the Boyne Corporation and Lone Mountain Ranch. Through their community outreach programs, Ophir students (and teachers and staff) receive free passes for alpine and Nordic skiing, as well as extremely discounted lessons and equipment. (The Moonlight Corporation offers free passes as part of an academic incentive program.) For some Ophir students the free passes and the lessons, which are funded through OSC, are the only way that they will be able to ski. Similarly, swimming lessons for students K through 8 are part of the school’s curriculum. Once again, students gain physical, and possibly life saving, skills that they otherwise would not have.
The Ophir faculty will work over the next several years to record formal curriculum and select textbooks and other resources to support that curriculum. (Funding for curriculum design, textbooks, and technology are derived largely from contributions from the Yellowstone Club.) While we engage in these tasks, we continually remind ourselves that we value experiential education. We will not merely set knowledge to be learned and hope that students will find ways to apply the knowledge. Our mission is to immerse students in action and knowledge and ask them to discover and reflect so that true learning and attitudes develop from our interaction.