Category Archives: education

5 reasons to love outdoor education

I’ve spent the last two weeks facilitating two back to back outdoor education programs for an international school from Jakarta. Two weeks straight, 150 middle school kids, and an amazing team of 6 facilitators backed by our logistics superhero.  I was working for Odyssey Institute, a Bali-based company whose mission is, “Contributing to global sustainability through experiential education.”

I’m covered in mosquito bites, sore in places I didn’t even know existed, and so tired that I’m considering installing voice to text software so that I can complete this post in a starfish position. But it was worth it. Working in Outdoor Ed is exhausting, but it’s one of those rare jobs where every once in  a while you look at your co-workers and ask, “We’re getting paid to do this?”

Here are five reasons why:

1. Oh the Places You’ll Go: Like I said – teaching outdoor ed means getting paid to travel to new and exciting places. Over the last year, my job has sent me tubing down a river, camping in a volcanic caldera, balancing atop a high ropes course in the rainforest, and snorkelling a world-class reef.  I also get paid to revive my weary muscles in therapeutic hot springs and sleep in 4 star eco-resorts.

Working in these places is different from being a tourist because passivity is not an option. On this last program, I led an all-day rainforest hike. The facilitators completed the hike once before the kids arrived, but the next 3 times it was up to us to make a lesson out of it. More than just walking through the steamy jungle, we drew metaphors for human communities out of the layers of the rainforest and stopped to create ‘sound maps’ while the kids sat in silence in a riverside clearing. Creating focussed site-specific activities allowed me to connect actively with these new places.

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2. In-tents-ity leads to transformation: Sometimes in the classroom, days and weeks can blend into a monotonous drone. This is never the case in outdoor education. The intensity is high during these short, challenging programs.

When I was researching my MA thesis (source long forgotten), I remember reading something about how in many  ‘peak experience’ youth programs,  full-on schedules stretch teens into a  sort of liminal space (often intentionally through physical exhaustion) which opens them up to lasting emotional transformation.

On one program, there was barely a minute of real down time.  By the time we reached the evening program – a ‘true self’ mask making activity – the kids were exhausted, but they were also in a space where they were able to share deep self-reflections that would never come out in a classroom setting. Many of the kids (and in one case, the teacher chaperones) ended up tearily confessing their self-doubts and regrets – a level of emotional honesty that rarely surfaces in self-conscious adolescents.

Whether the intensity peaks during emotionally charged programs, from pushing physical boundaries, or from extending one’s comfort zone,  I believe that these are the educational moments that are truly transformative.

3. Teachable Moments: It’s dark and rainy, and eighteen grade six kids are walking through the forest in silence without flashlights. It’s a short night hike, and we’ve been stressing the value of integrity. The idea that integrity is about doing the right thing when nobody is watching. One of the girls trips and stumbles, scraping her knee.

In the debrief, we ask, “Who did not stay in integrity throughout the hike?” and a girl sheepishly admits that she turned on her flashlight and broke the silence to help her friend when she fell. This sets off a discussion about what integrity really is, and the difference between following rules and sticking to your values.

Another day, we reach the spot where we planned to have lunch and notice that a huge branch has fallen from one of the emergent trees next to us. One of the teacher chaperones happens to be the science teacher, and he leaps into a conversation about epiphytes, mutualism and parasitism, allowing the kids to examine firsthand the ecosystem thriving on this one branch.

The messiness and unpredictability of experiential outdoor education create endless teachable moments.

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4. Teamwork: Collaborative unit planning and PD days aside, classroom teaching provides few opportunities for teamwork. This can lead to teachers whose classrooms are fortresses of old habits and stale ideas.

Because of health and safety, outdoor educators rarely work alone. In the last two weeks I was paired with two different inspiring educators, and I had opportunities to work alongside the whole team for big group activities. In this team of six, our experiences were amazingly diverse – from a professional rock climber to a university lecturer. I learned so much from my co-facilitators and I will take these new strategies, games, and insights with me.

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5. Get outside and get into it! Outdoor ed is never dull and working in this field has made me more resilient and resourceful. Every day presents new challenges – the kid who is afraid of everything, the thunderstorm that cancels an activity at the last minute, teachers who treat the program like a personal vacation, leaky tents and broken sandals and leeches and sprained ankles…

The facilitator has to overcome all of these unexpected things while keeping everyone safe, managing the schedule and flow, and maintaining high morale. I let a millipede crawl on my face so the kids wouldn’t be afraid of bugs. I faced my own trepidation to smile and cheer as I completed the high ropes course. I invented a ‘Jungle Boogie’ vocal jam to lift everyone’s spirits in the middle of a tough hike. With every program I facilitate, I become stronger, more flexible, and more patient.

