CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mountaineer Montessori teacher Suzanne Sanders has traveled to or lived in Costa Rica, Colorado, Machu Picchu and Europe. Combine that adventurous nature with her love of hiking, kayaking and all things outdoors. Now put her on top of a Pendleton County mountain with 22 elementary students for a two-night excursion and she's found her own slice of Almost Heaven.
Sanders and fellow teacher Nancy Johnston took their Advanced Elementary students, ages 9 through 12, on a learning weekend in conjunction with The Mountain Institute as part of the Institute's Mountain Learning course.
"In addition to being completely immersed in the great outdoors, field-based programs allow the students to work together to care for themselves and the group," the institute's website explains.
"With guidance and assistance from the instructors, the students cook meals, live in tents, and participate in group learning activities."
Sanders grew up in Lancaster, Pa., and graduated from Penn State University. She was on the track team in college, eventually landing a scholarship in her senior year thanks to her hard work and dedication. She worked selling computer software following a move to Boulder, Colo., and her territory was everything west of the Mississippi River.
Weary of being a traveling salesman, Saunders and her former husband sold everything they owned, packed up a pickup truck and drove to Costa Rica. That's where their son, Sebastian Jack Sanders, now 15, was born in a private birthing clinic.
Jack was the impetus for her interest in the Montessori method of teaching. She joked that his high energy led to him being kicked out of several day cares before they landed on the child-centered philosophy originated by Dr. Maria Montessori. Following many weeks of training, she became a certified Montessori teacher and eventually ended up in Charleston, teaching at Mountaineer Montessori.
The "whole child" educational methods led Sanders to that mountaintop near Spruce Knob. With help from The Mountain Institute, Sanders and Johnston took their 22 students in the fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-year programs on a weekend of team building, developing social and emotional skills.
"These students are very social, they are trying to determine what is right, what is wrong, who are the leaders at this age," Sanders said. "I really wanted to get them out into nature. During the first two weeks of school, we don't do much academic work at all. We work on team building. They learn to trust each other."