Learning to Fly

April 9, 2011

This week was our first week of the spring season, the slow slide into the frantic end of the school year.  It also marked the return to our outdoor education site, a place every unit in school visits weekly in the fall and spring.  The “country classroom,” as we refer to it, is a key part of our curriculum.  The school has a contract with the environmental center to go there Tuesdays through Fridays, fall and spring.

This is our first year at this particular environmental center.  We used to go to a different site.  That location served our needs well, but the owners wanted a more money and were continuing to ignore any environmental work that needed to be done there.  (The site was increasingly overgrown with nonnative vines.  There was a lot of garbage there from events held there.  The one building we were allowed to use was an old barn that first developed holes in the roof, then the tarp that was put on the roof disintegrated and left blue plastic strings on nearby trees, and then finally they knocked down the barn entirely and left a concrete pad in its place.)  Our new site is an environmental center that is used to having visiting groups of students, as well as birders and hikers.  It seemed a better fit.

To our students, however, the new center was a betrayal.  They had spent all their years since preschool knowing and growing at the old site.  The new site is unfamiliar.  The new site, as part of its environmental mission, restricts certain activities in some places.  There is no shelter on a rainy day.  Other than a few port-a-potties, there are no bathrooms.  The older the students, the more they stubbornly insisted they hated the new site.

So in the fall, our efforts focused on getting to know our way around.  (That also allowed for a good study of map and compass use.)  We copied maps of the new site (the trails colorfully marked).  At first the students chose a route and the teachers led the group.  Then the students chose the route and led the group (with teachers at the back).  Finally, we started letting the students do some hiking on their own.  We started small — two teachers at one end of a fairly straightforward trail, two teachers sending small groups off to find their way.  We expanded the distance and the possibilities for taking other paths (with some teachers hidden in the underbrush at key junctures to help if needed).  The students liked the independence.

Then one week a group got lost.  Lost is a relative term, of course — all the trails loop, so that eventually they all lead back to where you started, and you can’t actually hike off the property on a trail.  And if you reach the property boundaries, you reach a road.  So no one was going to end up stranded in the wilderness.  Nevertheless, there was a sense of worry when we realized that all the groups were accounted for except for one.  While three teachers kept an eye on lunch with the other students, one teacher at a time would try different paths to see where they might have gone.  Eventually we found them, only about twenty minutes (at most) from the time we noted their absence.

They had taken two wrong turns that had put them on the longest, farthest trail.  A few of the younger students were anxious, and the older students reassured them.  Several students took turns looking at the map and trying to figure out their location.  One student stood on top of an embankment, figuring that it might be easier to see from a higher location.  They eventually looped their way back to the main gravel road by the entrance and followed that to where we found them, only a few hundred feet from where we always meet for lunch.  In other words, although they made some wrong turns, they did all the right things to find their way back.

Of course, from a PR perspective, there was a flurry of phone calls and e-mails to be made once we arrived back at school.  Parents needed to know that at no point were their children in danger, and that the group behaved wisely in finding their way back.

Luckily, the parents of the students who were “lost” recognized that this was an interesting (if unexpected) learning situation and that their students had not been emotionally scarred by the experience.  We even took the entire group on the far trail in the weeks that followed to show them where the farthest boundary was and how it wasn’t really that far from where we started.  It reassured the group that as far as they could wander, they would not be truly lost.

And here we are, back at the center for spring.  What do the students most want to do?  Get lost.  Literally, they want to walk in groups alone until they don’t know exactly where they are and then find their way back.  The students who were part of the “lost” group feel a sense of pride that they did it, and now the other students all want the same experience.  The students seemed disappointed that our spring focus is on birds and not on maps and trails.

This reminds me of how hard it is to raise children.  As teachers (and parents), our job is to teach and nurture our children, but also to let them become independent in circles that extend farther and farther from us.  It’s like we’re the center point of a compass (the kind with which you draw circles, not a navigational compass).  When our children are very small, we give them a little room — a small circle around us.  We don’t stray far because there are too many things they don’t understand and too many ways they could get hurt.  Every encounter with an object or a person or an animal is another learning opportunity, but they need adults close by.  As the child gets older, the compass makes a bigger circle.  I can let my 9-year-old go play outside without watching him.  The circle gets bigger — teenagers venture further alone, learn to drive, and eventually head off to college.  The circle never disappears — I’m still in touch with my parents — but it’s a pretty big circle.

So how do you decide how big to make the circle?  At a certain point in their lives, children seem to want a bigger circle than the adults do.  (In toddlerhood, sometimes adults are encouraging a bigger circle than the children seem comfortable with.)  Our students want to be unsupervised more often at our new outdoor site.  The accidental long solo trip of our group made us all aware of how much some students want a safe space in which to make mistakes and wander.  How much do we let them?

Colleges are known to be “in loco parentis,” but these days many parents hover more than they used to.  I read stories about students in college talking to their parents DAILY and my jaw drops.  The article suggest that both students and parents enjoy this arrangement, but how are teens/young adults supposed to learn how to live on their own?  College is a great first step away from home because it’s independent living with a safety net — you’re not going to starve or lose utilities because you didn’t pay the bill, but you also have to manage your own time, do your own laundry, do a lot of problem solving on your own.  Your parents are a phone call away, it’s true, but you’re really on your own.  It’s a perfect first step in adulthood.

What happens when parents (or teachers) keep the circle too small?  What effect does that have on us as a society?  Should we as teachers give our students more freedoms even as parents in society seem to be tightening their grip?

Our students were irritated at us that their familiar environment (the old environmental education site) was changed.  They said they didn’t like the change.  But once they were forced to make a change, they let us know that they now wanted to use that change as an opportunity to find their own way, to “get lost” within the relative safety of a small nature area.  We pushed them out of the nest and were then shocked that they wanted to try flying more often.  It’s amazing sometimes how much we learn from our students.