IMG_7807I definitely haven’t left the classroom behind for good. Being an outdoor educator has given me valuable skills and insights that I can apply to classroom teaching.

What do you love about outdoor education? If you don’t know…find an opportunity to take your students outside, get messy, and grow.

two roads

Here are a few words about the many roads I’ve been walking on for the last 15 years or so. It’s more than a justification of a resume that jumps contexts and continents. It’s my way of reflecting upon and consolidating a personal narrative that sometimes reads like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book. It’s a celebration of the current situation I’ve wandered into as a volunteer at Green School in Bali – a place where, as I say in the poem, “the divergent converges.” And it’s an affirmation of the value inherent in the many roads my generation is walking down.

So to all my fellow travellers: keep walking, keep wandering, keep weaving your way down these many roads, and find your own way to make all the difference.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood”

I gazed down one and then the other

Asked my father and my mother

Google mapped the road ahead

And waited for the answer to load

And while the rainbow pinwheel spun I asked myself:

Why not travel both?  Continue reading

From TED talk to nature walk – meeting Green School founder John Hardy

The number of exceptional human beings wandering around the Green School campus is through the roof. It seems as though everyone I’ve talked to in the two weeks that I’ve been here is successfully balancing three or four projects, enacting individual visions that, woven together, create the rich tapestry that is Green School. Chief visionary is Green School founder John Hardy.  If I haven’t already bugged you to watch Hardy’s TED talk, it’s worth taking a few minutes to check it out:

In the Green School, Hardy has created a forum for conscious innovators in a multitude of fields to bring their visions to life.  Last week, I was privileged to meet John and join a handful of community members for one of his Founder’s Walks, which he’ll be hosting every Thursday until mid-February. 

I hitched a ride on the back of a school security guard’s motorbike and sped through villages and rice paddies toward Bambu Indah. Maybe the driver wanted to shake things up a bit for bule. He took a few turns too quickly and I arrived trembling, half an hour early. Hardy’s property in the hills near Ubud is unassuming from the outside, but every inch of space inside the gate illustrates this Ontario College of Art & Design graduate’s eye for natural design and attention to detail.

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A door to one of the Green School classrooms – one of my favourite design elements

Continue reading

the flakiest thing I’ve ever written

A thick white cloud squatted low over the Toronto skyline on Monday night, but there was no moon to be seen. In honour of the starting point of October’s lunar cycle, my friend hosted a new moon gathering. I know what you’re thinking: Emily has come home from Australia and gone off the deep end. Yes, this post involves meditation, ‘Soul Card’ readings, and candles, but bear with me.

While I believe that natural energies impact human emotions and behaviour (witness Exhibit A: my own autumnal listlessness), I usually don’t put much faith in crystals, astrology, tarot and the like. Generally, I think that the lessons we draw from these media have more to do with  psychology and our power of creative interpretation than they do with magic, destiny, manifestation, or any inherent predictive capacities.

But the quickest way to my soul is through my stomach, so after second (OK, third) helpings of the delicious pot-luck dinner and a fun round of Dixit  (a game whose pedagogic value deserves a post of its own), I was game for a little lunacy. Up to this point we’d been laughing, drinking wine, sharing dating horror stories, and casually getting to know each other. At a certain point in the evening, we changed the lighting, set a new intention, and consciously shifted the energy to begin our new moon ritual…whatever that is.

Five of us settled in a circle around some candles and our host guided us into a few minutes of meditation. I admit I’ve never been very good at meditation. During my Masters, I took a course with holistic education expert Dr. Jack Miller.  For part of our credit we had to meditate daily and keep a journal. I sincerely tried, but mostly the meditation project taught me that I was able to fall asleep pretty much anywhere and in any position. I’m proud to say that nowadays I can stay awake, and have been trying to work meditation into my routine with moderate success. Last night, with my focus hovering around the flame, something subconscious came up and tears started to flow (just like in the gorgeous Sigur Ros video below).

Bringing our focus back to the circle, we discussed our intentions for this lunar cycle – whether it was a commitment to being more grateful, less egotistical, or more present. We  spoke honestly and listened supportively. We identified and discussed the connections between all of our intentions and the challenges we might face in actualizing them.

