Scenes in Adventure Learning (Part I): Over, Under, Through

Arch

Aligning our departure from Chin Beach to the 8am low tide, our group of seventeen grade nine and ten students and four adult leaders set out around the rocky bluff at the western edge of the beach, walking in the shadow of towering sandstone cliffs. Groundwater drips down mossy walls and splatters on the slick boulders we navigate to the tune of clattering hiking poles and the gasps of narrowly avoided falls. To the west the bright blue sea is visible through the window of a dramatic granite arch extending from the forest.

One of our volunteer leaders and one of the grade tens ventures under the arch to assess the possibility of avoiding the abrupt headland interrupting our beach route, to no avail. Even with the low tide, the route under the arch runs out into shallow seawater and the threat of being surprised by rogue waves on the exposed point; we will have to go over.

It is the second morning we’ve woken up on the beach, having set out just after lunch from the China Beach parking lot at the eastern end of the Juan de Fuca Trail Saturday afternoon. We have hiked more than twenty kilometres with tents and food and water purification tablets, and as we set out onto the third day of the five-day trek, the most difficult sections of trail are behind us. Having surmounted the endless switchbacks and headlands of the merciless stretch between Bear Beach and Chin, the group is strong and confident, and sets about scaling the rocky archway without a break in collective stride. 

Arch BypassThe first few who make it up onto the bluff deposit their packs and hiking poles on the far side, and return to help others gain the ledge with encouraging words, outstretched hands, and assurances that what looms on the other side is “no worse than we’ve done so far.”

On the other side, the route descends sharply to the boulder-strewn beach over a five foot ledge that offers only an awkward bum-shuffle as a way down. Here, too, bags are shuttled briskly through helping hands; a guide line is set to balance reluctant shufflers;  encouragement and spotters collect on the beach to catch us as we resume the trail on the other side. A waist-height waterfall pours out of the sandstone onto the beach where we wet our faces and cool ourselves before continuing into the morning. A hundred other challenges will arise before the day is out, but no matter. The group is operating with a heightened focus on the goal at hand: to safely reach the end of the trail together.

Less than a kilometre down the rocky beach, we meet the buoys hanging in a tree that signal the trail ‘s shift inland, and clamour in a rough single file up and over the twisted roots of a sitka spruce hanging over the edge of a creek. For the next three days we will continue in this manner, immersed in the boundary between forest and sea, with everything we need to survive stowed away in brightly coloured packs and the awestruck glances of our teammates.

Teacherless Discussion

Teacherless Discussion

Mapping the teacherless discussion.

Something the Philosophy 12 group experimented with in last year’s cohort was the idea of holding teacherless discussions. As research and work in my own graduate studies took me further into notions of citizenship education and a confrontation with contemporary political apathy, I began to look at the structure of classroom activities as a means of engaging student and peer ownership over the learning process.

I was inspired initially to take this course of action by the writing of Paulo Freire, who highlighted the need for emancipatory education to reconcile the student-teacher contradiction. “The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics,” he writes, “the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

Perhaps more simply put, as I explained to the philosophy class today, ‘school’ should be less something that happens to students than something they make happen for themselves. And while teachers may approach their classroom activities with the best of intentions in this regard, there is still ultimately a group’s propensity to rely on a designated instructor / leader / teacher to move things along, creating a broadly perceived apathy that allows a minority to dictate – often without opposition – the course of the community.

So I started sometime last year deliberately ‘going dark’ for some of our classroom discussions, and found the results of the experiment to be immediately palpable, if not specifically nameable. Something which also struck me was the shift in participation, posture and presences making their way into discussions in which I re-inserted myself, as students reverted back to offering their responses more directly to me than the group, seemed to seek my approval or appraisal of their thoughts, and otherwise seemed to lose sight of their community of peers.

This morning I sought to begin our teacherless discussion efforts earlier in the semester with a dissection of the New York Times Opinionator Blog essay “Logic and Neutrality.”

The map above shows the course of the conversation as it moved about our classroom. Numbers show the order of speakers, with the two volunteer moderators (Jeff and Cassidy) noted in red. Dashed lines show spontaneous interjections, and numbers otherwise note the order of speakers as neatly as I could manage.

In my own notes I also highlighted several contributions which furthered the discussion, as well as a few points where things seemed to stall, and asked the class to create their own lists of these points in the conversation.

A few of those helpful contributions included:

  • Asking guiding questions to outline course of discussion in progress,
  • Attempting to define different vocabulary and concepts being used,
  • Highlighting quotes from the article at hand,
  • Incorporating examples from popular culture or common experience,
  • A willingness to pose what may sound like a ‘silly’ question, or hypothesis, and
  • Synthesizing board notes or past points and challenging the momentum of the discussion.

A few places where the class’ momentum faltered:

  • Getting bogged down in controversial or opinion-based hypotheticals (in this case the question of the morality of murder that was ended deftly by someone’s suggestion that “we move off murder”),
  • Moments where a more common understanding of discussion aims and/or vocabulary would have created more clarity around topics,
  • Encountering quiet moments of thought following tough questions or attempts to synthesize discussion.

As an initial effort in the teacherless discussion this semester, the Philosophy 12 group demonstrated many characteristics of successful group discourse, and will continue to build on these strengths as the class moves on into more individual and collective inquiry.

Hoitchka

Travelling the Salish Sea

Fall Retreat Photoset on Flickr

A quick post this Monday morning to offer thanks and a massive shout-out to our TALONS friends at Sea to Sky Outdoor School, in Gibsons, British Columbia.

We’re just back from our third annual fall retreat with Wings, Owl, Moondust, River, Chinook and Goose, an invigorating experiential study in leadership, environmental education and activism, collaborative outdoor exploration and team-building which, even for the teachers, was the life-affirming September weekend we’ve come to expect from this band of merry educational pranksters working on the shores and waters of Howe Sound. Ever a work-in-progress, Sea to Sky’s Greenstar curriculum served as a vital extension of many of the TALONS program aims to cultivate knowledgable and empathetic residents of Earth Island, with their program coordinators and facilitators serving as living examples of a passion for the wonder of the outdoors tempered with a responsibility to defend the planet from its many literal and figurative pathogens and threats.

Against the backdrop of the coast range‘s jagged peaks and the blue waters of the Salish Sea, though, there were other extra-curricular aims being met, brilliantly summed up in a post (last night!) from grade ten Jeff, who writes:

Even though we all come from different schools and different backgrounds, I just wanted to show that there is one thing we all had in common – we are part of the talons family.

Because it is about family. It is about community, and learning and living together, something TALONS learners (teachers and students alike) feel passionate about, and which we are rejuvenated to find affirmed by our colleagues at Sea to Sky. A most hearty Hoitchka to them, and to the TALONS 9s and 10s who were willing to walk outside the comfort zone this weekend, and set the stage for what promises to be a marvelous year.