How an icy expedition can warm up a classroom
It's 8 o'clock on a February night, and I'm crawling headfirst into a narrow, glowing hole in the snow in an otherwise desolate landscape.
"Hey, you guys, how are you doing? Everybody warm?"
Muffled replies come from three cinched-up sleeping bags: "Yeah." "I'm too hot." "I can't believe I'm doing this!"
It's Thursday, a school night, and we're camped in the snowy backcountry of Mount Seymour, one of Vancouver's infamous North Shore mountains. Twenty-four students from Collingwood School and four outdoor education teachers had spent the day digging steadily since arriving via snowshoes at 11 that morning. Our mission? To dig caves out of the large snowbanks and sleep in them.
This is the fourth week in a row that a class of Grade 9s has departed from the usual school schedule to tackle this three-day mission, which takes a day of preparation and instruction at school, then two days and a night on the mountain. Students work in groups of three to plan their meals, prepare their gear and build a home in the snow. For these students, the experience is the fourth in a sequence of five in Collingwood Middle School's Explore program.
Explore is the feature program of Collingwood's Middle School for Grades 7 to 9 and its structure is unique among outdoor education programs in Canada. The school employs five full-time outdoor education teachers who run the program and staff the expeditions. Unless medically excused, all students in these grades are expected to participate as the program is responsible for 60 per cent of the health and career education curriculum. The teachers repeat each trip four to five times in consecutive weeks to fit in the 100 or so students in each grade. Students are assigned to tent and cooking groups beforehand; these groups are then slotted into cohorts of 12 students. Each cohort is assigned to two Explore teachers with whom they will spend their week.
When new parents and faculty first learn of the Explore program, its impact on student time over the course of the school year raises eyebrows. Imagine teaching math or French and having a quarter of your students missing each week over the course of a month! Why not simply take a week and send all of the students to camp, like most independent schools do? Simply put, it is not the same.
Residential camps can accomplish great things, and Collingwood uses them for both younger and older grades, but such camps have a different purpose and produce a different result. The Explore program is able to maintain control over all facets of the experience, including staffing, risk management and curriculum. By having outdoor and experiential specialists on the faculty, students and parents can connect with staff prior to the trips. It also provides a chance to link learning outcomes from one experience to the next and to support the learning that goes on in the classroom.
The intrinsic benefits of outdoor education are well documented, and so it is with Explore. This style of program naturally builds self-esteem and promotes life skills in individual students, but the grand changes observed on a holistic scale in the greater school community give even more credence to our efforts.
The relatively intimate group size of Explore expeditions is vital to our success. Something magical happens when we split up cliques and social groups and then put these motley crews through a challenging yet rewarding experience together. Randomly "shuffled and dealt out," students are forced to plan as a group, buy food and cook together, share a tent and harmoniously function through this process; those students able to put others before themselves are intrinsically rewarded. For the average 13-year-old, this often comes in the form of an epiphany as they see the necessity of looking beyond their own needs for the first time. In essence, we are breaking down the typical adolescent social barriers and teaching them how to function as a community.
While a "challenge by choice" philosophy guides us when leading students in the field, Explore is a rite of passage at our school. This has a tremendous ripple effect as students both dread and look forward to their Explore week in each season. There is pride in going first, and it always amazes me how much each group learns from the students who went the previous week. Advice relating to what to eat, what to bring –and what not to bring– is all passed along over the weekend. It may sound sadistic, but I confess that I appreciate foul weather during the first week in a sequence of expeditions. Word spreads and the quality of packing and rain gear students bring improves for the subsequent trips!
In terms of risk management, the outdoor industry norms for custodial groups during activities like sea kayaking, rock climbing and backcountry snow travel are constantly evolving. Last year's acceptable practice or acceptable level of certification to run an activity is suddenly no longer adequate for the following year. However, adhering to these changes is imperative, not only for safety but for the sanctity and professional image of the program.
For Explore, this evolution over the last decade has steered our focus from spontaneous high adventure to a more scripted outdoor experience where there is a clear line between the perceived risk by students versus and the actual risk assumed by the school. I say scripted because of the immense contingency and advance planning that goes into the prudent risk management of any activity we facilitate. A few years ago, our snow cave trip was a backcountry ski trip in the mountains. Those trips were marvellous adventures, but the extraneous variables and logistics were many. The snow cave trip on Mount Seymour is the ideal experiential learning package.
The student perception is one of daunting challenge. During the planning stage, students are focused because snow caving is inevitably perceived as an activity that rewards diligent preparation, and the ramifications of being lazy in this regard are immediately consequential. The prospects of not being warm enough, getting their gear wet or eating a cold dinner are enough to motivate all but the most lackadaisical of participants.
Once the trip begins, it is readily apparent to all that teamwork is essential to a positive outcome. Building snow caves rewards the values of living in community and putting others before oneself. The lessons are immediate and tangible compared to getting the same point across in a classroom. Students see the expedition as a hard-core, risky activity and know they have to be on their toes to succeed. While experienced outdoor teachers take numerous safety factors into account, the reality is that, should anything go wrong, we are less than a 30-minute walk back to our vehicles and, from there, a 30-minute drive back to school.
Gone are the days of grabbing a group of kids and a pile of gear and driving off in unpredictable weather with the loose objective of "bagging a peak" using "character building" as a catch-all learning objective. It sounds great, but the litigious nature of adventure programming, together with the need to justify learning outcomes to parents and administrators, means we now have to do better than that.
So . . . inclement weather? Away from home week after week? Why would anyone want to be an Explore teacher and how could anyone manage the vast skill sets required? In the faculty lounge on the Friday afternoon at the end of a trip week we are often asked how our week went. After replying, we usually hear one of two responses: Either people gasp and say, "Oh my God! I would NEVER do your job. You guys are crazy!" or thay scoff and say, "Kayaking? Rock Climbing? You guys don't actually work, you just play all day!"
In reality, being an Explore teacher is the most eclectic job imaginable. Students often marvel at our vast range of hidden talents that other w w faculty and parents seldom see. Our practical culinary advice while overseeing the cooking of camp dinners has garnered reference to an outdoor version of Martha Stewart. At any given point in our year, we also take the roles of bus driver, mechanic, counsellor, psychiatrist, motivational speaker, film producer, secretary, computer programmer, wilderness guide, weather forecaster, conservation officer, nurse, logistician, dietitian and, yes, sometimes even teacher.
Rather than coming from one specialty, our teachers are outdoor generalists who must be proficient and, where necessary, certified in a seasonal variety of outdoor disciplines. It takes a high degree of physical and mental strength to deal with the schedule. More than anything, though, the essence of our success as a program is working as a team and bringing to the table skills in areas such as curriculum development, a variety of outdoor activities, first aid and teaching.
The greatest thing about leading a school's wilderness experience is watching students come full circle. Guiding them through the process is one thing, but we would be doing both the experience and the students a disservice if we didn't debrief at the end.
The students who were cocooned in their sleeping bags in a hole in the snow some 15 hours ago are now standing in a circle in the school parking lot. They look disheveled and tired, but they are all smiling. Later, students are asked to reflect in their journals on a myriad of questions about the trip: their favourite and least favourite parts, the leadership roles different students played and the experiences they will take back with them to school.
The ubiquitous response is that while they may never want to do it again, they are forever grateful to have been given the chance to do it once.
As the saying goes, experience is the best teacher.