Next, we drew three  ‘Soul Cards’ and interpreted what they had to say about our group’s question: how will the connections we made tonight be manifest in our lives over the next month? It was an interesting exercise, and we came up with all kinds of meaningful answers and lessons inspired by the cards’ evocative images.

One of the Soul Cards...what does it mean to you?

One of the Soul Cards…what does it mean to you?

Finally, we returned to a silent meditation and a few little rites, including collectively blowing out the candles to end the event. I noticed the time and was anxious to get my car off the street before midnight, and as I stood up felt a shifting energy in the transition out of the ritual space.

I gave a couple of my new friends a ride home and we debriefed the evening. For me, what was so striking about it was not the content or the method but the act of coming together to declare this time and place sacred. The rituals were fake – we fumbled through them making it up as we went along, but the depth of emotion they evoked was real. Considering it was my first time meeting three of the four others, the sense of connectedness that this ritual facilitated was remarkable.

After all these years, I finally get what Professor Miller was trying to do in his class. Meditate on this idea: ritual is an important part of life and education. 

All teachers have their daily classroom rituals – writing the agenda on the board, ending class with an exit card, using certain phrases to get the class to quiet down. But I’m talking about something different here – “ritual” in the way I’m thinking about it today is not interchangeable with “routine.” We all have tons of mindless routines that shape our days. The key difference between routine and ritual is mindfulness and intention.

I’m thinking of ritual more in terms of an intentional space bracketed by ceremony  that invites students to take some time out of mind. I’m imagining cynical, self-conscious high school students giggling and rolling their eyes initially, but maybe just for a minute, on some subconscious level, making meaning through their participation in the ritual. Like I said, I’m no expert in this area, but I am thinking about a few key elements:

  • a concrete shift from the normal classroom setup (sitting on the floor, changing the lighting, moving desks, putting on music)
  • a clear beginning and ending rite – be it silent meditation, an affirmation or recitation, a pattern of movement
  • moments for coming together as a group combined with moments for retreating into our private selves
  • something visual or tangible as an object of focus, a source of inspiration, or a talking point

After focusing for so long on the critical and analytical elements of learning, I’m making space in my pedagogic philosophy to value ceremonial acts, nonrational thought, and intuitive knowledge.

I hesitate to publish this post because I’m usually more grounded in theory or practice; I usually don’t just throw rough ideas out there before really thinking about them or trying them out. But one of my insights during the new moon ritual was that my perfectionism has been limiting my creativity. I’ll have a creative idea and then spend hours googling to see whether someone more talented, more established, or more authoritative has already done it.  I google the creative impulse away.

I’m sure lots of scholarly words have been written on this topic but this time, rather than over-thinking it, I just want to put it out there. Y’know…into the universe.

Moon over Milkwood, Australia (Feb. 2012)

 

For the Seventh Generation

The seedlings have been planted, the mulch has been spread, and I have one more day in the Byronshire before jetting back to Sydney.  Last Friday marked the end of the first ever Permaculture Challenge, a program that I had the privilege of facilitating alongside a team of inspiring adults and sixteen amazing Byron Bay teens.

These 15-17 year old students showed up three weeks ago with their iphones and their cliques, sneaking out for cigarettes and tuning out (and in some cases, completely passing out) on beanbag chairs. But throughout the last three weeks, I have watched them plug back into the Earth and in doing so, connect with one another and with themselves.

They were not afraid to get their hands dirty building gardens, getting friendly with  beneficial insects and feeling the crumbly black soil that only months ago was ‘humanure.’ They grappled with  incomprehensible hugeness of the universe and the intricate subtlety of the microorganisms that power our soil-food web. They fought and apologized, cried and hugged, played music and sang, cooked and ate meals together, and evolved into a strong family.  I have learned so much from these kids that I’m finding it hard to say goodbye – I want to stick around and help them organize their social action campaigns,  visit their gardens and share the yield that they produce.

Byron Bay Permaculture Team (Photo by Sangye Christianson)

For me, being involved in this program has been life changing in a way that I had not expected. I signed up on a whim after reading about the program in a Permaculture Research Institute e-newsletter, and had no idea what to expect.

