CA Curious

Gravel Road Lessons: The Serendipity of an X Day

September 29, 2022

I swear I’m not making this up. Just ask Max, or Coach Hall, or any of the students who were on the bike trip—they can corroborate the details.

Here’s a bit of the backstory. Several weeks ago, Max had asked me if I was willing to help with an X Day centered around biking—specifically, gravel biking through Umstead State Park. I cheerfully agreed for two reasons, even before he really finished asking the question: first, I knew that Max would put together a great experience for his peers and the adults who happened to tag along, as he has led previous X Day and Flex Day activities. And second, I love to bike.

True to expectations, Max crafted a lovely day. We gathered in front of the CMS on Wednesday morning, helmeted and biked and watered. Max reminded us of some necessary details. We discussed the route. Maps were shown, tire pressures double checked, roll taken.

At 9:20, nine of us—two adults, seven Upper School students–pedaled past the Upper School, the Admin Building, the Middle School, and then out to Research Drive. A quick jaunt across North Harrison, a zip through the neighborhoods, and we found ourselves on the greenway, which led us to the Old Reedy Creek Road parking area by Lake Crabtree.

Max stopped us again, making sure we were all good before starting up the gravel road. We gulped some water and chatted a moment about the downhill through the neighborhood (which meant a crazy climb through the neighborhood when we returned), and then we pedaled up Old Reedy Creek Road. Over the course of the next twelve miles or so, we huffed and puffed up hills, roared down downhills (all while staying true to our comfort zones), and watched out for each other. Naturally, we stopped periodically to catch our breath and keep the group together.

At one of those moments, late in the ride, we were paused on the edge of the gravel road when a white-haired gentleman came over the hill, striding toward us. He stopped when he saw us on our bikes.

“Hello,” he said, looking at the students. “Is this a class?”

We explained that we were a school group, that on this day we were taking the learning outside the school walls.

“Oh,” he said. “Tell me what you are learning!”

Max explained not only the activities that we were doing, but also a number of the associated skills.

The gentleman smiled. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “And it’s so important to keep learning! I’m 85 years old, and I’m still learning and still moving! That’s why I hike these trails every day. If you limit yourself to the rocking chair, you won’t get up again!”

He told us about working hard, starting in his late teens, and finding success in his roles. He talked about retiring once in his fifties, getting bored and starting his own business and retiring in his 70s, and then volunteering—now well into his 80s. “I probably volunteer about 50 hours per week,” he confided. “And that’s what’s really important,” he added. “Helping others—that’s when you are really successful, when you can add to your community.”

We thanked him, wished him well, and then started our way back to campus. At one of our final stops, Adi said, “So what did you think of what the gentleman said?” A number of us marveled at his age—he may have been 85, but he looked much younger. Several of us reflected on his message: we are truly successful when we help others. Those thoughts stayed with us as we cycled back to school, retracing our earlier path.

That afternoon, under Max’s guidance, we shifted to other aspects of the day: how to plan bike routes, how to develop one’s biking skills. But most of us reflected, individually or in small groups, on the chance encounter, on yet another lesson outside the classroom, one that none of us were expecting.

By its very nature, we can’t plan for serendipity. But we can make sure that the conditions are ripe (yay X Days!), that we welcome learning and lessons and joy not only inside the classroom walls, but outside as well—even if it’s on the dusty gravel road in the middle of a state park where we hear a gentle reminder about what’s really important in our world.

Written by Robin Follet, Head of Upper School

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Taking a Risk: Leadership and Volleyball Camp, 2021

April 22, 2021

Ms. Johnson-Webb and I were eating lunch together last fall, and as often is the case, we were talking about how sports had shaped us into the leaders we are today. As avid collegiate athletes, opportunities  to share the sport with younger players (as captains, as coaches) had proven pivotal for each of us—helping to develop crucial leadership skills, instilling confidence, and helping us to navigate the divide between voice and silence.  It was decided then and there: CA needed an opportunity for our high school volleyball players to have that same chance, and thus the idea for a Volleyball and Leadership Camp for 6th graders was born.     

Immediately, the Varsity and JV volleyball players were “ALL IN”.  Olivia Willard and Katie White volunteered to teach passing, Nikki Tehrani and Hanorah Alapati took setting, Lexie Davila and Julia Johnson were the right ones for hitting, and our serving coaches would be Ingrid Wang and Estella Multari. The other team members joined the crew, and a plan was organized to combine court skills with meaningful discussions inspired by some amazing female athletes.   

Camp day arrived: the ‘big girls’ (as they soon were called) showed incredible skill and patience as they guided the learners on the courts.  The big girls modeled the way: “Volleyball players call out to each other!”  or “Volleyball players glow each other up!” And most importantly, “Volleyball players support each other when they make a mistake.”  

Students in Leadership and Volleyball

Voices of the sixth graders became louder, more confident each day.  As the piece de la resistance, the sixth graders saw Lexie spike the ball; jaws dropped.  They applauded.  It felt magical. What was equally as impressive, however, was the six graders’ ability to engage in deep conversations about risk, vulnerability, voice, and empowerment.   

