On outdoor trips and trust


Ripples on the Fraser

“People who hear about the types of trips we take with young people invariably have two responses,” I told the class just over a week ago. “They either say, ‘You’re crazy,’ or ‘Wow! How lucky are you to have such a job?'”

I understand each of these responses.

Maybe we are a little crazy: we leave our own lives, families and friends for days at a time to immerse ourselves in the frenetic energy of adolescence, to keep in tow the patience to teach and see our endeavors large and small through to their conclusions. All the while, we know in the back of our minds (and occasionally the front) that the calamity that can find us out of doors can range from the frivolous to the total.

It’s true that there are a million reasons to keep learning indoors, and to not take these opportunities, given the potential costs and risks. But there are ample amounts of good fortune that accompany these risks and the investment of our free-time. There are gains to be made in connecting with our environment, as well as with one another, that are sorely worth pursuing in educating today’s young people.

Gregory Bateson describes these learning opportunities as “breaches in the contextual structure,” whereby individuals gain an understanding of the process involved in implementing “corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made.”

This sort of “third order” thinking is driven by a confrontation with “systemic contradictions in experience” (this is taken from University of Virginia prof Eric Bredo); to the outdoor educator, this double bind is represented by the necessity of learning to provide both the freedom to explore, as well as the structure and guidance that creates safe opportunities for growth.

Gardner Campbell points out that learning in this capacity puts participants – teachers and students and parents alike – to vulnerability. “It puts the self at risk,” he says. “The questions become explosive,” and “involve “the kinds of risks that learners, at their best, will be willing to take.”

In the outdoor setting, the potential for transcendant learning meets the spectre of negative possibility, that we might meet the very worst.

And so we find ourselves on the fourth morning of the Adventure Trip talking about trust, and the fact that our parent community trusts us to take their children into these experiences, onto the Fraser River in Voyageur canoes, into the woods, and onto the local highways on our bicycles because there is value in going out there. The value that we see as educators in providing students the freedom to learn and apply their skills in authentic outdoor settings is accompanied by the risks and vulnerability we assume in relying on no small amount of trust that the students who are in our care will behave responsibly while engaged in these events.

However, in this setting, as Gardner Campbell again points out, “All the bets are off. Even the bets about the bets being off.” And so it came to be that on Monday morning we were having the following conversation:

“There has been a breakdown in the trust between you and us,” we told the class just before breakfast. “And between yourselves and one another.”

“We have to go home.”

The first of the parent drivers were arriving and waited in their cars while the initial shockwave unfurled among their children. Tears were shed and Individuals sat with pancakes on camp plates in their laps while others paced or leaned against their parents’ cars and picnic tables. Where traditionally the Adventure Trip ends in similar tears and shuddering embraces – a mix of celebration and mourning at the passing of the precious cultivating in TALONS’ two-year cycles, here the class parted shocked at the sudden passing of the next two days’ potential.

Paul Tosey talkeds about Bateson’s systemic change as a confrontation with “the significance of metaphor at the root of perception, and the profound potential for learning should such metaphors change.” In a certain light, the crisis and the opportunity presented here each revolve around individual connections to (and interpretations of) the group’s collective mythology, and the growing need for current and future participants to renovate and write a new narrative.

“The group feels broken,” a student told me Monday morning before leaving, to which I said that the events and actions expressed on the trip were “the symptoms, not the break. Whatever has been broken was that way before we came on the trip.”

In the coming days and weeks we will begin to undertake the processes of seeking out the root causes of these breaks, and do what can be done to move forward in creating new symbols and understandings of just what it is our shared experience has meant, and will mean into the future.

It is after all, like everything else, an opportunity for learning.

Field Trip: Urban Geography & the Canadian Identity

Rising From The RubbleOur students are faced with planning cultural outings over the course of the year that occasionally turn into full-fledged field trips. While other events are attended by handfuls of students – it is expected that each TALONS class member attends three cultural events – others take on such a pertinent range of learning opportunities, as tomorrow’s excursion downtown does, that we arrange our two blocks of study around a trip for all to benefit from.

Saskia has organized tomorrow’s adventure around catching the Vancouver Art Gallery‘s exhibit on the early painting and photography (1860 – 1918) of the North American landscape, as well as the sketched collection of Canada’s Group of Seven, whom we have already studied as creators, and communicators of the Canadian identity.

On our way to the art gallery, we will also be visiting Vancouver’s Chinatown, and otherwise undertaking the journey from our suburb into the heart of downtown on foot and public transit, taking the bus and SkyTrain, arriving between the Olympic venues of BC and GM Place, and walking through the heart of the 2010 village.

