Tag 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.

IMG_7820

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.

photo 2

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.

umi group

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

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)

 

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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a bunch of kings and queens: spoken word for the last day of grade 9 english

I discovered something about teaching: the last day of school is heartbreakingly anti-climactic. The kids are busting out of their seats. They chuck all the graphic organizers and short stories and assignments that you poured your heart and soul into in the recycling bin, and barely turn back to shout, “Have a good summer!” as they tear out the classroom door and down a paper-strewn hallway.

I wanted to do something special on the last day, beyond playing music and feeding them chips and freezies. I won’t be returning to my school next year, and I wanted my Grade 9 students to know that I care about their futures, even though I won’t be there to shepherd them through the senior grades.

After Gil Scott Heron died last week, I was thinking about the power of poetry – a topic I blogged about last year. On the second last day of school, I showed one of my classes some of his videos, tying them into our unit on Raisin in the Sun and the Civil Rights movement. I came home and sat down and banged out a spoken word-style poem, which I then performed for my classes. It wasn’t memorized, and I stumbled a few times, but my students seemed to appreciate it.

It was affirming to see them pick up on the references scattered throughout the lyrics – references  to essay writing and to the texts that we studied throughout the year. Performing this in my classes and getting high fives from kids in the hallways after school made the last day of school a bit less depressing.

A Bunch of Kings and Queens

No more pencils no more books
No more teachers’ dirty looks!
But if the looks are dirty
You must not be in my classroom,
Because the kinds of looks I give are squeaky clean
Know what I mean?

If only you could have seen what I’ve seen:
A bunch of teens
A bunch of dreams
A bunch of kings and queens

On the first day of school I asked you to write a personal credo,
“I believe this teacher chick
is a total freaking weirdo”
(Never fear, Batman’s here, though
Our very own personal classroom superhero)
No matter what you wrote on that page,
There’s no chance you’d get a zero.

You think you don’t have any beliefs.
Well, I believe you do
When I look at every one of you
Read your writing
Hear you speaking
Learn your point of view
I believe one of the most radical things you can do
Is to give yourself permission to be YOU
And then, I believe we can do this learning voodoo
I believe it’s as simple as tying a shoe

In-line citations
Gave you heart palpitations
But you can argue, prove and explain
All hundred and one Dalmatians

Or just keep it to five paragraphs
This kind of proof don’t need a graph
Be like Moses use your words
So you never have to use your staff

Don’t be shallow like Bassanio
Don’t wait for three red cars to go
Don’t let the world defer your dream
Define your themes
Or foreshadow a life lived without extremes

You think your life’s ‘maktub’?
Wanna have more hits than You Tube?
Don’t just glance at the grade on your paper
Read the comments if you want to improve.

Have integrity,
Stop begging me for marks.
Ignite the sparks
That set off a learning bomb
Of brilliant knowledge destroying the dark

Think critically
You’re killin’ me!
Don’t be afraid of riddling me
With more questions than there’s gelato in Italy

I never sent you to the principal
This bond we’ve got’s invincible
I still respect your right to learn
Even if your pink sheet’s full
I won’t cut off a pound of flesh
As long as you don’t feed me bull…

Shifting topics in the middle of an essay
Making up excuses because you waited til the day
Before to do the chore of sitting down and thinking,
…And then thinking some more
…And then editing and proofreading
‘Til your pencil is sore

Mutual respect keeps us all out of trouble
Don’t burst this bubble
Look at every written word
Like you’re peering through the Hubble
Telescope
Have high hopes
Try to cope
With the deadlines and the pressure
That make you feel like you’re at the end of your rope

Dope! That was a simile
My rhymes are packed with imagery
I see the moonlight reflected in shards of glass
Inspiration’s what you’ve given me
And I hope I gave it back
Hope I helped you stay on track
Hope I showed you that it’s not about what you lack
Nor is it about what you own
You are not defined by your jeans
Or your laptop
Or your phone
Or by the times when you’re walking through a crowded hallway feeling all alone

Lots of cool people were nerdy in grade nine
Lots of smart people got bad grades in grade nine
Lots of loved people were left out in grade nine
Lots of kind people were bullies in grade nine
Lots of smooth people were awkward in grade nine
Lots of worried people are doing just fine
Keep learning your lessons,
I’ll keep learning mine.

