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Friday, April 17, 2015

Educating that Character...

There's More in You Than You Know
        - Hahny-Bear (Kurt Hahn)

Finishing up the last few weeks of the '15 Spring Semester, I've been spinning in metaphysical circles trying to complete my first thesis paper of my collegiate journey.  Throughout the class, Origins and Directions in Adventure Education, we've been rapping over academic and theoretical applications involved with delivering a solid Outdoor Adventure Education program, synthesizing our weekly topics and comprehensive learning by churning out a boat load of papers, creating and formulating an online professional presence, and constructing our personal philosophical definition of AE.  I hadn't thought about it before, but this last piece is so crucial to the transference of learning in the field to the world of job markets and recessive economies... especially when most of the time, as a reaction to the mention of spending my not-yet hard-earned money (i.e. college loans- woohoo!), people often ask why I studied camping and playing outside in college.  But that's a whole different story...

For my thesis topic, I decided to focus on the theory of grit in reference to character education.  It's an amazingly tough topic to tackle, and I've realized it's especially hard, as well as super exciting, to channel energy into an area of focus that is empirically vague.  Angela Duckworth initially developed and presented the concept after working as a teacher in the Bronx for several years, resulting conclusively that academic grades alone does not correlate with higher levels of success in life (Check out her Ted Talk here!).  As a result, she proposed that the more developed non-cognitive qualities embodied by students can provide a more durable foundation that supports reaching long-term goals, inevitably promoting comprehensive prosperity in post-education circumstances, such as higher sense of well-being, self-efficacy, and positive demeanor in addition to securing better jobs.  It's a concept that struck me initially as a no-brainer... until I realized that this type of assessment in standard education has surfaced at a critical juxtaposition of societal cognizance.

I have researched so many articles, scholarly journals and Ted Talks, and a few concepts struck me as super poignant.  From the revolution of tax-supported education during the industrial era, the arterial processes of academic pedagogy haven't changed much, aside from the exception of specialized schools such as private or religious-based, charter, and special needs.  One issue I noted, especially after seeing a few talks by Ken Robinson (check out his fantastic Ted Talk list here), the system is outdated and sterile; by promoting academics through aged practices such as rote memorization and standardized outcome-focused assessment, the individual process can be misplaced, along with their creative inclinations and divergent methods of thinking.  I thought, by focusing on the average of the whole rather than the talents and interests of the individual, 'average' practices are created and maintained, thereby limiting the needs of those who don't intrinsically conform to constructed social norms. Does teaching standard academics (math, science, writing) in normative infrastructures promote the average? How is the average deciphered and decided? What are the exponential cognitive and non-cognitive losses and gains of teaching to maintain these 'average' standards? So many questions, ahhhhh.

... I could definitely go on about this for a while. As an outdoor educator, I have found that I was one of these students who struggled to conform... until I found Prescott College.  Prior to finding this magical place, I often felt like a lost individual just trying to keep afloat in the swamp of socioacademic expectations. I found that if I didn't equate what I was learning with personal value, or at least have the opportunity to explore why what I was learning mattered (aside from getting good grades which would get me a good job... so I've been told), I often felt disconnected and disinterested... until I realized how my parents would react to poor academic standing, which was reason enough to at least try.  However, there are so many student youths who don't have a strong support system, whether it'd be familial, cultural, demographic-based, or systemic; these factors can drastically affect how non-cognitive skills are learned, formed and implemented in their daily lives, which directly affect cognitive abilities such as learning, understanding, and remembering information.  So, when this notion of grit, described as a non-cognitive trait based on an individual's passion for a long-term goal, combined with the drive and motivation to keep truckin' through adversity need to reach the endstate, I immediately associated the idea of grit, in the context of character education, with the learning outcomes and pedagogues of outdoor education.

Another big issue that is continuously debated in outdoor education and education reform alike is the assessment of these subjective, and seemingly immeasurable, anthropological developments.  In the context of outcome specific programming, like Outward Bound or Expeditionary Learning Schools (ELS), the institutions construct learning outcomes interrelated to the students' development of character; these social and intrapersonal skills are often emphasized through intentionally facilitated curriculum that directly correlate with the program's technical or academic focus.  This might insinuate that the curricula are specialized, not standardized, and provides analogical evidence supporting the following: professionally developing an individualized institutional infrastructure, which supports the concise learning outcomes of that establishment, is more efficient and beneficial to the educational outcomes of it's students.