My interest in permaculture goes back to 2005, when I spent the summer WWOOFing at Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize. but it has taken a back seat to other educational pursuits over the last few years. I’m still not sure where I’m going with these ideas, but I am starting to think deeply about how to work permaculture principles into mainstream educational settings, as well as considering starting a Canadian Permaculture Challenge when I get home. I’ve signed up for a Permaculture Design Course at Milkwood Farm in February, and am grateful that getting involved in these initiatives is starting to give some purpose to  my sojourn in Australia. After all, Australia is where Permaculture was born, and it is thriving in both urban and rural settings.

At the Permaculture Challenge graduation, I surprised the students with my personal tribute to all the hard work they put in to the Permaculture Challenge. It’s becoming a bit of a tradition to write a spoken word poem at the end of an educational experience as a sort of parting gift for my students, as well as a way of  giving closure and processing my thoughts.

Here are two versions of my piece – one shot live at the grad ceremony, where I performed in front of a packed 200+ person audience at Mullumbimby Civic Hall. The other was filmed by my wonderful friend Kamala at her organic farm in the hills near Wilson’s Creek. Lyrics are below.

For the Seventh Generation 

When I was your age they told me,
“Baby girl, it’s a dirty world out there”
So I learned to disinfect
To sanitize and protect
To buy food that’s wrapped in plastic
Now I’m stressed out and stretched out like an elastic band
With antibacterial hands
And five year plans
Lending my dreams to morally bankrupt banks
And borrowing ideas from thoughtless think tanks
And fretting about pollution
 
But now I realize that the problem is the solution
Humanity is not out to tame nature
We are nature
And nature is wild
It’s volcanoes and glaciers and the first breath of a newborn child
 
 So I set out to penetrate this planet’s state
And find out what reverberates
To speak the truth
To speak to youth
To put on some gardening gloves and boots
And give nourishment to roots
To fertilize the tender shoots
That grow and grow from all the seeds you sew
And if you don’t know, now you know
And if you don’t know, that means there’s room to grow
 
Cause I’ve seen a bunch of hellions
With mouths the size of pelicans
Learn to quit their yellin’ and listen….
To the silence….
That’s vibrating with billions of microbial operatives in sublime symbiosis
Guaranteed to do away with postmodern neurosis
 
This quiet eloquence embellishes a truth that’s huge and relevant
It’s grabbing the white elephant
And composting its crap and, hell, maybe even sellin’ it
 
The power is in you – in fact, it’s in your poo
This is some heavy doo doo voodoo
Think about it when you’re on the loo
Imagine every number two
Becoming a permaculture dream come true
 
Like Jack’s magic beans you’ll be climbing to new heights
Permablitzing new sites
Thinking about a healthy planet as a human right
And maybe sleeping a bit more soundly at night
 
Let the earthworms be a part of your community
Speak up in Canberra and make them see
That the harm that’s been done….
Is done.
And we have all the time under the sun
To repair not despair
Tie back your hair
And sit
And stare
 
Observe and interact
If you treat her with respect, Mama Earth’s got your back
Grow some veggies
Use the edges
Put the power back
Into the hands of the many
And these hands will yield plenty
And don’t worry if you’re nowhere near twenty
 
Because this is the future of living education
Without further complications limitations or genetic modifications
Start thinking long-term germination not band-aid fixation
Because it’s not about us,
It’s about The Seventh Generation

Now that’s my kind of classroom…

For the past week, I’ve been in Byron Bay, volunteering as an “Amigo” for the Youth Permaculture Challenge. The amount of learning taking place here is amazing. It’s heuristic, hands on, constructivist, embedded in the local community, and globally aware.

There have been so many inspiring moments over the last week that I don’t know what to blog about first! So here are a few photos of some of the students’ learning moments –  ranging from cooperative engagement in an activity to quiet reflective journalling.

There are so many ways to learn when your classroom has no walls.

 

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Tall Poppies and Birds of Paradise: addressing sexual harassment in Australian culture

Back in Toronto, I was friends with an Australian man. While he was a supportive and emotionally expressive friend, much of our daily banter consisted of ribbing each other, and much of that ribbing was of a sexual nature. If I went on a good date, he’d mock my “game.” If I got dressed up and put makeup on, he’d tease me about my looks. At the time, I thought this was strange – it reminded me of middle school gender dynamics, where the boys and girls who are crushing on one another tease each other relentlessly.

While I’ve only been in Sydney for a little over a month, I’m now able to put that relationship into a cultural context. It wasn’t about us – it’s the culture here. Australia suffers en masse from Tall Poppy Syndrome, a compulsion – possibly stemming from jealousy or from a desire to promote equality or camaraderie between different social strata – to put down successful or distinguished people.

