Sixth grade for me is like a zipline: at first, you don’t know how it’s going to be, but soon the view is so beautiful.” —Annabel ’26
Last week, GDS 6th graders—more than one quarter of them just joining GDS and all of them new to the Middle School—rolled up to River Valley Ranch on the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania in the care of their teachers and advisors. Just as the students were starting in a new division, so too were the teachers exploring a new site for the annual beginning-of-the-year overnight trip. Ultimately, the trip would serve to integrate the new students, foster community within the grade, nurture individual connections among students, and set the stage for a year of challenge, growth, self-discovery, academic learning, and play.
"The camp facilitators were so professional, and the kids were incredible,” said 6th (and 7th) grade history teacher Toussaint Lacoste. "The output of this experience absolutely matched the input. This was a trip that will be memorable for years to come."
Lower/Middle School Spanish teacher Lauren Kinnard added: "The 6th graders blew me away with their kindness, support, perseverance, and bravery! They each tried something outside their comfort zone and encouraged each other to do the same, while respecting the different choices their friends made. They understood that bravery and risk-taking look different for each person and cheered each other on through each new challenge."
Students cranked up their bravery levels on the high ropes course as well as a giant swing, assisted by their classmates many meters below. “We were strapped in as we climbed the ladder,” explained Aarav ’26, one of the students new to GDS. “It was a little scary at first. Using teamwork, we pulled each other up [with long ropes], and when you say you are ready, they drop you!” Sixth graders kicked their legs skyward or screamed in joyful terror as they swung through blue skies, cheered on by their classmates from far below. “It was definitely scary at first, but it was really fun,” Aarav said.
Some students found themselves more bold with the support of their classmates. “On the high ropes course,” Addy ’26 added, “I reached an obstacle that looked like swinging steps. About halfway across I sat down and couldn’t get up again! My friends helped pull me back up again and we were all laughing.”
River Valley Ranch set up a barn with American Ninja Warrior-style challenges and neon mini golf. Outside in the sun, students played archery tag. “We got to feel like Katniss Everdeen [from The Hunger Games],” said Theo ’26. “Hiding behind inflatable blocks to reload our bows, we could find different angles to fire at people with our arrows that had marshmallow pads on the front so it didn’t hurt when you got hit.”
In between the ropes course and challenge activities run by River Valley Staff, students created moments for social connection, some of which—though perhaps small—carried important, lasting, emotional value. “Before the campfire,” said Charlotte ’26, “we had been doing a Disney singalong with songs like “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana. Then, on the way over to the campfire, we made a conga line, but I didn’t have a place. Mimi called me over and fit me into the line. I felt happy to be a part of something.”
“In my advisory,” said science teacher Stephen Harris, “I have four new students added to seven returning students. I love having the trip at the beginning of the year, because it gives the new students a chance to be pulled into the fold. When we return to school the following week, I find it is often hard to identify who is new and who is returning. Giving the students a chance to work together, build their teamwork skills, and make new friendships is so important for starting the school year on the right foot.”
The value of taking our students outdoors for active, engaging, challenges that expand upon their classroom experiences cannot be understated; and, if the 6th grade trip is any testament, pays dividends for community—through trust, communication, leadership—and individual sense of self. Sometimes though, for 6th graders, great value can be found as much in the dining hall as on the high ropes course.
“Amit really enjoyed time in the cabin, hanging out with friends,” said parent Anu Tate. “He was happy that there were so many different exciting activities. He thought the giant ‘swing’ was pretty crazy! And he definitely talked to me about the food as well! Guess he was hungry!”
While sharing their reflections following the trip, new-to-GDS 6th grader Annabel surprised herself as she recognized the parallel between her high ropes adventure and this new GDS adventure she’s just beginning.
“Ziplining was very fun in the end, but when I started, the first few feet didn’t seem very fun. Then, I felt the wind get strong, and soon we were all screaming. And the view was so pretty. The teachers were all so nice...Sixth grade for me is like a zipline: at first, you don’t know how it’s going to be, but soon the view is so beautiful.”