The Great Importance of Experiential Education at AHS


Photo courtesy of Marc Whitley. Whitley and his Ex-Ed pose for a selfie on the course, Mainstreaming the Green.

During the week of September 11-19 AHS students went everywhere from San Diego to the Bronx to the deserts and rivers of Utah for Experiential Education week that is run through the high school.  The students were placed on 32 different courses through the Ex-Ed lottery system last spring with 10-20 other random high school students from all grades.  Ex-Ed has been happening annually at the Aspen High School for over thirty years.  

Ex-Ed is extremely important to the nature of and lessons that Aspen High School hopes to teach its students.  It is the most unique part of the school system and is what many AHS alumni say sticks in their memories of AHS.  Leaving the actual school and putting oneself in another environment is a great way to start learning in other ways and understanding oneself on a deeper level.  It takes students away from their comfort zones and puts them with other students they may have never talked to before, in order to create new bonds with themselves and others.  

Many of those who have been teaching at the Aspen High School for an extremely long time understand the great importance of Ex-Ed.  They see on these trips how the students are affected and the long-term effects that transpire even after the trips are long over.  Some in the community has often been spotted as seeing Ex-Ed as a needless tradition with too much time off, but these teachers would disagree.

“It is really powerful and is one of the most memorable experiences for people in the high school,” AHS long time science teacher, Marc Whitley said.  “I think it is the perfect opportunity to take learning and have it be experiential based.  You are actually experiencing what you are learning about, there are direct consequences to your actions, so you learn what you need to learn when you need to do it, rather than it being kind of abstract like it is in the classroom.  It seems to me that the relationship and community building that happens on Ex-Ed is special and powerful because you share these experiences with a group of students and teachers.  I think all of that really adds to the climate of the school.”

“Ex-Ed is an intrical part of our school,” AHS English teacher, Cerena Thomsen said.  “I feel like it infuses everything we do with the human element.  It makes us see each other as human beings and not as teachers and students who do not see necessarily in the same way.  Ex-Ed causes us to recognize that we are all humans, we are all together, we are all on this planet for a short amount of time, and let’s make this a great experience for as many human beings as we can, including ourselves.  Kids see each other as humans too, so it is no longer separation in cliques and not understanding those outside of it.  It becomes “we are all in this together” and to get through the hard times and enjoy the good ones.”

This mentality of Ex-Ed gives it importance.  It lets student strip away everything they may know about a fellow classmate or teacher and begin to truly understand what is underneath and how they can find people on this deeper level.  

“Seeing people struggle, seeing people get over tired, hungry, or whatever, and to battle through that, completely shifts the dynamic for the rest of the year and in our schools.  It helps us look at the bigger picture in school,” Thomsen said.

For the seniors it is a time to reflect on their past seventeen years in Aspen and the last one to come.  It gives us a minute to step back and realize how lucky we were to grow up in the amazing town of Aspen.

“Watching every senior on the trip, it is cool to see how nostalgic they are while it is happening because they start to understand that it was such a cool part of their time growing up in Aspen,” Thomsen said.  

Many of the AHS seniors came back from Ex-Ed this year extremely sentimental because it was their last one.  It is something we are grappling to let go of and that we are seeking to understand why it is so important to us.

“It provides us with an understanding about the world that we never would have gotten in the classroom,” AHS senior and head girl Claire O’Sullivan said.  “I have learned so many things from it; I have learned how to socialize, how to put myself out there, how to try new things, and I have learned to get out of my comfort zone.  I think it is the best thing that AHS has to offer and I think that everyone should do it at least one in their high school career.”

“I think a lot of times in school we learn about the basics: math, history, science, english,” AHS senior Jordana Rothberg said.  “We never learn about real life applications, going out in the world, and what it is like to be in a situation where you need to socialize, be able to fend for yourself, or how to be in the wilderness.  I think that Ex-Ed is the one course that our school offers that brings students into an environment in which we are not comfortable, which is the one way to find yourself truly and find out what you stand for.”

For the younger students it gives them a way to no longer see the upperclassman as superiors, but instead as friends.  A week spent with freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors teaches students to understand that we are all here to make friends and bonds that can last a lifetime.

“Honestly, as a parent, seeing Madison come back this year I saw that she was just glowing, had such a great experience, and was so excited to maintain friendships and know the kids outside of the freshman class.  She now feels like she has actually developed friendships with upperclassmen and kids outside of her normal, social realm.  I feel like that was sort of a transformative experience for her.  She is now more herself, than she was when she first came into Aspen High School.”   

“It is a good way for underclassmen to meet upperclassmen.  Now when we are at school we have friends that we can talk to,” Thomsen’s freshman daughter Madison Thomsen said.  “I learned perseverance from Ex-Ed because we had some real struggles throughout the trip, but they all ended up being funny.”