It's a crisp, winter day in Hood River, but inside a teepee west of town a fire burns warmly in its pit, smoke wafting up and escaping through vents at the top.
Five children, from age 7-11, sit around the fire as Fiona Morehouse reads to them about Native myths and legends. They all gaze calmly into the fire as they absorb the stories, not a fidget among them.
When she's finished reading, the firetender for the day, Nathan Fuentes, adds a log to the fire and, with Fiona's help, makes sure it's burning safely inside the pit. Then, out comes the clay. For now, after weeks of immersion in the myths and legends of the Columbia River Indian people, of hiking and studying the geology of the Gorge from Beacon Rock to Catherine Creek, it's time for the children to create their own myth and record it in soft clay for firing into their own "petroglyph."
This is a typical Thursday at the Gorge Discovery School, a two-day-per-week enrichment program for homeschoolers. Thursdays are classroom days, while Wednesdays are field days, where the kids spend most of the day outside somewhere in the Gorge. This week, they paid a visit to Jeanne Hillis, a renowned artist who spent years creating cloth impressions of Indian petroglyphs, working along the Columbia River from Stevenson to the Tri-Cities. Hillis, sharp and spry at 94, lives in The Dalles, and the students spent more than an hour learning about her art and experiences with Columbia River petroglyphs before so many of them were lost underwater behind The Dalles Dam.
After their visit with Jeanne, the students headed to Rowena Plateau where they spent the rest of the day hiking and learning about how the Missoula Floods scoured and shaped the Gorge, and generally observing the many effects of geologic forces that are visible from up there.
The Gorge Discovery School was formed two years ago by several parents seeking an alternative to local schools, but who wanted something to supplement homeschooling.
"We just wanted a different educational experience for our children," said Carrie Fuentes. As they were searching for options, they connected with Laura Haspela, whose background was teaching in the place-based education model. Place-based education promotes learning in students' local environment, using local heritage, cultures, landscapes, people and experiences as the basis for studying subjects across the curriculum.
"It's basically connecting children to their place and environment," Fuentes said. She describes it as concentric circles, where children first learn about their own place - the Columbia River Gorge - and then move outward into the world.
Being outside, studying the natural world and the local environment is integral to place-based education.
"It's very much about engaging all the senses," Fuentes said. It's a much deeper way of learning."
There are 12 students at the Gorge Discovery School. Morehouse, whose background is in arts and education, co-teaches with Emily Gates Olson. (Laura Haspela, who taught last year, is on maternity leave this year and plans to return next year.) Olson's background is also in place-based education; coincidentally, both she and Haspela were formerly teachers at the renowned Journeys School in Jackson, Wyo.
The students all follow different "paths" of homeschooling outside of the Discovery School, but they all work on some projects related to whatever they're studying in the enrichment program.
While many of the students have never been enrolled in public school, Shawn and Katie Sundby decided to try the Gorge Discovery School for their son, Saylor, 8, after three years at May Street Elementary.
"For us, it was about Saylor as an individual, not school per se," Katie said. Academic learning has always come easily for their son, she said, and they felt he would benefit from "being challenged in different ways than he was in public school.
"We wanted to ignite that passion for learning," she said. She likes the small group setting at the Discovery School, believing it's helping Saylor learn how to really work through conflicts and also create lasting friendships. The amount of time spent in the outdoors - the students even learned outdoor survival skills last fall - also has boosted his self-confidence, she said.
Michael and Kathryn McElwee have had their sons, Chris, 10, and Connor, 9, enrolled at the Gorge Discovery School since it started last year.
"For us, it was really about having that outdoor experience and a creative curriculum that kind of speaks to that," Kathryn said.
That would be the place-based learning model, which Olson believes in wholeheartedly.
"Cultivating a love and appreciation of one's own home, wherever that happens to be - place-based learning can as easily happen in the inner city as in the Gorge - gives such a good foundation for wherever you go in the world," she said. "It's a really great way to contextualize kids' learning environment. To see it, feel it, live it, breathe it - that's such a powerful experience for kids."
The Sundbys and McElwees say they're taking it year by year for their kids, but are enthusiastic about the Gorge Discovery School.
"My kids have really developed a sense of place and a sense of community there," McElwee said. "They come away each day just high on life, with so much energy and laughter. It's really an awesome experience for them."