Living in Denver has greatly changed my relationship with water. I no longer see the effect of the moon and its daily and seasonal connection with the tides. I do not see how weather can whip oceans into a frenzy. I have though seen this lazy autumnal scene rage after days of rain and I dream of traveling in boats. Like a child I also change the scale of this creek and wonder how my Lilliputian craft would fare.
In an attempt to restart a blogging habit I am taking part in a month long WordPress photography class. Here goes.
I am happiest; when like a snail, my home is on my back and the view is this good.
This was taken on the Continental Divide descending James Peak, North of Berthoud Pass, CO last month. Sunsets up high are great as are the dark stumbling adventures that follow them.
The season was a good one for us; and hopefully not over yet. Cai did his first multi day backcountry trip and made the move to telemark equipment. Trevor successfully took up snowboarding. Along the way we had backcountry days and used the snowcat at Loveland to explore less traveled but still managed areas. There is though much more to skiing than riding on snow and the lessons it can teach a young person are huge.
Falling: When you fall, do you blame it on the snow? Do you complain about people or do you stand back up and resolve to learn and do better next time? There is something about the exhilaration of traveling downhill fast that encourages these two young men to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and take off again. What happens when you do complain? Do you get better if you blame your fall on other people? If I work on one thing in my life that will reap the biggest rewards it is probably this simple idea.
Looking at where you want to go: Watching their intent gazes as they looked at where they wanted to go when faced with difficult terrain was amazing. There was no peering at their feet. They did not stare wistfully behind them thinking about what had got them to this place. They looked at their destination and just gave it a go. And when the going was tough they were way more focused on where they wanted to end up. Rather than analyzing the ground between them and their goal they focused on the end point and let what their bodies already know do its thing. How often can I say that about my life?
Fear: Anxiety was ok on the lift and tolerable at the top of a run. However, as soon as the run started it was left behind. That is to say fear is not a bad thing per se; it can though be crippling if you let it rule your actions. Fear helps you make good choices but once a decision has been made it will just get in the way. Besides, the most fun is had when you are pushing the boundaries of your fear. It is also generally where you learn the most because it inspires reflection.
Choosing to see what is good: One of our themes of the year was, “regardless of the weather, if you decide the skiing is going to be good, it will be. If you decide it is not it probably will not be.” Watching these guys out in some pretty nasty conditions with big smiles on their faces was huge. I really hope they take this paraphrasing of Henry Ford into the rest of their lives. Happiness is often a choice.
Simplicity: I used to be a ski instructor so I am capable of breaking down movement to the minutiae. This is great if you want to shave seconds off your time. It was not our focus. Skiing like life can be interpreted as being simple or complex it comes down to the way you look at it. Our goal was to slide down ever more fun terrain with the biggest smiles on our faces. Every now and then we would throw in a drill or game that naturally high lighted good technique. Occasionally, I asked questions that might do the same.
The rewards of work: The smile being the most important part of their day they learned to work hard at it. Perhaps this was leaving fear at the top of the lift on a particularly steep run. Or, pushing through to take one more run when they were tired. As long as the result was going to be a big smile it was worth doing and boy were some of the results worthwhile.
Dad: “So yesterday was a huge day and I just want to make sure I was not pushing you too hard – was it worth it?”
Cai: “Yesterday was hard dad but it was so worth it. There were times when I felt that there were no presidents or queens… I felt that no one was the boss of me!”
A rather choked dad: “Wow, did you feel that on the groomers?”
Cai: “No. I only feel it when we get away from people and we are stood at the top of a big clean field of snow, we float down it and then we look back at our tracks and they are the only ones there”
When my 8 year old can articulate that sense of ultimate freedom that I feel, then I know I am doing good. It is a feeling to aim for and replicate as often as possible.
Leaving fresh tracks: Looking behind and seeing your tracks in the snow is one of those great feelings, the thing is a high percentage of skiers know this and want those feelings. In resort you have to hustle, or go farther than anyone else. In the backcountry you have to put in some miles. Ultimately, you have to be ahead of the crowd which means knowing what you want and knowing how to get it while others are spinning their wheels. You learn this either through experience or surrounding yourself with people who have learned through experience.
Beauty and views: There is something about standing on top of a white ridge that reaches out for miles, while other ridges criss cross like onion skins into the distance. The monochrome of snow and rock is an amazing foreground to the backdrop of azure skies and a bright yellow sun. Throw in the wing beat of a large raptor or the scurrying of critters in the frost laced pines then… breathe. The scent of mountain air brings the feelings that air freshener companies try to convey in their advertising. It is the smell of being home. Of belonging. I know that I belong in the mountains. It always surprise me though that when I work with kids who have never set foot outside of their city that after a while of fighting it and dealing with the fear of being in big open spaces for the first time they just get it. They know it is right. Cultivating that sense of belonging is a useful tool as it applies not only to place it also is an important concept with regards to community. When you know what belonging feels like it is much easier to recognize and nurture it elsewhere.
