Ben and Pat Begley, along with their staff, have guided over eighty thousand students through environmental education classes at Pine Mountain Settlement School since its' founding in 1987. (Photo provided.)
Ben and Pat Begley figured out long ago that students learn best when they get their hands on the subject being taught, supplemented by a healthy trip outside into the fresh air.
At the Pine Mountain Settlement School, where the Begleys have lived and conducted environmental classes for youngsters since 1987, they do teaching that way. The method appears to be effective, both when students go back to their regular schools, and for many, when a new, engaging world is opened to them while they are attending.
Over the past few decades, the Begleys and staff members have guided over eighty thousand students, mostly from Kentucky, who made the trip to the school which sits at the base of the Pine Mountains.
“When kids reconnect to nature, they start scoring better in all their subjects,” said Ben, who has spent much time aligning the curriculum to the Kentucky educational standards.
“There are kids who are very much used to seeing real bad things happening in their in their own neighborhoods, but then they are often afraid when they just go out into the woods here,” said Pat. “But (after they go out there) it is something to see their little eyes light up.” She noted that the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv, tells well how so many young today “just don’t have that experience.”
The couple loves the kinds of relationships they have developed. “We’re everyone’s grandparents,” said Ben with a grin. “We get everyone’s kids for three days, then we can send them home.”
About thirty-five hundred student campers come every year to the northern Harlan County site, which has about six hundred-fifty acres. “Most of it is mountains,” Ben said, “with about a hundred acres of flat land. Black Mountain (the highest peak in Kentucky), is on the other side of Pine Mountain.”
Typically, campers and their teachers and chaperones spend three to four nights in the school’s dormitories. The Begleys plan a three-hour learning experience each day, usually with only thirty minutes being inside a classroom. The outdoors instruction often involves long hikes up the mountainside, a challenging feat for both students and the teachers who accompany them on the excursions to the school.
“Some of the students, and the teachers with them, are really physically challenged by the walk up to the Pine Mountain Summit,” said Pat. “We go so slowly, however, and see so many cool things that they can’t believe they have climbed the two highest mountains in the state.”
The school was founded in 1913 as a boarding school by William Creech Sr. in order to increase educational opportunities for the poor in the area. It has evolved into a unique learning experience, designed to educate a new generation to respect Mother Earth to the fullest.
Students learn about a wide array of environmental subjects in the few days they attend. Geology, with rocks and fossils native to the area, is one. Native-American peoples, an area “we have had to study to educate ourselves,” said Ben, is a popular study.
The Begleys enlighten the students, many of whom have had no meaningful experience in such a primitive environment, with the concept of “orienteering,” meaning to learn how to navigate in the woods without getting lost. Water studies, forest ecology, tree, mammals and wildflower identification represent a few of the other curriculum components. Crafts such as woodworking and weaving cloth enrich the experience.
The building classrooms are well-stocked with materials mostly gathered in the surrounding area. One of the classrooms, which Ben called “The Discovery Room…or ‘Touchy-feely’ Room,” supplies items such as animal tracks, elk and deer antlers and animal pelts for kids to pick up and observe. A very popular class, according to Ben, is when students spend about an hour with live snakes, box turtles and toads. “We don’t keep the animals in the cages. We get them out and let them touch and enjoy,” he said.
Judy Hensley, a Wallins Creek middle school teacher in Harlan County, has seen her students and others reap the benefits of being under the tutelage of Ben and Pat, including recently when Ben contributed stories and venomous snake photos for a student book project.
“Their knowledge of the natural world is impressive, but that is only part of what they bring to Pine Mountain,” she said. “They dance the old mountain sets, know the edible plants, geological and cultural development of the area, photography, weaving, nutrition, and any number of important topics. They are always willing to enrich the lives of those around them.”
Shelly Jones talked about Pat Begley’s encouragement to her middle school students from St. Francis School, Goshen, Kentucky. “She called the students to action, explaining how they could educate themselves and their families about where their electricity comes from and to think about how important it will be for their generation to find alternative, renewable, and sustainable energy supplies.”
Jones reported that a sizeable number of her students wrote letters to the governor and started researching alternative energy sources. “They have heeded Ms. Pat’s call,” she said. “It was a true light-bulb moment for these 11- and 12-year-olds.”
There’s no question that the Begleys are highly qualified in the field they teach. In 1992, Ben was named the Kentucky Society of Natural History’s “Naturalist of the Year.” He earned his degree in botany from East Tennessee University, and he worked summers at Tennessee’s state parks as a naturalist before he and Pat joined the school. The years of experience since have been nearly as valuable. “Living here for twenty-five years, we’ve learned by observation,” said Ben.
“Ben and Pat are two of the most talented persons I have met professionally,” said Juanita Whitaker, a retired teacher from Fayette County who engaged her students with the program. “They are passionate, informed, and dedicated to their cause. They bring history to life.”
Pat, ironically, spent her early adult work in retail sales, managing a clothing store in a mall, but when the self-proclaimed “Air Force brat” married Ben Begley and they came to the school to help resurrect an environmental education program pronounced “dead,” the transition was huge. They are both long-time and experienced teachers now, and their differences complement each other.
“Pat’s a natural-born teacher,” Ben noted. “I have to work at it. I’m more fact oriented.”
“We work together well,” said Pat.
Pat also does much of the business part of keeping PMSS going, including ordering food for the school’s dining room, a place of social activity and learning, as well as a place to feed the campers. “That’s where everything kind of focuses on while the kids are here,” Ben said. There’s also a bit of planned competition that goes on, too. “We monitor the food waste in the dining room by keeping a food chart of how much each group throws away,” said Ben. “Some of the campers really take it seriously.”
The winter generally is a kind of hiatus at the campus, “mostly for the safety of our students,” said Ben. “Safety is our number one consideration here.” That’s when the Begleys do some well-deserved vacation traveling—naturally, hiking–after being so dedicated to their responsibilities during the year. “A busman’s holiday,” said Ben, grinning.
“We came here in 1987 with the expectation that we stay here for five years, then move on,” he said. But the Begleys stayed, to the betterment of thousands of young lives. Much of the reason for staying is because of the support the community gives the settlement school.
“They take care of it,” said Pat.
“We gained their trust when we first came here,” said Ben.
It’s no wonder why.
Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes” series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. This story is from “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3,” due to be released in December 2012. His most recent book, Kentucky’s “Everyday Heroes for Kids” is now available at local bookstores. Or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or “friend” him on Facebook.