There's some heavy goings-on here, that's for sure... and I love it.  This class is rocking my world, pushing me to synthesize all of these experiences I've been accumulating while applying academic theories and philosophy, which is totally helping me organize my thoughts into a contextual application.  I'm heading back to work for Outward Bound in California this summer, and I'm so pumped to keep expanding my experiential learning capacity by implementing my class work into field courses.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


I’m about to graduate in a little over three weeks from now (aauughhhh!!!!), and I did my senior project last summer in order to make my final year here less stressful.  Doing my senior project early means that I’ve had opportunities to take fun elective courses during my last semester, such as the canoeing course I’ve written about previously.  I thought I’d take some time to write about my senior project experience so that any prospective students out there in cyber space can have an idea of how Prescott College’s learning philosophy can be applied.  

My competence is in Human Development, which is essentially a combination of developmental psychology, learning theories, holistic health, family systems theory, sexuality studies, communication, expressive arts therapy, and counseling skills.  I love working with kids, and so for my senior project I wanted to find an internship where I could apply my studies in Human Development in a practicum setting.  During the fall of my junior year, I searched for internships and found the perfect one: an internship at an Earth-based early-childhood center called the Gazebo Park School at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.  I applied immediately, and a few months later was called for an interview and offered the position.  I then filled out the requisite paperwork to turn it into my senior project, and in May 2014 after the semester finished I packed up my car to drive to Big Sur. My internship was three months long, from mid-May to mid-August.  This meant I had plenty of time to learn and grow during my time there. 

For the first two weeks of my internship, I was instructed to be a “tree”.  This means that I only observe the other teachers working with the kids rather than interact with them myself.  I took lots of notes and paid attention to the intricacies of working there.  The reason they have new interns do this is because the Gazebo Park School has a unique philosophy that can be hard for people to adapt to.  Being a “tree” is intended to prompt people to challenge our preconceived ideas of how to interact with kids, thus paving the way for new, more holistic methodology to take root.

Let me give an example of Gazebo Park School’s unique philosophy.  At Gazebo, there is an emphasis on the cultivation of empathy, self-awareness, and relational skills.  This means that when kids get in an argument with one another, rather than scold the kids or put them in time-out, a teacher might come over and offer suggestions about how to work through the conflict.  For example, if I see Jack and Jill fighting over the same toy, I might calmly walk over and say something like, “So I notice that you both want the same toy, and that you both seem to be pretty upset about not getting to play with it yourself.  I wonder if you could use words to express your feelings to each other rather than yelling?”  I might then offer solutions on how Jack and Jill might resolve the conflict.  Perhaps they could play with the toy together?  Perhaps they could take turns?  The important thing is that Jack and Jill find the solution together rather than having an adult come in and fix it for them.

One of the central beliefs underlying this teaching philosophy is that learning occurs in every moment of life.  Getting in an argument with a friend is a valuable learning experience.  I can learn how to voice my feelings, work through disagreements, and find solutions.  Whatever emotions or experience a child may be experiencing in any given moment is their teacher.  Thus, my job as the adult isn’t to shield kids from negative experiences; it’s to support them in their own explorations and to make sure they’re safe. 

Since experience is the greatest teacher, kids at Gazebo have pretty much free rein to explore, create, and play.  We keep an eye out to make sure the kids are safe, and then we support them in whatever project or activity they feel drawn to.  Thus, the curriculum is “child-centered”, meaning we let the kids take the lead.  If a kid is really excited about gardening, we might offer a gardening project where we plant seeds.  Some kids love to paint, so we’ll set up easels for them to make art.  Some kids love the slip-n-slide, so we’ll help them set it up on days when it’s warm enough.   Oh, I forgot to mention that Gazebo has a garden, chickens, and two goats the kids get to help out with.

On top of my work hours, I wrote weekly reflections with the intention of tying my experiences in with my three years of academic learning in Human Development.  There was so much I was experiencing at Gazebo on a daily basis that tied in directly to my education, and writing helped me make sense of it.  For example, in the classroom at Prescott College, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of empathy and community in the course of human development.  The development of empathy is related to our experiences in community.  When we see empathy modeled for us as children, and when we experience empathetic relationship with others, we can then experience empathy ourselves in our relationships.  In many ways, our early-life experiences of human relationship can act as a “blueprint” for relating throughout the rest of life.  Whereas I’d read about this in books and written about it, it was an easily observable phenomenon at Gazebo.  I could SEE, with my own eyes, the kids learning how to relate with one another.  If a child was feeling sad one day, his or her friends would come over to offer hugs and comfort.  There was a two year old who loved to climb up on a bale of hay and jump off into a pile of pillows, and he always wanted an adult to witness him jumping.  The cultivation of individuality was occurring in the context of a safe and nurturing community.  Reading and thinking about this is one thing, but seeing it in action and witnessing the growth of the kids over the course of three months made the learning so much more tangible and real. 

