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Omada Teambuilding

Over the years I’ve found that something amazing and profound seems to happen when you connect yourself to one end of a 10mm rope, the other end to a stranger, and then climb 40+ feet up a tree.  How could it not?  Not only do you have to overcome any fear of heights you might have as you make a vertical ascent up a tree, but once you’re up the tree, you need to accomplish some feat involving balance, cables, and crossing an open void between earth and sky.  To top it all off, you have to trust that the person at the other end of the rope – the person you might have only known since that morning – will support you and hold you up in case you fall.

When I took my students to Omada Teambuilding in the first full week of school this year, there was an almost tangible moment during the day when the entire ethos of my classes shifted – from a group of individual students participating in my Adventure Co-op, to a community of students who were beginning to care and support each other.  It is because of this shift that I take my students here every year.  Although I know there are many effective tools and strategies to establish community within the classroom, I have found no better way to quickly and effectively create this community than by throwing my students into situations where they are forced to problem solve together and work together as a group to reach certain objectives – both on the ground and in the trees.

I’ve come to realize that allowing students to work together in an environment of supervised ‘safe’ risk provides some of the richest soil to cultivate trust and community within a classroom.  With support and encouragement from their peers, students are able to conquer fears and connect with each other in ways that are very difficult to duplicate in the classroom.  On top of this, as the teacher, I get to see sides of my students that may not be easily seen between the four walls of my classroom.   I see the leaders and those who get discouraged easily.  I see the encouragers and those who thrive on risk.  I see how students interact with each other in both positive and negative ways.  In short, it allows me to be a better teacher and helps create the community and trust needed to learn effectively.

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Manning Park 180

I wrote in a post last year that planning and supervising overnight camping trips with students is a lot of work and can be quite stressful. But after taking students on camping trips for the last five years, I’m still a huge supporter of bringing students into the wild.  I see things in my students that I would never get to see if I had stayed in the classroom, and this allows me to be a better, more effective teacher.  However, despite all of the positives that come out in the overnight camping experience, I have to be prepared to deal with the negatives as well.

This year was a very different type of overnight experience.  Instead of a hiking into some remote backcountry destination, an early snowfall forced me to find camping in a fully serviced, provincial campground with all the amenities – hot showers, flush toilets – the full meal deal.  Being in a front country campsite (a campsite easily accessible by vehicle) also meant that we could make fires in the fire pits provided – a welcome reprieve from the freezing cold and wet that plagued us throughout the trip.  Instead of hiking to a peak with an amazing, high elevation view, we were on a mostly flat trails that took us past tranquil lakes and thundering waterfalls.  The amazing weather that has characterized all of my other trips was replaced by a mixture of driving rain, thick snow, hail, sunshine, and blue sky.  A four day trip turned into a three day trip because by the end of the second day we were wet, cold, and had hiked most everything we could safely access.  Despite the cold, the snow, the shoes that held more water than our water bottles, the aching bodies after 20kms of hiking, my students were overwhelming positive.  Surprisingly so.

But it is not always happy in hikerville.

Even though I saw a lot of positive things in my students over the three days, some shadows came out as well.  Negative habits, attitudes, dispositions, and personality traits pop up right along everything that’s positive.  And this is to be expected.  My guess is that any time you take students out of their comfort zone and put them in a place where they are exhausting themselves physically throughout the day and then have to eat, sleep, and live together for an extended period of time, whatever barriers and filters they’ve set up will begin to weaken. They begin to let down their guard.  Who they really are begins to shine through.  It’s this interplay between light and shadow that makes the overnight experience so valuable.

I love talking about the positive things I see in my students, but I won’t shy away from talking about the more negative things that show up either.  It’s only by acknowledging and coming to terms with the shadows that we can live more fully in the light.

 

Any teacher who has taken students on any form of overnight adventure – especially if it involves the outdoors – knows that it is a huge headache.  There are a myriad different permission forms that need to be sent out: medical forms, parent and student consent forms, liability forms, my-child-will-be-good-and-will-obey-all-the-rules forms, acknowledgement of the ‘dangerous’ nature of the trip forms, and waiver forms for the waiver form.  And then you have to ensure that all the students bring in their forms.  Once you think all the forms are in and completed, you realize that half the students didn’t notice there was a backside to one of the forms and you have to send it back again.  It’s enough to make your hair go grey and fall out!

This was my life for the first three weeks of September.  Then, in the final week of September when all the forms were finally collected, I took my co-op students on a three day trip to Garibaldi Provincial Park.  We hiked up to a campsite at Taylor Meadows near Garibaldi Lake.  On our second day we started towards a mountain called Panorama Ridge.  Anyone who’s been to this area knows that it is one of the most spectacularly scenic areas in all of BC.  From the campsite, you walk through lush alpine meadows, where the autumn leaves on the low bushes are a fiery display of red, orange, and yellow.  While slowly gaining elevation, you get glimpses of the impossibly turquoise blue of Garibaldi Lake and a number of glaciated ranges in the distance.  Ascending the final ridge up to the peak is like listening to a forty-five minute rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus with a ever increasing crescendo to the very top.  And then you reach the summit.

Words cannot adequately express the majesty of the landscape before you.

Garibaldi Lake is spread out in its entirety before you – surrounded by massive crevasse-gashed glaciers and mountains that demand attention.  Garibaldi Mountain stands like a sleeping giant, wrapped in a heavy blanket of snow.  The Black Tusk, the leftover remnants of a prehistoric magma chamber stands dark and silent as it keeps a watchful eye over the surrounding landscape.  Even the large, surrounding  mountains seem to pay homage to this ancient sentinel.  The summit itself is rocky and barren – gradually eroding away – a whisper of its former glory yet still glorious.  The landscape is massive and wild – it demands respect and commands awe.

