Tag Archives: teaching

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

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.

grade 9 geo takes to the streets

Now that classes are over, I’ve been taking more time to ride my bike and wander around Toronto’s vibrant neighbourhoods. Thanks to the creativity and critical thinking of my grade nine students, I’ve been seeing the streets that I’ve roamed for years through a new lens.

Spadina Remix - then and Now by AldenC on Flickr

The final summative for my Geography class was a neighbourhood field study. Students had to conduct field research as well as traditional research exploring an issue of their choice within a Toronto neighbourhood. They had to write an individual research paper and present a creative group oral presentation.

In groups, the students chose a neighbourhood in Toronto – the only limiting factor was that they could not choose an area that any of their group members live in.  Each student chose an issue in their neighbourhood, asked a question and came up with a thesis  which they supported with demographic evidence from the City of Toronto’s neighbourhood profiles as well as qualitative evidence from their field study and support from sources including Toronto newspapers, real estate boards, and local blogs like spacing and Torontoist.

Questions ranged from “Does the name ‘Little Italy’ accurately represent the culture of the neighbourhood?” to “Why are homes in Forest Hill so much more expensive than similar homes in the suburbs?” to “What kind of person would want to live on the Island?” One students studied the demographics of the waterfront condo-land, asking, “Why is the population of the Harbourfront community growing so rapidly despite a  low birthrate?” I encouraged a student to look at a contemporary issue, and she ended up researching the new Bixi program and hypothesize about its success and its potential impact on tourism, commerce, and transportation in her neighbourhood.

When I was in high school, a flashy presentation involved funny hats & ties and maybe – maybe – a neon bristol board sign. Today, you ask grade nine students to do an oral presentation, and you get a full on travelogue. I was very impressed with some of the presentations! One group studied Queen St. W. and wrote a song, accompanied by a music video showcasing the neighbourhood’s attractions. This group, who studied Cabbagetown/Regent Park conducted interviews with locals, discussing issues like safety, gentrification, and the preservation of heritage homes:

This summative was a great way to get students out of their own bubble and onto the streets of Toronto. It forced them to pay closer attention to the stores, parks, hospitals, homes, and sidewalks of their city. Students gained an appreciation for the planning that goes into a neighbourhood, and for the multitude of factors and stakeholders  that work together to make a neighbourhood safe, clean, vibrant and liveable. So now when I wander these streets, I find myself counting doctors’ offices, looking for available parking, and scanning signage for languages other than English. It’s true – teachers really do learn from their students!

A VISIT FROM IMAGIN8R: The value of guest speakers in the classroom

A presentation from my friend Billie Mintz  – an award winning filmmaker and crusader for social justice – was just what my grade-eleven students needed to inspire them to see both their roles as students of the Social Sciences and as users of digital media in a new light.

I invited Billie to speak to my Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology (HSP3M) class because our final project in the course is a multimedia public service announcement incorporating insights from the three disciplines. My goal was to get the students thinking about what makes an effective PSA, and Billie’s talk made the students think deeply about both the medium and the message of their projects. Billie’s charismatic blend of “Web Scientist,” edgy comedian, and genuine do-gooder kept the students laughing, thinking and questioning.

Using admittedly inaccurate but highly truthful graphs and diagrams, clips from YouTube and from his own films projects, and a personable and humorous tone, Billie explored why so many of the messages put out by so-called media experts flop while seemingly random content goes viral. He began by sharing some observations about humanity gleaned from studying viral videos and people’s reactions to them.

The Message in the Bottle

The second part of the presentation was centered around The Message in the Bottle, a campaign that Billie’s non-profit, ARC Institute,  created in partnership with Molson. He zeroed in on the failure of the many shareholders in the fight against irresponsible drinking, including brewers, law enforcement, non-profits, and the government. He pointed out that while the messages about alcohol consumption are traditionally created behind closed doors, a more effective campaign must not only target but also include the people affected by the problem – that is, the students and youth who are surrounded by a culture of irresponsible binge drinking. The internet allows new forms of participation and communication between people whose ideas deserve a platform, and Billie’s work incorporates these voices to craft provocative, engaging, and interactive stories.

After gaining the students’ respect and piquing their interest through humour, Billie switched to a somber tone, telling the class about the alcohol related death of his young cousin, which motivated him to speak out about irresponsible drinking.

Finally, he fielded questions and gave the students advice about each of their chosen topics, reminding them that as social scientists it is more important to ask good questions and conduct probing research than it is to broadcast a one-way message.

In the hallways after class, many of the students thanked me for inviting Billie to speak, and told me that his insights had made them rethink their projects. On a selfish note, having access to someone like Billie raised my cool quotient among these notoriously hard-to-impress teenagers.

time to time time

Even teachers have an end of the school year countdown. These days, mine is not so much “50 sleeps til camp!” as it is “ONLY 23 days to get all that stuff done?” 40-something essays to mark, a busload of new assignments coming in next week, a play to read & analyze,  final summative tasks to facilitate, and a whole unit on urban geography.

This past week was my much-needed Passover vacation, and I took advantage of every day (and yes, vegging on the couch reading a book during a late-April blizzard totally counts as taking advantage). I also spent a week with my mom in Arizona, eating great food and climbing mountains in Phoenix and hiking deep into the Grand Canyon.

I find myself now prepping for the final 23 days (minus assemblies & shortened staff meeting days) of the 2010-11 school year. My last 23 days as a first year teacher. I am calling on all my time management gods to help me squeeze all the juice out of this month. What am I going to do? Here are a few of my strategies:

1. WWPD: What Would Pamela Do? Pamela was a colleague of mine at a non-profit, and she is the Hermione Granger of Microsoft Outlook. She had colour coded everything, pop-up reminders, multiple task lists ranked by priority, and she actually DID her TO DOs. I’ll make lists, schedules, keep things in labeled folders. I will embody Staples (lay off on the ‘easy’ button jokes). But I will also…

2. Drop the perfectionism: Doing something imperfectly is better than doing nothing perfectly.

3. Time to Time Time: There are three kinds of time: structured work time (the time when I’m in class, in meetings etc.), unstructured work time (time outside of class that I dedicate to marking & prepping), and my time (time to see friends, relax, dance, cook, live my life). I need to know the difference between these three – particularly the last two. All too often, my work time bleeds into my personal life, which prevents me from really doing either one well.  To that end:

4. Plizzans: Knowing that I have dinner plans with friends, a HotDocs film to catch, or a bellydance class means that I have finite hours to spend shuffling papers around and opening and closing windows on my desktop. The busier I am, the more I get done.

5. Count: One…Ha! Ha! Ha! Know how many papers I have to mark. Mark one. Watch the number shrink.

6. Break out the ol’ mantra: When I was an undergraduate, somehow just repeating the phrase “Stress is counterproductive” made me actually sit down and hammer out paper after paper. I don’t know why this phrase worked – it’s not even catchy – but it did.

As I wrote this post, there was a knock at my front door. My upstairs neighbour and vestibule confidante, Mary, dropped by to welcome me back home. Mary just happens to be a yoga teacher and author, and a very in-touch and self-aware woman. We were swapping our stories of stress, and she shared with me 5 sayings that her late yoga master told her (actually, she just ran upstairs to find the fifth…). Not all of them are apropos at this moment, but they’re worth having in my back pocket, and I’m sure they will all be salient at one time or another.

– Recognize that the other person is you

– There is a way through every block

– When the time is on you, start, and the pressure will be off

– Vibrate the cosmos and the path will be clear

The third one is really speaking to me right now. Please share ways that you manage scheduling, stress, and the time crunch of the teaching profession. And…..START!