ORLEANS — The most popular class at Nauset Regional Middle School is called Adventure Ed. It’s one in which students seek out their spirit animals and themselves.
Why 12- and 13-year-olds line up to get into a classroom with bare walls, save a few drawings, and a smattering of books with titles like Way of the Peaceful Warrior is deeply mysterious. Middle-school students don’t typically do self-help. But in this case, they say the attraction has everything to do with the teacher, the athletic and arcadian John Simms, 60, who created the curriculum after a two-day walk with a Wampanoag elder as well as several years leading an outdoor adventure program for young people on Nantucket.
“Mr. Simms is everyone’s favorite teacher,” said Jack Bienvenue, a Lasell College freshman from Wellfleet. “He stays in the here and now and he does not let things bother him. He is very centered and always puts others first. You can tell he really cares about his students.”
Bella Hay of Wellfleet, a freshman at the University of Vermont, described Adventure Ed as “a really important class. As a middle schooler you don’t know who you are. And that is what this class is all about. You figure it out in a way you would never expect. It is hard to put your finger on it, but a great part of the class is it surprises you.”
After 12 years of rave reviews from middle schoolers, however, Simms has announced he plans to retire and take a new path beginning in 2024.
Chris Easley, chair of the Nauset Regional School Committee, said his committee wants to keep this wildly popular course going. The next Adventure Ed teacher, or “guide,” will have to be one of Simms’s former students, Easley said, because they are the only ones who truly get it.
Simms has sent emails to more than 100 former students in hopes of keeping the adventure going. Hay told the Independent she would be honored to take on a job like Simms’s when she graduates. But that is at least four years away.
The teacher does not look the part. He wears his hair short. There’s not a crystal in sight. His clothes are more Bill Belichick than Dalai Lama. An Eastham resident and native of North Attleboro, Simms aspired to play professional football in the 1980s.
After failing to make it in the pros, Simms sought personal guidance, and in 1985, on the recommendation of a friend, he consulted Princess Evening Star, also known as Gertrude Haynes Aikens, a Wampanaog woman who had a shop featuring Native handcrafts in Mashpee. Aikens, who died in 1996, is described on the Wampanoag tribal website of past leaders as “spunky and aggressive.” Paula Peters, also a tribe member, told the Independent that Aikens was a well-loved and respected elder, though not known as a medicine woman.
Simms found in Aikens an inspirational personal guide. After two days with her, he made Native American spirituality the core of his belief system.
In 1986, Simms landed a job helping troubled youth with Family and Children’s Services of Nantucket. He developed his own approach to supporting youth in 1991 after realizing that “everyone is at risk,” he said. Today, the nonprofit he created, Strong Wings Adventure School, is an outdoor summer camp with 200 to 300 campers and an after-school component that helps young people build confidence through outdoor experiences.
Simms, his wife, and children resettled on Cape Cod in 2007. He said he was “banging nails” when Tom Conrad, then principal of Nauset Regional High School, encouraged him to get a teaching certificate.
“Tom said, ‘Just get your license and we will figure something out,’ ” Simms said.
Simms passed the history teacher’s exam for grades 8 through 12 and was immediately hired at the middle school in 2010 — but not to teach history. Conrad told Simms that the students needed a guide, not a classroom teacher.
At first, the elective Simms created was a hard sell. But word spread fast.
“That class was the talk of the school,” Bienvenue said. “Everyone wanted to get into it.”
Simms’s outdoor adventure class includes micro field trips carefully planned to be done in the 55-minute class period. He takes students to a particular tree in Eastham that is easy to climb. They go to Nickerson State Park “to see the baby trees,” he said. They visit a “secret swan pond” and travel to Old Kings Highway in Wellfleet to walk.
One pivotal class features a trip to the school’s reading room, which has amphitheater-style seating. There, the students lie down, the lights go out, and they engage in creative visualization. They write about the experience in their journals. They also “breathe into” the class textbook, Medicine Cards, which includes 52 spirit animals, Simms said.
By the end of the course, students rename themselves in ways that elucidate what they have learned about their own characters.
Simms said this kind of work interests young people because “it is different from everything else that is going on in their lives.”
Simms said his course is about simplifying. And when it comes to that, “No one is any good at it,” he said.
This matters for young people, he said, because “the world wants them to be good at hard, complicated things. But it won’t help you be happy. A happy person knows who they are.”
Sophia Easley, a Nauset High School senior from Wellfleet, agreed the class is “not like all the other classes we take. It is about being respectful and ethical,” she said. “It is all about nature and how we need to respect each other and the environment. For most of the class we are up and moving and doing something fun, and then there is a moral at the end of it,” Easley said.
At the end of the course, students create their own medicine wheels composed of the four animals that each has chosen to identify with through the journey.
Sophia Easley said students use the animals “to guide you through life.” Hers are the hummingbird, which signifies joy; the raven, representing magic; the racoon, the caregiver; and her last (and most important) is the deer, representing kindness, she said. She renamed herself Magic Healer.
Simms said he tries hard to listen to the students. But he never tells them which animals are theirs. That is for them alone to discover.
“He will show you the way to go,” said Easley, “and you will find the end.”