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.”
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.”
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: