Things I hope my son and nephew learned on the snow this year.

DSCN5878The 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.

DSCN5691Falling: 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.

DSCN5855Looking 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?

DSCN5842Fear: 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.

IMGP2964Choosing 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.

DSCN5926 - Version 2Simplicity: 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.

DSCN5903The 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.

IMG_0259Freedom: Cai said it best when I was checking in with him .

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.

DSCN5949Leaving 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.

IMG_0162Beauty 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.

DSCN5915People 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.

DSCN6068A 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

 

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Aikido and Teaching:

aikido

Teaching is an art. The thing is it was often explained to me as a power game where the teacher is always looking to control the students. This has never sat well with me. I will always remember my first weeks as a trainee teacher as my mentor and I did not see eye to eye. I heard his concept of discipline from the other side of the campus and I knew the student who was receiving the full force of his reasoning also felt the sweat from his nose due to the proximity of their faces. This was never going to be the way that I “encouraged” learning and years later when I started to be informed by the findings of neuroscience it became patently obvious that the brain does not create learning in fearful situations – except in the instance of moments of fight or flight.

What I have grown to recognize is that the teacher / facilitator needs to hold a space for learning. It is a safe place, where mistakes are not only ok they are encouraged. It is a place where we are open to the outcome of the learning rather than dictating what the learning will be. Searching for a metaphor for teaching I have come up with the martial art of Aikido. While most of the martial arts center on the concept of combat this was not originator Master Morihei Ueshiba‘s desire. “Aikido is not a technique to fight with or to defeat the enemy. It is a way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family.” Wikipedia suggests that his philosophy was one “of extending love and compassion especially to those who seek to harm others. Aikido demonstrates this philosophy in its emphasis on mastering martial arts so that one may receive an attack and harmlessly redirect it. In an ideal resolution, not only is the receiver unharmed, but so is the attacker.” This also strikes me as a good philosophy for education.

Where I love the concept of Aikido is that the purpose is to maintain balance and through turning, pushing and drawing you lead the other person to a place of imbalance. It is not a forceful action and strength is not a requirement. So a teacher / facilitator strives to maintain equilibrium regardless of what comes in their direction. Also, with time while they can predict what may happen, they are actually better off being present. The imbalance that we encourage our students / participants to experience is cognitive dissonance; a place where they have to reason and are motivated to find meaning, as it is from this that the learning grows.

What is a good metaphor for what you do?

A case for abstract thinking

Today I was asked what people think of me and I responded with the most common feedback I gain from students. “At the time I did not realize I was learning anything; it was just fun. Now I recognize how much you have taught me.”

Now I love this feedback but I realize that it does not always work in my favor. So here is an example of when it can.

While teaching at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) I was asked to instruct a “Canyon Orientation” class. To be honest I knew nothing about the natural history of canyon country, neither did I like it. A place filled with as many hard, sharp and biting things as that filled me with fear and probably loathing. Thankfully the class took the form of two three day weekends and some evenings. I meditated on what to do and drew a complete blank until I read the Map That Changed The World by Simon Winchester.

It became glaringly obvious how to create something from nothing. On arrival in the canyon I spread the group out and asked them to sit alone for 20 minutes. I wanted them to be aware of their surroundings – I asked them to be silent, to listen, feel, smell and look. They were to come back and describe some of the things that they sensed and then to describe some of the feelings that they had.

It was enlightening, most of them were initially as frightened as me and yet as they surrendered to the place, they warmed to it – something I could understand.

Then I told them the story of William Smith; the father of modern geology. How there was no names for rocks, no categorization and no recognition of patterns until he came on the scene. How through working in mines and canals he had seen repeating layers of rocks and how he had mapped these layers. I then asked them to walk through a canyon imagine that they were William Smith and look for patterns. Firstly alone for 15 minutes, then with a partner, with whom they would share their initial observations and then develop some ideas further. Then they walked in groups of four, again sharing what they saw and perhaps why it might be that way.

Finally I set them off alone again to come up with a few compelling questions – if they had access to expertise what would they want to ask them. We then came together to share all we had seen and thought. We decided on a list of questions that we really wanted to know the answers to and then split them up, so everyone had something to research. We followed the same pattern with other subjects; based on their observations and experiences what did they want to know?

During the following week they researched and then at the weekend they came back armed with answers.

It was one of the more productive classes I taught at CMC, not merely because the students defined their own learning and it was greater than if I had done so, the additional reality was that they changed perceptions of place. Something that had appeared barren and hostile became alive and inviting. This to me is good education and highlights how clarity is often more impressive when it develops from something opaque.

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