Covering English, history, and science, our class spends a lot of time investigating, exploring and discussing our local environments and their influence on our individual and collective identities. And while the inspiration for these discussions is often the natural world – as our forays into the local woods, islands, inlets and otherwise bring about a sense of belonging in a place inhabited for some ten thousand years that cannot help but build one’s affinity – adopted or otherwise – with a sense of home, there is a strange energy that comes with our visits to The City.

In the fall, we make an annual research venture to the Vancouver Public Library and the downtown core’s independent booksellers to gather material for the initial stages of the Eminent Person Study. For many of our grade nine students, the trip is an introduction to Hastings Street, and the truly urban environment of western Canada’s temperate capital is capable of overwhelming many in the way that Manhattan must astound the youngsters of Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.False Creek Transit

Tomorrow though, these very same students head into the city with a vague sense of what to expect. Our intentions are to experience the city’s diverse culture, transit, people and public collection of art which is indisputably a national treasure. The benefits of such additions to one’s education are invaluable, as these glimpses of our urban center balance the culture of our wild places with a potency of vibrant life, architecture and identity that is unique to Vancouver. With the Olympics set to begin a month from today, we are irretrievably on the verge of the city never being the same again, and I look forward to seeing and sharing the trip with 27 sets of the youthful eyes that will take up the creation of our local, provincial and national identity in the Games’ impeding wake.

As a means of focusing the trip, and beginning the artistic creation of our collective identity beginning tomorrow (and continuing, really, every day), I will be asking the students to identify and report on a moment of experienced, realized, or witnessed Canadiana on their blogs. Whether this ends up as a blog post with a cell-phone video shot street side, or a reflection, description or meditation on a local landmark, character, or painting, I am not bothering to prescribe. But to live out the intentions of Goethe‘s quotation that “A person sees in the world what they carry in their heart,” I look forward to the expressions that tomorrow afternoon yields.

As ever, I will be quick to share the postings as they come in.

One Week Job

Friends of mine, Ian MacKenzie and Sean Aiken, have put their lack of direction to good use – and a good cause – with their One Week Job project.

One Week Job: The Documentary from Ian MacKenzie on Vimeo.

“Instead of take the first job that came along, he found a unique way of figuring it out: the One Week Job project. How it worked: Anyone, anywhere, could offer Sean a job for one week. Any money he earned for the work, he asked the employer to donate towards the ONE / Make Poverty History campaign. On his inspirational quest, Sean tried everything: Bungee Instructor, Dairy Farmer, Advertising Executive, Baker, Stock Trader, Firefighter, and more. Wherever he could find work, he’d go there, find a couch to crash on and immerse himself in whatever profession was at hand. And then he’d move on.”

West Coast Trail Pictures on Flickr

Port Renfrew

I’ve finally gotten around to uploading a few pictures from the Jackson Family’s Aborted Mission to Conquer the West Coast Trail. As our trip only lasted four days before being so rudely interrupted by the rapid expansion of volatile gasses, and was spent traversing the inland kilometers north of Port Renfrew, these are not the Greatest Hits of Coastal British Columbia, but are nevertheless record of the last few days of calm that were August.

The Long Way Home


As a means of solidifying many photographs and words written long ago (2002), I will be posting subsequent chapters to this initial endeavor here.

The summer I graduated from University, my younger sister and I worked at a Boy Scout summer camp in the Ozark Mountains, where I had interned the previous year. With the stowed paychecks of six weeks work in our backpacks, we went to Toronto and bought a car, took the train to Montreal, and visited Niagara Falls’ misty fury before heading west. Having taken root in the heart of the South for five years, the trip across our country was a fitting homecoming and definitive personal culmination of many things. This is the record of that voyage, and what I thought it meant at the time.






Oudoor Networks

I spent the better part of last week in the woods.

With my teaching partner and our 27 students – one left behind to combat continued health issues – and my youngest sister in tow, we left school just after 6:30 Thursday morning and made our way with the help of assorted parent-drivers and a U-Haul to the local ferry terminal. We were on our way to the island.