This is my credo
It’s got me this far
Believe in yourself, whoever you are
You’d believe in yourselves if you’d seen what I’ve seen:
A bunch of teens
A bunch of dreams
A bunch of kings and queens

thoughts on global education

Features of an effective Global Education program

Our educational endeavours should be culturally responsive, embedded in real world events, and mobilized to enable students to act in and upon their worlds. My former boss at PANIM, a non-profit educational organization had a 5-pillar approach to getting teens involved in public issues: inform, empower, inspire, motivate, contextualize. I believe that these can be applied to an effective Global Education program for secondary schools.

First, inform students about world issues. While today’s youth have unprecedented access to information, it is the job of educators to help students see the forest for the trees. By providing them with reliable, age-appropriate information about global issues like climate change, AIDS, child labour, and foreign aid, we can help them understand the big picture and begin to break down the details and make the information relevant to their lives.

Second, empower them to act by pointing out examples of individuals who have brought about change and by giving them the tools to act. This could mean starting a service project in class, giving students access to resources outside of school, or connecting them to organizations already doing the kind of work that students want to get involved in. It also means nurturing the habits of mind that make a good global citizen, including open-mindedness, critical thinking, and inquisitiveness.

Third, inspire them by being an active global citizen and modeling the sort of attitudes and behaviours that students can incorporate into their developing sense of identity.

Fourth, motivate students by making global issues real. For adolescents seeking meaning, this means putting a human face on injustice and promoting empathy and moral outrage. I believe that the intrinsic motivation for global action can best be achieved through experiential education, for example, cleaning up a local riverbank or meeting a Sudanese former child soldier.

Finally, contextualize Global Education within not only curriculum expectations but within the students’ personal value systems, showing them that learning about the world is not about getting good marks but about making a commitment to real change.

Thinking deep global thoughts in Algonquin Park

In practice, the most effective forms of Global Education are cross-curricular and multidimensional. This entails both looking closely at possibilities for global education within curricular objectives and going beyond them to incorporate Global Education wherever possible. Global Education is multidimensional in that it both opens students’ eyes to the realities of the world and opens their minds to the potential inherent in each of us to change the world for the better. A cross-curricular approach to Global Education teaches students about the world they live in and helps them to articulate their views on world issues. It also educates them about their rights and responsibilities as citizens of our globalized world.

In terms of content areas, the goal is to teach students about the Earth and its inhabitants, including education about international development, the promotion of peace and global human rights, intercultural education, and environmental education. As a History and English teacher, it is easy for me to incorporate Global Education into my teaching, for example, through studying texts written by foreign authors or by studying non-western historical events. However, if students come to see Global Education as limited to History or English class, I have not succeeded.

In a classroom that lacks diversity, the Global Education curriculum gives students the opportunity to appreciate the diversity that they will encounter outside of the school. In a multicultural classroom like those I encountered during my practicum placements, Global Education heightens students’ appreciation and understanding of each others’ backgrounds. In Global Education builds character by teaching students that we are all connected and mutually responsible for the well-being of both planet and people. On a micro level, this can translate into greater degrees of mutual respect within the classroom – it helps students understand the ways that they can help or hinder their classmates’ learning. On a broader level, it helps students to articulate their views on their responsibilities to the world around them. Ideally Global Education takes goes this sense of responsibility beyond the “should” and makes it a “must.”

To me, the defining features of an effective Global Education program involve:

· Promotion of an awareness of world events as they unfolde.g. On a rotating basis, each student is responsible for reporting on a newspaper story of the day in every class.