People and natural selection: The idea of community is an important one. As skiers these boys are part of a large tribe, some of who they will want to hang out with some who they will not. Some who will help elevate them on their journey of development, some who will drag them down. Some who will give them an opportunity to learn and shine, some who will bring out the worst in them. As we have already said there are benefits to being ahead of the curve, there are also benefits to being part of a big group and at other times a member of a much smaller one. And sometimes it is good to just be alone. This season they felt most of these things. Days when the resort was full and the grooming was beautiful but we had to jockey for our niche in time and space. Traveling on the cat with a small excited group who felt like an elite cadre congratulating each other on their choice to be there. Watching groups of young jibbers being supportive (or not) and thinking about how it might be to hang out with them. Cai traveling with two friends on a four day odyssey through the backcountry where the work to reach the next yurt was often hard and supporting each other was important. Choosing the people you spend time with is important, equally significant are the moments spent with yourself . There were the times when they stood alone, looked around, soaked in the atmosphere and took it all in. I wish them many more of these last occasions because this is where the sense of an experience is made.
A final thought: As John Dewey posited you do not necessarily learn by having an experience, neither do you necassarily learn by thinking. We all know plenty people who fall into both camps and are left spinning their wheels without seeming to move forward. True learning occurs when you think (reflect) on an experience. I wrote this for Trevor in the hope that he ponders about how when he is on his board he usually displays his best possible self. What does that look like in other areas of your life Trev? And Cai? Well I am an Amish(ish) tyrant and he does not get to use a computer for a long time yet, so it will be a number of years before he reads these words and see these images. Poor deprived Waldorf kid – you will see him counting in this little unrelated video. Technology and Schools
At the time I did some work for an outdoor clothing manufacturer. They had received a letter and thought that I ought to read it. “Angry from Manchester” had invested some real time in penning this missive. She obviously felt strongly. She had seen a brochure that I was involved in creating and wished to tell readers that it was unrealistic. She went to great lengths to say that no one smiled this much, no one had this much fun, no one looked this good and no one really did these things. She also went on to suggest it was immoral to use fantasy to sell clothing.
My laughing more and more as each sentence unravelled did nothing to assuage the concern of the gentleman who had given me the letter to read. Eventually he asked what I found so funny. At this point I felt I ought to come clean and so I asked if he remembered calling me asking if I knew any models that they might use. I had queried if they had a plan for the brochure and photoshoot and when the response had suggested that they did not I had seen an opportunity. We had talked about their first popular jacket being called the Torridon and how this might be a good location, we had then discussed how the mountains on the island of Skye were iconic and finally to round things off canoeing on some remote Scottish loch would provide balance to the imagery. He thought this sounded great and did I know of anyone who might be able to do it. I told him I did. What I did not tell him was that this was the vacation my then girlfriend and I had planned.
Let me tell you being paid well for going on holiday is living the dream. Handing your expenses over to an accountant to repay is wonderful. Swopping out a tent for hotels because someone else is picking up the tab is sublime and then being given some R&R time in the most amazing hotel after the photographer has left is genius. “Angry” was never going to know just how real this brochure was. We were smiling and having fun for a reason; we had chosen to. I do not want to assume too much, however, I am guessing that “Angry” fails to understand the practicalities of this simple idea, consequently she misses out.
What I have come to realize and yet sometimes forget is that when I know what I want then others will often help me achieve it. When I look for opportunities for mutual gains (win-win scenarios) we create an incredible “happy energy”.
As I look at friends on Facebook who still live “the dream” I am thankful the tradition lives on. Time for me to start spell making again and bring some more potent magic into our current good life. What are you doing to make your “good life”?
The final of the three questions:
In your opinion, how do students build an identity? What kind of learning experiences are necessary? What is a school’s responsibility (or a teacher’s) in helping students develop character and identity?
“There are three ways of trying to win the young. There is persuasion. There is compulsion. There is attraction. You can preach at them; that is a hook without a worm. You can say “You must volunteer; that is the devil. And you can tell them, ‘You are needed.’ That appeal hardly ever fails.” Kurt Hahn
Kurt Hahn’s genius was collecting together ideas surrounding helping young people be their best possible self. He was inspired by three things: A mother who implicitly believed in the innate goodness of people. The work of Plato who insisted it was more important that education build character than transmit knowledge. Finally, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Character is observable and based on behaviors. What do you do when faced with a given situation? The Good Samaritan obviously is a demonstration of impeccable character. Hahn like most teachers asked what allows someone to act in this way?