Despite the awesome beauty of nature that surrounded us, I think that my greatest joy came from watching and listening to my students.  Hearing them use the words beauty and beautiful over and over again or talking about how much the students who didn’t come were missing made all the paperwork and preparation stress seem trivial.

There is something very deep that happens in the wilderness – in some way, the mountains, the cool mountain air and amazing views have a way of speaking to the soul.  This may seem somewhat sensationalistic or perhaps overly sentimental, but I don’t know of any other way to describe it.

Evidence of this inner dialogue is clear.  Students open up in ways they never do in the classroom.  Conversations and conversation topics are different – somehow more real.  On top of this, I see things in my students that I would never see or get to see teaching English in a traditional classroom.

The beauty of the natural environment in itself is not enough to initiate this deep, spiritual, conversation within people.  If we had flown up to the summit in a helicopter and spent half an hour lounging at the top, it would have been a very different experience.  The power of the wilderness to transform comes from something very different – struggle and adversity.  Getting to our campsite at Taylor Meadows required a 7.7km uphill grunt with full packs – not an easy endeavor.  It was especially difficult because it was the first time most of my students had ever attempted something like this.  It took about fifteen minutes of hiking before most of them realized that it was going to be more difficult than they expected!  By the time we reached the six kilometer mark, shoulders were aching, backs were in agony, legs were on fire, and the lively conversation had gradually become subdued.  Thankfully, everyone made it the last 1.7 km!

The beauty of the wilderness is born out of struggle.  Trees have to fight other trees and plants for soil and moisture to grow; they have to endure harsh weather conditions and a short growing season in order to survive.  Mountains are created by fire and the movement of titanic underground forces, and are demolished by persistent weather and grinding ice.  Even the animals that live in this environment have adapted to survive – though life still isn’t guaranteed.   I wonder if it is only possible to really appreciate this beauty when it involves struggle.  For my students, the personal transformations I observed on this overnight hiking trip were made possible by the long, sweaty struggle up the mountain.  It was only then that the beauty of our surroundings could begin its work of transformation.

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Finally, I hope that the skills and attitude necessary to enjoy the wilderness will transfer into the classroom.  Here are a few of the main points I hope will transfer:

  1. Having a good attitude is critical.
  2. You can accomplish much more as a team than by yourself.
  3. Know your destination – it will motivate you when you’re hiking through the trees.
  4. Wonder about everything!
  5. Encourage your peers along the way – they might not be having as easy a time as you.
  6. Push yourself – you’ll be glad you did.
  7. Learning, like hiking, requires stamina.

This is the view over the Elfin Lakes with Garibaldi Mt. in the background.

Last week I had the incredible opportunity to take my Adventure Co-op on a three day hike to the Elfin Lakes in the Garibaldi Provincial Park.  We hiked eleven kilometers to a large BC Parks hut situated beside the two lakes seen in the picture above – it is surrounded by pristine alpine meadows, forest, and glaciated peaks as far as the eye can see.  We woke up on the second day to cloudless blue skies as we prepared to hike further into the park.  Half an hour from the hut the landscape changed dramatically from gentle alpine terrain to valleys scraped bare by the unrelenting power of a bygone glacier.  After rock-hopping across two glacier fed streams, we climbed up and over a steep moraine to a landscape that more closely resembled something you might expect to see on the moon than anything on earth.  Spirits and snowballs flew high as we crossed a large snowfield to get to an elevated point where we stopped to soak in the sun-drenched views before turning around and heading back to the hut.  On the third day we started the journey back home.

Yesterday my students were blogging about their experiences on this three day adventure.  At one point one of my students called me over because he was having difficulty finding a word that described the immensity of the all-encompassing views. I had the same difficulty.  If a picture is worth a thousand words and even a picture can’t come close to capturing the beauty and vastness of the landscape, it’s no wonder he was having difficulty finding the right word to use in his blog!

After debriefing with my students about the trip I had the feeling that we had inadvertently entered onto sacred ground at some point in our journey – not in some weird, mystical sense – but because each of my students left the trip with new perspectives about themselves and the world around them.  It was a very real and very deep experience – an experience that is (almost?) impossible to duplicate in the classroom.  The mountains are a poignant classroom and the lessons learned therein are not easily forgotten.

My class spent what amounted to an entire period debriefing the experience and what they had learned during the three days on the mountain.  I asked them to describe how they see hiking (the skills, knowledge, and understandings needed to hike safely and competently) connect to what they do in school.  Here’s what they came up with:

  • You have to know where you’re going
  • Attitude really matters
  • Learning happens when you reflect on your mistakes and what you would do differently next time
  • Be serious (but have fun!)
  • Understand your pace
  • Understand your limits and where you need to improve
  • Be respectful
  • Knowledge is power

Each of these points deserves to be addressed individually because the implications of each are profound – and this reflects only a quarter of what my students learned!  There were many powerful personal lessons learned about life and themselves.  I can’t help but feel that these outdoor experiences bring out the best of what school (as an idea) has to offer.  The beauty, solitude, and effort taken to enjoy the mountain environment works on the soul like a deep massage.  And the best part about it is that learning happened in spite of me.  All I did was provide an opportunity and opened up a door – the environment itself was the teacher.  Although I would like to take credit for what my students learned and give myself a couple big pats on the back, I was merely a facilitator and a participant in their journey, which was also part of my journey.

I wish all teachers and students could enjoy this type of experience.  Although the mountain environment is an unrealistic avenue for most teachers and classrooms, the idea is not.  Authentic and engaging learning environments can be found in any classroom.  The only criteria that’s needed is an authentic and engaged teacher.

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