We haven’t quite reached a Harry Bergeron dystopia, but I feel that this culture of put-downs and teasing limits all Australians – the mockers and the mockees. In fact, as I write this post, I can hear the critiques, “Don’t be so Canadian, mate…” and see the empathetic but resigned shrugs, “Get used to it, Aussie guys are assholes.” It limits discourse and makes authentic emotional connections difficult to achieve. It also promotes a culture of sexism and negativity. A weaker blogger might scrap the post in the face of this projected criticism but hey, if they want to call me a prudish or overly PC Canadian, so be it. I was raised to be proud of my cultural sensitivity and able to speak out when offended. And here, I am offended on an almost daily basis. I don’t want to be an average poppy or a wallflower. I want to be a bird of paradise!

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon since I arrived, but today a friend’s facebook page featured a reaction to Sunday’s NY Times op-ed by Katie Roiphe, “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks.” Down under, the whole Herman Cain story was not on my radar, so I had some catching up to do. The American feminist blogosphere is outraged by Roiphe’s claim that a “smart, competent young professional woman” should laugh and shrug off unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate comments about her appearance, and that a workplace free of the risk of sexual harassment would be drab and quiet (because of course, there’s nothing else to laugh or chat about but your cubicle buddy’s boobs).

Roiphe criticizes the “weakness or blurriness” of the language that defines sexual harassment (uncomfortable, hostile, inappropriate) and prefers to euphemize sexual harassment by calling it “colourful.” As a high school English teacher, the issue of semantics was interesting, and indeed, addressing the “slippery” definition could be a productive exercise in a high school English or Law class. But this quote also piqued my interest:

A study recently released by the American Association of University Women shows that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 have experienced sexual harassment. Their definition is “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.” Which would seem to include anyone who has been called a “whore” or “so hot” on Facebook, or is jokingly or not jokingly propositioned. (In other words, it’s surprising it’s only half.)

So the problem is the overly broad definition of “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically,” not the prevalence of sexual harassment among teenage girls? Roiphe suspects that by this definition, the percentage should be much higher but immediately moves on, failing to address that even though every girl in the class might have been called flat, easy, or doable, the ubiquity of these comments does not make them excusable. Imagine telling my grade nine student whose friend jokingly called her a slut in the middle of English class, “What’s the problem? Just laugh it off. Now back to Merchant of Venice…hey, maybe you should read for Portia – that shallow ho-bag. Lol.”

I wonder what kind of language and behaviour Australian high school teachers allow. Does the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude apply in the classroom? The relentless sexual jokes in professional settings, and the general acceptance of them, seems to indicate that this is something Aussies have tolerated all their lives.

Frankly, I have been shocked by the way male and female colleagues treat one another here. It’s not just the comments about men being “distracted” by short skirts and cleavage. It’s not just the HR woman telling my senior manager friend that his Canadian accent is sexy.  It’s not just the office party binge drinking that often results in messy inter-office hook ups, sometimes with married bosses. It’s not just the female employees playing ‘who would you rather do?’ about their male colleagues over happy hour cocktails.

It’s the fact that, according to an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade primer on the status of women, despite a relatively equal rate of education and 58% labour force participation, women hold only 12% of private sector management jobs and a mere 9% of board directorships. The Australian Human Rights Commission breaks it down:

Every year, sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most common types of complaints received by the Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act. In 2009 – 2010, 21% of all complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission were under the Sex Discrimination Act, and 88% of those complaints related to sex discrimination in the workplace. The wide use of new technologies such as mobile phones, email and social networking websites creates new spaces where sexual harassment may occur.

Sexual harassment at work is against the law. Sexual harassment can be committed by an employer, workmate or other people in a working relationship with the victim.

Sexual harassment can be a barrier to women participating fully in paid work. It can undermine their equal participation in organisations or business, reduce the quality of their working life and impose costs on organisations[2].

For my part, I will not “get used to it.” I will continue to let people know that I am uncomfortable with inappropriate comments. Last week I filed a complaint against a course facilitator who made derogatory remarks about women, Asians and Eskimos (sic). I will continue to tell my female Aussie friends that they don’t have to laugh, get drunk, or get liposuction to impress their male colleagues. And if I end up in a high school classroom here, I will do my best to encourage my female students to be birds of paradise and to grow tall and bright in a safe – and yes, a colourful – environment.