Recently, I have enjoyed reading a book by Simon Sinek called Start with Why. Sinek suggests that there is a simple formula (the Golden Circle) that leaders can use to inspire others. He explains that while most people will tell you what they do and occasionally how they do it. Great leaders start by explaining why. They tell you of their values, the single cause or belief that serves as a unifying, driving force for them as an individual or organization. They then tell you how; the principles or actions that will bring their why to life. These are strategies and actions to be performed. Finally they tell you what. These are the results or measures which are tangible and obvious to others on completion.
I like the model because it is a simple way of looking at something quite complex. How do you make sure that people understand you? How do you help a group to achieve significance? It also is a neat way of exploring identity and its result; character. Ultimately, identity is your why. When you know your values, when you understand your beliefs then, and only then can you make things happen in a meaningful way. Without them you are paralyzed. This paralysis is Erik Erikson’s Identity Crisis, a condition which seems to be currently rampant. The how depicts your character and the what measures it. Traditionally we think of identity as being who you are. It is framed by occupation, culture, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation. My belief is that we know who we are when we know why we do things and we align with people and cultures when we see similarities in our belief systems. Traditionally belief systems have been handed down to us by parents and communities (school, religion). At a later age we choose to accept or denounce them. Increasingly, children are faced with defining their own beliefs at an earlier age because they are exposed to so many through television and other media. As Barry Schwarz suggests, choice is supposed to bring about freedom and yet the “Paradox of Choice” is that it is overwhelming and does exactly the opposite. We know who we are only when we understand why we feel the things we feel.
“It is not easy to construct by mere scientific synthesis a foolproof system which will lead our children in a desired direction and avoid an undesirable one. Obviously, good can come only from a continuing interplay between that which we, as students, are gradually learning and that which we believe in, as people.” Erik Erickson
So how do we help young people build their identity and what exactly is the responsibility of the teacher in this arena? For me the most important thing we can do is ask why? In the spirit of Toyota’s manufacturing process (the Five Why’s), exploring the answer to why with another why draws out richer thinking. When you ask why five or more times then usually the topic is explored more fully and a kernel is reached. I never want to force an opinion on a young person, I do however want them to explore their own ideas.
“Without self-discovery, a person may still have self confidence, but it is a self confidence built on ignorance and it melts in the face of heavy burdens. Self discovery is the end product of a great challenge mastered, when the mind commands the body to do the seemingly impossible, when courage and strength are summoned to extraordinary limits for the sake of something outside the self–a principle, an onerous task, another human life.” Kurt Hahn
I also align with Hahn concerning self discovery. I have learned the most about myself when I have had to struggle. Erikson and James Marcia; who developed his work, also agree that “crises” are required to move along the continuum of developing an identity. The groups that I have joined and found identity within were often based on developing large amounts of trust because I had to. When a student is rock climbing belayed by his / her classmates he / she is faced with addressing his / her trust of the people holding their rope. When they are safely lowered to the ground it is easy to know why they can trust them. This is a good time to ask the belayers why they wanted to be trustworthy and everyone how trusting and being trusted felt.
Robust identity is built when a variety of identities are experimented with and then one committed to. It can also change significantly given sufficient external influence. For instance value systems and beliefs are likely to be modified following a parental divorce or a violent assault.
As a teacher I am particularly interested in three sets of identities: the identity of the individuals in the group, the identity of the group / class and the identity of the school. Anything I can do to help pupils understand why:
- They do the things they do
- The group is valuable to them
- The school reflects what the individuals like about themselves
Is a valuable lesson. The more experiences I can shape that have them reflect on these questions either formally or otherwise will help them figure out who they are and what they are going to do to show people who they are. If I ask how they want to be known and why and then what do they need to do to be seen that way, it will help them make good choices. I have always liked Steven Covey’s activity of thinking about your 80th birthday party, you are surrounded by those you admire and love. They are saying wonderful things about you. What do you hear them say? Likewise I often ask students to provide bullet points of what they will want me to write as a reference for them. I then hold them to the behaviors that reflect what they wrote.
My experience is that outdoor activities and nature always accelerates the process of creating identity and make it more poignant. Service especially when it means hardship for the person serving provides a realistic framework for exploring values. Given less time then well designed games and activities can serve as kinesthetic metaphors which help explore these ideas in a meaningful way, especially when I have chosen them using Sinek’s Golden Circle.
The second question of three.
In your experience, how does adventure learning contribute to a student’s academic and personal growth? Please address both types of growth.