Ms. Johnson-Webb and I guided them through discussions during the rest/recharge times, watching short clips of Amanda Gorman and stories about Olympic athletes. The girls listened to the messages from Serena Williams and other incredible leaders.  We asked the sixth graders: “How do you take a healthy risk?”  and the girls spoke about family, support, and connections.   

Because we are rooted in feedback and reflection here at CA, the upper school volleyball players offered the following at the camp’s conclusion: 

I absolutely enjoyed every second of it! I could tell the sixth graders were super excited to get some special treatment from us older girls ? I think we had a really good organization down, the stations ensured that everyone got equal amount of lesson and encouragement. When I used to play club, sometimes if we weren’t having a good game or day we’d all sit down and talk about what might’ve been holding us back. I loved the discussion that we had about being vulnerable at the beginning of the clinic,…Thanks for an awesome opportunity!” 

“Having different girls teach each skill also helped out the high schoolers in developing some leadership skills and getting used to talking to a big group (especially for the underclassman). I LOVED how we had multiple different videos across different disciplines (ie: vulnerability, using your voice, etc.).” 

Both on the court and in the classroom, this special group of Upper Schoolers and Middle Schoolers spoke the truth that the world needs to hear:  girls can.   

As our current Strategic Plan states in its goals for authentic engagement: we want our students to develop self-knowledge and community identity through relationships. We know that physical, social, and emotional balance is essential for learning and well-being, and that meaningful engagement is one of the ways to get there.   

And how about the new, increasingly self-assured voices of our sixth graders? At camp, our big girls fully embraced their role as peer mentors, growing as leaders and positive role models. Our sixth graders felt empowered and emboldened as a result (and certainly, having positive role models around our children is on every parent’s wish list). It’s no coincidence that in seeing the big girls use their voices, they too found theirs.  

Working together as a team, older and younger girls learned valuable and enduring lessons that are at the heart of the CA experience, and which are essential to deep and life-long confidence: the importance of taking risks, embracing struggle, and developing resilience. As one parent of a sixth grader remarked: This is truly one of the things that make CA a special community. Thank you so much for helping our daughter become a strong woman and for making that important to her and defining that even at the precipice of that journey.  

Written by Josette Huntress Holland, Assistant Head of Upper School

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Flex Day Vastly Expands Our Options at CA


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Parents explore the student experience during Community Flex Day

March 29, 2021

On Sunday, March 28, dozens of Cary Academy parents and employees got a taste of Flex Day — a new addition to CA’s schedule introduced in August 2020. Flex Day is a designated day each week when students are free to explore ideas, interests, and activities beyond the classroom.

This year, instead of hosting the annual Taste and Toast celebration, the Cary Academy PTAA held the first-ever Community Flex Day. More than fifteen activities were offered across campus and beyond. Following the same COVID protocols as our students, it gave CA’s community a much-needed opportunity to connect face-to-face (and/or virtually) in safe, small groups.

The day-long event started with a virtual coffee with Head of School Dr. Mike Ehrhardt. Despite the rain, which postponed some outdoor activities, things kicked into high gear with the annual CA 5K. Parents got moving with yoga on the quad and workouts with Coach Hux. Minds were fed with virtual conversations about history and culture hosted by parents and faculty, poetry analysis, a hands-on (and finger-licking) lecture on the sociocultural history of barbecue, and an exploration of how data affects our decisions. Service opportunities were had, timely, resonant poetry was explored, math classrooms were escaped from, and much, much more.

Thank you to everyone who planned, hosted, learned, had fun, and explored as we modeled the student experience of Flex Day.

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager


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Let Us See You Flex

December 29, 2020

What would you do with your time if you were given a day to explore any interest? What if you had one day each week to do just that? What curiosities would you pursue? What passions would you discover? What opportunities would you seize?

That’s precisely the concept behind Cary Academy’s new Flex Day—a designated day each week when students are free to explore ideas, interests, and activities beyond the classroom. Not only are the opportunities nearly boundless—for Upper School students, Flex Day activities need not be offered by or connected to CA in any way, shape, or form—but the programming comes from students themselves.

“We want the sky to be the limit,” offers Danielle Johnson Webb, Director of Equity and Community Engagement. “At CA, we pride ourselves on being dynamic, on challenging students to ‘own their learning.’ Flex Day is the very embodiment of that philosophy. We’re giving students the latitude to explore their interests, the flexibility to choose how they spend one of their days, and the dedicated, unscripted time to make it happen.”

Since Flex Day was introduced in August 2020, students have used it to start new clubs; mentor their peers; study music; perform community service; improve athletics rankings; participate in dialogues to help manage the stress of the pandemic and election; take on part-time jobs; practice mindfulness and yoga; work on long-term academic projects; pursue research with local universities; and even learn to sail.

With guidance from the Center for Community Engagement, any student can propose and plan Flex Day activities, which are made available to other students through a weekly signup. For Johnson-Webb, the learning that happens in that discovery and planning process is nearly as important as what happens during the proposed activity itself.

“That we empower students to seek out learning opportunities that are meaningful to them, that we instill in them the independence and initiative to do so, that we demonstrate the value of open-ended discovery—it is a crucial part of the CA experience; it is what sets CA apart,” offers Johnson-Webb.

“When students are in the driver’s seat, they cultivate important skills that serve them long after they leave CA—self- awareness, empathy, leadership, perseverance, resiliency, time and project management, and an authentic passion for lifelong learning, to name a few.”

College counselor and eleventh-grade advisor, Brandon Carter has seen enthusiasm for Flex Day from students and college admissions officers alike. “That Flex Day’s programs are mostly student initiatives gives them the chance to be inquisitive, explorative, open-minded, and engaged. It allows learning to be fun, new, exciting.”

“It’s a game-changer that lets students start to figure out who they are—something that will help them find their path in college and life beyond,” continues Carter. “When I talk to college admissions staff, they’re wowed by the idea of having a day of exploration built into the daily schedule—and, frankly, most of them wish they’d had something like that when they were in school.”

Flex Day has had the added benefit of unlocking exciting opportunities for Middle School and Upper School collaborations. Before Flex Day, limitations of the traditional schedule, which maintained marked differences between a Middle School and Upper School day, made cross-divisional activities nearly impossible. Now, however, students can work together across grades and divisions, opening rich opportunities for peer-learning and peer-mentoring.

While the health imperative presented by the coronavirus pandemic helped to fast-track the Flex Day initiative, the idea of building in more flexible time for students to explore their interests has long figured prominently in CA’s strategic plan. It is all part of CA’s commitment to creating learning opportunities that are personal, flexible, and relevant.

“Some iteration of Flex Day is going to be a regular part of the CA experience even after the pandemic subsides,” promises Johnson-Webb. “The Center for Community Engagement is always looking for ways to offer signature experiences that empower students to own their learning, that expose them to new things, experiences, and perspectives. It is what sets a CA student apart, what positions them so effectively to tackle whatever comes next.”

Middle School entrepreneurial learning sprints

Seventh graders have had the opportunity to engage in hands-on entrepreneurial exploration thanks to two Flex Day learning sprints held in partnership with the University of North Carolina’s Young Founders Institute. In the first, students tackled app development, monetization, and marketing. In the second, they learned the ins and outs of raising capital for a startup, including creating an eye-catching pitch deck to appeal to potential investors.

Virtual Charger Corner

Entrepreneurial Upper School students learned about the ins and outs of e-commerce, website and database design, product marketing, copy-writing, branding, and photography while tackling the design, development, and launch of CA’s new online student store during a long-term, multi-Flex Day project.

Middle School Debate Club

After the success of a student-run speech and debate camp (check out that feature in this issue), Upper School students Andrew Lake (‘22) and Neha Sharma (‘22) used Flex Day to develop and launch CA’s first-ever Middle School Debate Club. Already over fifty students strong, they meet on Flex Day and receive instruction, coaching, and guidance from their experienced Upper School peers.

Campus art installation

Arts met mathematics in a joint Middle and Upper School Flex Day collaboration. Sixth through tenth graders designed and fabricated a new campus art installation—a large, symmetrical sculpture fashioned out of PVC pipe—that demonstrated interesting mathematical properties.

Affinity group expansion

Student leaders of the African American Affinity Group have used Flex Day to support their members better and forge community connections. They have expanded meeting times and bridged the formerly siloed Upper School and Middle School affinity groups to enable peer mentorship opportunities aimed at improving the student experience.

Expanded service opportunities

Students in the Upper School have logged an impressive 130+ hours of service learning during expanded Flex Day offerings that allow them to pursue service opportunities that align with their interests.

Outdoor Club

Flex Day has dramatically increased opportunities for the popular Upper School Outdoors Club. Typically only able to enjoy three excursions a year, the club now explores local state parks on a nearly weekly basis.

Girl Unit Club

Whether starting as a first-year student or transitioning from Middle School, the ninth-grade experience can be challenging for our students, especially girls. Cam Wood (’22) started Girl Unit to create a safe space for ninth-grade girls to learn how to navigate school, relationships, stress. The club has helped to form new and strengthen existing friendships amongst its members.

Student-led strength and conditioning program

Daphne DiFrancesco (’26) created a stretch and strengthening class that she offers to all her Middle School peers every Flex Day. She crafted the curriculum from scratch based on her own dance and conditioning experience and reports that it has been “a great learning opportunity on how to teach, how to lead, and a great way to get to know people, not just in your grade, but throughout Middle School.”

Sailing Club

One of the more adventurous additions to the Flex Day calendar, CA’s new Sailing Club has officially, well, set sail, thanks to the efforts of club founders Matthew Schricker (’23) and Max Li (’23). Novice and experienced sailors have participated in a free sailing clinic with the Carolina Sailing Club and RTP High School Sailing to learn the ins and outs of sailing and responsible boating. The club has plans for regular outings to Lake Crabtree and Jordan Lake, where students can put their newfound skills to practice, with an eye to competitive opportunities on the horizon.

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications

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