· Reflexivity and situatedness e.g. Students ground their study of global issues by looking at their own origins and the role our society plays in global events.

· Use of technology to create real global connections e.g. Online collaborative learning with a class in another country

· Whole-school initiativese.g. cross curricular Earth Week projects

· Local, national, global connections made across the curriculum e.g. In a History class, studying discriminatory measures perpetrated against Japanese Canadians alongside the study of Japan’s role in WWII

· A school culture that reflects and values global perspectives – e.g. Signage in a variety of languages, celebration of different cultures and recognition of days of significance, staff made up of people from different ethnic and national origins

· An awareness of the importance of ecological sustainability embedded in school culture – e.g. Limit paper use, students work together to retrofit school or plant a community garden

my philosophy of education


My Philosophy of Education word cloud created at http://www.wordle.net

The Talmud tells of two prominent sages, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva. A question is posed to both: “Which is greater, study or action?” They finally agree, “Study is greater, because study leads to action.” Inspired by this Talmudic parable, I believe that education is not an end in and of itself but a means to the most important end: acting to create meaningful change in the world. In Canada’s diverse classrooms, critical pedagogy, guided reflection, and education for active citizenship can help students understand, model, and enact a vision of a pluralistic ad productive society. As a teacher, I see my students as my ambassadors of goodwill, capable of creating far more change in their communities than I could ever bring about on my own.

Education can clarify values and prepare students for a lifetime of active citizenship, helping them understand the implications of their decisions and participation in civic life. Rather than presenting students with one “right” view of a subject, educators must offer diverse and even conflicting perspectives from among which students can piece together an intellectually and emotionally authentic narrative. When given the opportunity to examine and challenge the roots of accepted discourse, students can arrive at grounded conclusions, take ownership of their beliefs, and formulate meaningful opinions. In my experience, after studying multiple perspectives and examining how their beliefs are informed by their values, students feel empowered to address the root causes of these issues and to pursue social justice in their communities. In order to guide students through this process, I must attempt to be sensitive to my students’ lived realities both in and outside of the classroom, and draw them into curricular materials by addressing issues that are culturally relevant. I will not shy away from conflict or controversy, but rather harness its transformative potential.

I have high expectations of all students, and I realize that to meet them I must provide the necessary conditions for success. In my experience these are: manageable amounts of required background knowledge, proper scaffolding and meaningful formative assessments, learning tasks that respect diverse learning styles, teacher and peer support on the ground, and adequate and well-managed time. I hope to facilitate my students’ discovery of their own intrinsic motivations to learn by creating meaningful tasks whose completion are their own reward.  Placing students’ learning in the cognitive space where challenge and enjoyment meet creates a feeling akin to Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ experience. This is an ambitious goal in our world of distractions, but I have seen it happen, and have experienced this powerful immersion in learning myself on numerous occasions.

My teaching style draws on my experience in informal education. Thanks to two of my extra-curricular passions – painting and dance – I know that colour and movement deserve a place in the classroom. Where possible, I use constructivist methods and encourage co-operative learning.  My classroom management strategies emphasize relationships built upon mutual respect. I have a hard time enforcing rules that I myself cannot buy into, and I maintain an authoritative but relaxed presence in the class.

Through my experience with adolescents – be it in a classroom or a museum, in Algonquin Park or on Capitol Hill – I have seen that in order for true learning to occur, adolescents need challenge and meaning. Educators working with teens must above all be authentic, attentive to a plurality of ideas and equipped to manage a diverse range of learning styles and expressions. I see teaching as an exchange of ideas rather than a transmission of information. As a teacher, I hope to be able to facilitate transformation and growth in my students, and to learn as much from them as they do from me. It would be an honour to be in a position to open students’ minds to the power inherent in each one of us, and the potential that young people have to shape their futures and achieve meaningful measures of success.