“Expeditions can greatly contribute towards building strength of character. Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim tells us that it is necessary for a youth to experience events which ‘reveal the inner worth of the man; the edge of his temper; the fibre of his stuff; the quality of his resistance; the secret truth of his pretenses, not only to himself but others.” Kurt Hahn
Recently a colleague has been dealing with a lot of bad luck. Following bankruptcy he had been clawing his way back by building a branding consultancy, just as things were starting to fall into place his partner ran with the money and accounts. Why am I telling you this in regards to adventure education? Well this gentleman used to sail big yachts and seeing him peering over the precipice of depression I decided to have a chat with him about his passion. We shared stories of dealing with duress outdoors and failing in life as depicted by a modern consumerist paradigm. We talked about how being in “adventurous situations” we did not whine, we just dealt with whatever circumstances were thrown at us. We did not find people to blame, we lived as our best selves. When we are functioning well we bring the lessons that we have learned outdoors into this modern conundrum that we call living. As we talked about John the outdoorsman vs John the business man a light started to shine in his eyes. As he remembered who he is outdoors he recognized who he can be in any other situation. He left our conversation with a renewed resolve that was wonderful to watch.
Kurt Hahn was particularly impelled to bring Outdoor Education into his pedagogy because he believed that society was becoming diseased and that expeditions were one of the best form of therapy for the post industrial malaise he saw growing in Nazi Germany. The Salem School; Hahn’s first opportunity to practice his thinking, set out to to train young people to have moral independence, an ability to choose between “right and wrong,” and an improvement in their physical health. It strikes me that this is just as necessary today in America as it was then in Germany.
“We discovered that expedition training and expedition tests counteracted the unhealthy effect of undeserved hero worship. Not a few specialist athletes revealed in adversity a certain flabbiness of will-power which was well hidden in their ordinary life. The expeditions were sometimes of an arduous nature – long treks in the Alps, exploratory expeditions to Iceland and on the Payenne and the Seima Lakes in Finland. Again and again the average and even clumsy athlete excelled on such expeditions…” Kurt Hahn
This is a large part of my motivation to teach in the outdoors in that not only am I a “clumsy athlete” I also appreciate the contemplative nature of outdoor folk. Nature shows us that we are part of something much bigger than ourself which leads to the Eastern thinking that we are all connected. Anything I do to something or someone else ultimately affects me. This fosters a desire to nurture as ultimately I will also be nurtured. I feel this is the best way to bring about social justice and heal the evident issues we face in the West as demonstrated in an Aurora movie theater last year.
A number of years ago Robert Fulgham wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I feel the same way about the outdoors. Relevancy and reality are amazing motivators when it comes to learning and the outdoors caters to both. I have yet to meet a student who having been advised to bring a jacket because it will be wet and cold, shown how to cook a meal and praised for a cooperative behavior and its benefit to the group does not open to my teaching.
A shared experience outdoors inevitably develops meaning that is understood and a connection between the teacher and students involved. I still feel strong ties to all the teachers who took me outdoors.
The raised level of engagement and cooperation that adventure demands opens a door to explore concepts that may normally be shut out by cultural demands. The idea of “I am not a mathematician” is usually left behind when we introduce math for navigation. Understanding the current group dynamic is brought alive by history and the stories it contains, even if history is deemed useless in another arena.
Adventure though is so much more. Students have to learn to deal with feelings of uncertainty (I argue that this is the very definition of adventure) and the cognitive dissonance it creates. The vulnerability that is felt emotionally is the very same state that creates significant learning and this learning transfers to other areas of life both personal and academic. As soon as someone believes they are a learner they gain the self confidence to learn anything. In particular we focus on problem solving skills, value clarification, communication, cooperation, leadership, decision making and continuums like the distinctions between right and wrong or needs and wants. All of which define both a person and that person as a life long learner.
I once taught a Canyon Orientation class. In the interest of transparency I need to disclose that not only did I know very little about canyons and traveling through them I also felt completely uncomfortable in a desert ecosystem. When I thought of the arid lands of the South West I was filled with dread as everything appeared prickly, cruel, uncomfortable and full of venom. Obviously this feeling is based on my perception because I knew plenty of people who felt the polar opposite to me. The course was taught over two long weekends and as I drove the bus to Delta for the first time I was worried. What did I have to teach these people when I was a fraud?
We rose early the first morning and walked to the entrance of the Dominguez Canyon. Prior to entering I asked the students to sit silently for half an hour and just be. We talked about the sensations and feeling we experienced in this time and it was obvious that others had felt the same as I had. It was also evident that none of those negative emotions existed any more. Knowing nothing about the natural history, I told them the story of William Smith and the creation of the first geological map, how when he started there were no names or published ideas and yet how observing patterns he had made sense of the earth’s formation. I asked them to walk alone, then in pairs and finally in fours to observe and reflect on the patterns that they saw in the geology. We then came up with questions we wanted answered and expanded those to other areas of the natural history. That week they were all tasked with researching some of the group’s questions and preparing presentations and handouts before our return. The result was incredible.
“It is the sin of the soul to force young people into opinions – indoctrination is of the devil – but it is culpable neglect not to impel young people into experiences.” Kurt Hahn