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An Annual Overnight Opportunity at FernLeaf for ALL students!

A signature program at FernLeaf for ALL students is an annual overnight experience. An important part of FernLeaf's mission is to help students grow in numerous ways beyond just academics, and multi day overnight fieldwork experiences are an important part of this. Time away from families in a safe, structured, and fun environment with trusted adults allows students to develop self-confidence and build independence in ways that are just not possible in other settings. This is ONE example of many overnights that happened during the 22-23 school year!

The third grade Red Foxes and Hawks classes had the privilege of “sleeping with the sharks” at the Gatlinburg Ripley’s Aquarium for their grade-level overnight fieldwork experience! The planning for this trip started back at the beginning of the second trimester, after brainstorming different fieldworks the Teachers thought would be worthwhile for our third grade students. The contact with Ripley’s was stellar, and we had confirmation of our group’s overnight experience within days of reaching out to them. The hardest part was keeping our excitement from boiling over in anticipation!

The third grade students started their day off with visiting the Great Smokey Mountains National Park Sugarlands Visitor Center, where they learned about the significance of the national park and how important it is to preserve truly natural spaces for the enjoyment of future generations and the wildlife that call the park home. The students took in the sights and sounds of Cataract Falls, and breathed in the brisk, humid air of the forest while they explored various nature trails.

After visiting the park, the students indulged in an all-you-can-eat pizza dinner, and took a moment to calm themselves before a night of fun. This time was essential to soothe any feelings of homesickness or anxiety towards a night spent so far away from home - a first-time experience for many of the third graders.

After sunset, our students embarked on what is sure to be something they’ll talk about for years to come. The courteous staff at Ripley’s Aquarium welcomed us with bright smiles, and led us through the aquarium to where we would be spending the night with some of their favorite fishy friends! The students were guided through a riveting round of marine science-based Jeopardy, and given artistic freedom to paint the outline of various saltwater fish species and stamp the design onto either a pillowcase or their favorite blank t-shirt!

While the students were putting the finishing touches on their art projects, the aquarium staff were busy readying the aquarium for our final and most exciting activity of the evening- complete freedom to explore the ENTIRE aquarium! The Foxes and Hawks had no trouble maneuvering the three-story play place, complete with nets, bridges, lookout towers, and cat-walks, all the while surrounded by the extensive collection of fresh and saltwater fish species housed in the aquarium. The students were encouraged to explore and discover the different regions of the aquarium at their own pace, including the massive shark tunnel, the mysterious rainforest cave, the wall-to-wall coral reef tank, stingray touch tank, and much, much more! To some students, the sudden autonomy was confusing, and many were coming to us chaperones for assurance that they could visit various areas of the aquarium. Though after a few minutes, every single student was engrossed in their own adventure, reveling in the opportunity to explore wherever their hearts and imaginations took them. We ended the night with a snack, and headed to bed lined up like sardines under the shark tunnel still active with hundreds of beautiful and graceful residents. We even had a few massive friends tuck us in - two sawfish, each the length of a mid-size sedan, who gave us quite the view to fall asleep as they napped on top of the tunnel ceiling.

The next morning, we woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to our aquarium staff chaperones beginning their day, feeding our many sharp toothed friends. After satisfying our own hunger, we packed up, thanked the gracious aquarium staff for providing us with such a memorable experience, and took off back through the mountains towards FernLeaf.

Written By Max Royal - Third and Fourth Grade Assistant Teacher for FernLeaf

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