Thursday, September 8, 2011

Breaking Radio Silence

Yeah, yeah, yeah...long time no write.

The school year has started but it's all jarring and interrupted by holidays, trips to the Hulbert Outdoor Center for teambuilding, emergency faculty meetings called to deal with week will actually be my first full week of classes, and it's about time.

I am currently on Lake Morey in beautiful Fairlee, VT, and the rain. It is incessant. We come to Hulbert each year in order to bring our small middle school together and foster leadership in the 8th grade. So far, so good. We spent yesterday on teambuilding exercises in the pouring rain, and I heard not one complaint, not one peep of discontent. Well, until two sixth graders went for the same football and collided. One kid is fine, one kid has a lump the size of said football on his little addled head.

I am in charge of the 8th grade girls' cabin. It's wet, it's smelly, it's loud with the hot whispers of pre-teen angst and gossip. Despite all that, we fell asleep last night to the call of two owls, and that makes up for a  lot.

Today, more team building and the high ropes course. One year ago, I wrote an article about what this experience means to our school, and as I head out for breakfast, I will post it again, for good times' sake. The full piece, with photos, is here.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[1]

In the common day of my Crossroads Academy classroom, I encourage my students to wander into their own regions of supernatural wonder. I teach my students to understand the journey of the hero – Aeneas, Moses, Arthur, Huck Finn – in order to prepare them for their own quests, their own battles, their own victories. The journey of these heroes – and of my students – inevitably leads into the wilderness, where the true exploration of heart and soul takes place.

In order to allow our students to embark upon their own heroic journeys, we take them into to the wilderness of the Hulbert Outdoor Center for three days each fall. Under the firm but gentle tutelage of the Hulbert instructors, and with the encouragement of their classmates, Crossroads students challenge themselves to go into the dark places they must visit in order to make the big discoveries about themselves.

Crossroads Academy is a small, independent school with a very large mission. We educate children in kindergarten through eighth grade according to the Core Knowledge Curriculum set out by E.D. Hirsch, and the Core Virtues Curriculum outlined by Mary Beth Klee, our the school’s founder. Our academic curriculum is interwoven with an education in the core virtues of justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence, and, through the study of these virtues, our students are continually challenged to assess who they are in and what sort of people they want to become. We explore the meaning of character as it is expressed through history and literature, but there is no better place to explore one’s individual interpretation of justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence than at Hulbert Outdoor Center.

Hulbert allows us to build a strong and trusting community in a matter of days rather than the months it would take in a normal classroom environment. We assign cross-grade teams for the three days, teams that get together for lunch over the course of the school year in order to re-connect and reflect on their Hulbert experience. Older students partner and mentor their younger schoolmates on the ropes course while the younger students are encouraged to establish their place within the larger community.

In our surveys of their experiences at Hulbert, students reflect on the things they learned there:

“One of the most important things I learned at Hulbert that I can use at school is the ability to believe in myself.” Seventh grade student.

“By the end of these three days, I feel I have learned so much about each and every person in my group. I also feel that I have made bonds with the people in my group, which cannot be broken. Also, I feel that during these three days I have learned how to be the best team member I think I can be.” Eighth grade student.

“I learned that you shouldn’t ever underestimate anyone, including yourself.” Sixth grade student.

“I learned that I can be a strong leader, but that there are also times when I need to hold back and let other have a chance to lead. It took empathy to understand that others besides myself wanted to lead as well.” Eighth grade student.

It’s not just the students that learn about themselves. Students are able to get acquainted with their teachers informally, outside the rigors of the classroom. Often, students are nervous about being away from home, and the support of their teachers in the cabins at night fosters a special trust that cannot be created in the classroom. Teachers take part in the ropes course and teambuilding exercises, and it never fails to thrill the students when their French or math teacher comes barreling down the long zip line. I have learned so much about my students – their fears, hopes, and dreams – through my participation in our annual trip to Hulbert.

After their successes in the physical and emotional challenges presented to them at Hulbert, my students are well equipped for the academic rigors ahead. The bond of trust formed in teambuilding exercises at Hulbert extends into the classroom, and holds our school together as a community. Our students arrive at Hulbert individuals and emerge as part of a larger community. When we return to the common day of our classroom, my students are ready to learn. They trust me, they trust their classmates, and they are more able to take the intellectual leaps of faith I ask of them.

Each year, in our budget meetings, the Crossroads Academy staff looks at the expense of Hulbert, the luxury of three whole days in the woods when the budget is tight. Ultimately, we all agree. The trip pays for itself daily in returns of diligence, fortitude, perseverance, and a spirit of intellectual bravery. I am a better teacher and my students are better learners because of the foundation laid by Hulbert staff in the opening days of our school year.

The character instilled in those three days at Hulbert is a boon to our school, and even deep into our school year, those three warm days and cool nights they spent in the wilderness together continue to bind our community. Crossroads Academy students go into the woods in Fairlee in order to find themselves, but emerge having found their place in a community of heroes.

[1] Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.