The Country as Classroom

By Julia Munemo

At Mesa Verde National Park in the desert of Colorado, 10 Field Academy students are learning about the Ancestral Puebloans and their relationship to water. The class they’re taking—right there in the dwellings—isn’t a field trip per se. It’s a history class; they’re learning about this ancient people. And it’s a science class; they’re learning about how human beings, plants, and other animals adapt to water scarcity.

Co-founded by 2004 alumnae Jen Lazar and Heather Foran, and currently directed by their classmate Annie Moore, the Field Academy is “a school committed to making learning and life indistinguishable.” They do it by leading high school students from all over the country on trips where the United States is both classroom and text.

After the cliff dwellings, the group piles into the van and heads to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. They take a white water rafting trip led by a river protection advocate who explains environmental, social, and economic issues affecting the health of the Rio Chama’s ecosystem. Later, they visit a water treatment plant in Albuquerque, looking at water samples under a microscope and learning from a plant manager about the science of treating water in the desert. “Every person we meet along the way is the teacher,” Foran says. Field Academy faculty help students contextualize and integrate what they learn in these real-world encounters through classes including science, citizenship, and history.

Heather Foran , Annie Moore, and Jen Lazar
Heather Foran , Annie Moore, and Jen Lazar

The idea to build a school based on travel was born on the Parsons House porch in 2003. Lazar and Foran had recently returned from trips abroad and were talking—along with several other students—about how much they had, and had not, learned. “I realized how little I knew about the United States,” Lazar says. “And I thought ‘I’m supposed to vote?’” Soon, they were dreaming of starting a domestic travel school—one that would, she says, “equip people with a nuanced and complex understanding and passion for this country.”

Although they went different ways after graduation—Lazar running an adventure-based program and serving on the Burlington school board; Foran teaching at an international travel school—the idea stuck. By 2009, Lazar had started a master’s program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education with the aim of developing a business plan to open a domestic travel school. On the very first day she met a friend of Foran’s who had the same goal in mind. It didn’t take them long to realize they should work together, and a three-woman partnership developed easily.

In 2010, the team moved to Portland, Maine, and spent months at their kitchen table pulling their ideas together. Soon, all they needed was students. They sent an email to friends, fellow educators, and Williams classmates asking if they knew of high school students who might want to participate in a domestic travel school. While they got that in spades, they also found donors (“the class of 2004 has been amazing”), additional staff, board members, and their future interim executive director, Annie Moore.

Moore was getting her M.B.A. in nonprofit management at Brandeis when that email arrived. She joined the board and during a time of transition some years later, Moore was honored to join the management team.

In the summer of 2011, the Field Academy was on its first trip, in New England. “We figured we should start with what we know,” Foran—a Maine native—explains. They spent five weeks traveling around New England, learning about the environment, history, and issues of citizenship and community from people living and working in the region. (For now, the Field Academy runs summer sessions as they build support and momentum to launch a school-year program.)

Central to the founders’ vision is that each group of students represents the diversity of the United States. To get there, they have adopted a financial aid system similar to Williams’—they don’t turn anyone away for an inability to pay.

The Field Academy isn’t running a trip this summer. Instead, they’re holding two teacher-training sessions with the goal of helping traditional schools implement “place-based curricula” all over the country.

They’re also hosting an alumni retreat. “Williams College chaplain Rick Spalding once said that the most important work you can do is to introduce people to each other,” Foran says, explaining her hopes for bringing their three alumni groups together.

“These experiences are transformative at any time in life—but especially so for high school age students,” Lazar says. “And that’s why we do this.”

To learn more about the Field Academy, visit their website.