Kids at Gazebo have the time and space to figure out for themselves what they’re passionate about.  Not once in my three months at Gazebo did a see a kid feeling “bored”.  Because they didn’t have adults constantly telling them what to do, they were led by their imagination and curiosity.  The same is true here at Prescott College.  Because the curriculum here offers so much freedom to explore and be curious, I’ve had the time and space to ask questions like, “What am I passionate about?  What makes my heart sing?  What do I want to contribute to the world?”  Being able to ask such questions and seek out my own answers has been an invaluable experience.  I feel much more in touch with myself that I did four years ago, and much more aware of what I want out of life. 

I’ll close by bragging a little bit: there are hot springs at Esalen, and I went in them everyday for three months.  Sometimes I only got to go in the hot springs once a day, but more often I went two or three times a day.  My favorite routine was going before breakfast, after work, and after dinner.  The springs were on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the sunsets were stunning.  From the springs I sometimes saw whales, seals, and dolphins, and the sound of the waves was very soothing.  I had my own room at Esalen, and I liked to sleep with the window open so that I could hear the ocean throughout the night and when I woke up in the morning. The food was amazing, the gardens were beautiful, I met inspiring and kind people, and I had a great time exploring Big Sur on days off.  I had an incredible time with the internship and learned a lot about myself and about working with kids.  I wouldn’t trade my summer at Gazebo for anything.  It was the perfect senior project for me to display my competence in Human Development.  On top of that, I can put the internship on my resume which could help me find jobs after I graduate.

That’s the benefit of experiential education: actual life-changing experiences.

Kevin E.

Adventure-Based Learning:
CHAPTER 2: The San Juan River

Last weekend, we went on our second canoeing expedition of the semester on the San Juan River in Utah.  I’d never been to Utah before, and golly gee was it beautiful!  The geology of the area we paddled through was stunning.  It made me wish I’d taken a geology course during my four years here.  

After six hours in the van, we arrived at our campsite near Bluff, Utah.  We woke up at dawn to pack up and launch our boats onto the river.  Once we were got all our gear in order, we checked in with the ranger and were off!  Our adventure got off to a quick start: about a mile into our first day of paddling we pulled off to the side of the river and took a short hike to visit some ruins from buildings that were occupied by the Ancient Puebloans about a thousand years ago.  The dwellings were built with rocks and adobe and were built into the cliff face.  Prior to leaving for the trip, we each did a research paper on the history of the Ancient Puebloans, sometimes referred to as the Anasazi.  Our research was focused on the history and culture of the Ancient Puebloans, as well as the circumstances surrounding their migration from the area in the 1200s or so.  It was amazing to learn about the culture of the Ancient Puebloans and then actually SEE for ourselves some of the rock art and dwellings they left behind.  Being able to experience the living history of these fascinating peoples made the learning tangible and memorable. 

We had four nights out on the water, and each night I slept under the stars.  There was a full moon last weekend, and there was a lunar eclipse on our second night.  I just happened to wake up in the middle of the night to catch the eclipse in progress.  I watched the moon slowly be covered in shadow and then fell back asleep to the sound of the river close by.

It is difficult to describe in words how amazing it feels to wake up in the morning and get on the river with the rising sun.  The Earth is so still early in the morning. There is virtually no wind, and birds are beginning their day.  Waking up early meant that we had plenty of time to take it slow and practice our skills.  We had fun catching eddys and finding routes through the mild rapids we encountered.  Waking up early also meant that we had time to take exploratory hikes throughout the day.  Our teacher has paddled the San Juan many times, and so he is very familiar with the numerous hikes and sights one can see along the river.  On our hikes, we explored up various drainages we passed and learned about the geology and natural history of the unique ecosystem we were traveling through.  

The area of Southeastern Utah that we were in is home to herds of wild bighorn sheep.  On several occasions throughout our time there we looked up and saw a few of them on the bank of river looking at us quizzically. 


On our third night of the trip, we camped in an area right next to the water that had large piles of driftwood close-by.  We took advantage of the plentiful firewood and stayed up for an hour or two laughing and talking together around the fire with the stars above us.  

On our last full day on the San Juan, we were forced to end our day of paddling early because the wind suddenly started blowing really strongly.  This made it very difficult to move forward because the wind kept catching the bow of the boat and turning us.  This meant we had the afternoon to relax and soak in our area.  We took a hike up to a nearby lookout and took in the landscape from a different vantage point.  When we got back to our campsite, a few of us spontaneously jumped in a mud pit on the bank of the river to cool off.  It felt so nice to take a mud bath for a half hour or so as the water flowed by us.  We then rinsed off in the river and my skin felt amazing!  Nature therapy at its best.