Once across the Straight of Juan de Fuca, we set out south on 29 bicycles down the Galloping Goose Trail, a gravelly path that connects Sydney to Victoria through bright groves of maple and alder forests lined with California poppies and views of the Cascades to the south. Our aim was Goldstream Provincial Park, some sixty kilometers from the dock; we were under our own steam, and spent more than six hours reaching our destination in time to set up camp, make dinner, and light a dim campfire before dark and a much needed rest. Immediately, our students were transformed from a group who studied theoretically to one which was required to make practical use of the concepts of planning and leadership curriculum, as well as the deeper pursuits of team building and self-awareness. Outside the classroom, the concepts, quotations and ‘wisdom’ of our course’s methods became tested in real time.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or it it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Henry David Thoreau

More than someone who aggressively enjoys nature, I am a teacher who would not be doing what I am if not for my participation in outdoor education. Throughout university I made steady practice of camping at every opportunity, stealing away from Little Rock on weekends (and more than a few weekdays) to sleep amongst the cicadas and brown recluses of the Ozark wilderness. For three years I balanced my burgeoning career as entertainment editor of my school’s paper and liberating study of creative writing (after a short-lived stint as a chemistry major) with hours spent exploring the Buffalo and White Rivers, Greers Ferry Lake while down south, and making a home of the Sea-to-Sky corridor and Duffy Lake Road when back at home. At twenty one, I was introduced to Christopher McCandless through the pages of John Krakaur’s excellent book, Into the Wild, and felt a kindered spirit in the waderlusting youth who did nothing to help me remain faithful to my studies – not to mention decimating my ambitions of employment post-graduation.

But this managed to change one summer morning when my track coach – long frustrated with the string of injuries I had incurred since arriving at the age of seventeen – called from Arkansas to tell me about a scholarship opportunity in need of male applicants. Enter my tenure with the Boy Scouts of America, as my fellowship in the newly-created scholars program enlisted me to participate in not only 160 hours of community service (difficult with my athletic schedule) but a summer-internship as well, which saw me living for seven consecutive weeks in the northwestern wilds of Arkansas with some sixty young “teachers.” As the primary means for many Scouts to earn more intensive merit badges – lifesaving, sailing, orienteering, wilderness survival, shotgun (seriously) – summer camp ran as five days of hour-long instructional classes scattered across the Gus Blass Scout Reservation’s 3500 acres. I worked there for three summers, garnering a great deal of respect for our relationship to the natural world and how, when community is achieved between people in its company, we each live out some of our best selves.

“Look well of to-day – for it is the Life of Life. In its brief course lie all the variations and realities of your life – the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty. For Yesterday is but a dream, and Tomorrow a vision. But To-day well-lived makes every Yesterday a dream of happiness, and every To-morrow a vision of hope. For Time is but a scene in the eternal drama. So, look well of To-day, and let that be your resolution as you awake each morning and salute the New Dawn. Each day is born by the recurring miracle of Dawn, and each night reveals the celestial harmony of the stars.”

Mike the Logger

I learned much of leading and exercising my own potential in these groups built in the woods, and brought just as much enthusiasm to my early classrooms as I did to afternoon workshops of the rudimentary breast stroke and fetching the weight from the deep end in the cicada-bordered lake. The past two years I have enjoyed “Adventure Trips” with my class: student-organized – from menus to daily itineraries, cleaning rosters and the procuring of equipment – trips focused around the physical challenges offered out of doors. Faced with the common struggle of the island’s roadways, the class fought with their bikes and aching muscles, triumphs and personal limitations, supporting one another in the learning process which like life is universal and yet resolutely individual to each of us.

“Our task was to represent an island in the world, a prototype perhaps, or at least a prospect of a different way of life. I, who had been isolated for so long, learned about the companionship which is possible between people who have tasted complete loneliness. I never again hankered after the tables of the fortunate and the feasts of the blessed. Never again did envy or nostalgia overcome me when I witnessed the collective pleasures of others. And gradually I was initiated into the secret of those who wear the sign in their faces. We who wore the sign might justly be considered ‘odd’ by the world; yes, even crazy, and dangerous. We were aware, or in the process of becoming aware, and our striving was directed toward achieving a more and more complete state of awareness while the striving of others was a quest aimed at binding their opinions, ideals, duties, their lives and fortunes more and more closely to those of the herd.”

Hermann Hesse 

As it serves to end our class’ year together – when our grade tens will move on into the general student body, and the grade nines will move up to become mentors to the incoming nines – the adventure trip begins as a practical examination of teamwork and the group members’ individual challenges, and yet invariably ends as an adjourning ceremony whereby each student – and teacher, and sister visiting the group as extra mandated supervision – recognizes their worth in the eyes of others, and acknowledges the worth of community. As eluded to in my recent post about comprehensive assessment methods, this is the underlying focus and the intrinsic value of our program’s model: that one’s struggle in life is a personal one, that growth is individual, yet supported by others, and that trust in one’s self, one’s peer’s and one’s environment is key. Our education system is struggling to find ways to form students as active learners, willing to take risks and invest themselves in collaborative projects involving critical thinking and problem solving. When asked how such outcomes might be met, the act of unplugging and experiencing the natural world may still provide the greatest teacher.

After all, it may be an old idea which allows us to move forward. Seth Godin at TED: