For the rest of the school year I am teaching 7th graders from the Alpine Leadership Academy in Flagstaff, AZ. This is a magnet school that espouses many of the values I hold dear for kids and learning: Inquiry, Community, Stewardship, Critical Thinking and Reflection. All of this is realized through the study of the world around them in educational expeditions and community service projects.
For the past several weeks, we have been studying the Grand Canyon region in Science, Social Studies and Language Arts classes by understanding the complex geology of the region, digging into the human history of the place and doing a shared reading of Down River. This is all punctuated with a visit to the Grand Canyon. Yesterday was our first trip of 32 kids … there will be three total trips to get all 102 students outside.
So, let’s talk for a minute about taking 7th graders outside. There are permission slips, lunches, proper gear, transportation requests, sub plans (for the other 65 kids still back at school), who rides in what van… routes, activities, curricular links… it takes a certain amount of heavy lifting to coordinate these events. It’s all worth it, all of it… because middle schoolers make sense outside.
As I think on why these are so important… I would like to share a bit of a river trip in the spring of 2007. One of the 8th graders that was along for the trip was quite the outdoorsman. He knew how to do everything with camping, hiking, fishing, hunting… he had the best gear and knew how to use it all. The other kids flocked to him, the *cutest* girl wanted to sit next to him… he was the man. He did this whole hilarious gig where he wanted to fish, but he didn’t have a fishing pole or a license to do so. He set about asking for little bits of stuff that he fashioned into a fishing line and hook, chummed the water with the leftover tuna cans and in about 30 seconds caught a fish. He was the fish whisperer for the rest of the trip. The last night, during the talent show, he and his buddies cooked up a rendition of the Crocodile Hunter that was, to date, one of the funniest things I have ever watched.
Then we arrived back at school and into our desks. I watched this young man those first few days back… it took everything he had to control himself, do what he was ‘supposed’ to do, ‘behave’ and be a good student. I could see how hard it was for him to make himself smaller to be in that room and in that desk. I never approached a room of kids the same way again. He was too big for that room. I had the privilege to let his mom know that I saw him, how much he worked to be the kid he was supposed to be at school even though it was such a struggle to be less of himself in that room… that I learned to be a better version of a teacher because he was my student.
Yesterday, I spent the day at the edge of the Grand Canyon with middle schoolers and was reminded that while school happens to be the place where we all (predominantly) go to learn… outside is better. Outside is big enough for these large, interesting and energetic personalities to thrive. Outside is one of the places where we don’t have to ask these kids to be less.