Turning 50 does strange things to you. It makes you realize that all of those things you are “going to do” need to get put on the calendar before you run out of time. It’s an opportunity to prioritize and stop “should-ing” on yourself- it doesn’t really matter if you do what you should. It only matters that you do what you need to.
What I needed to do was push myself. My friend Ellen, a high school PE teacher, had this brilliant idea in February, a time when I am apt to agree to anything due to an abundance of cold weather and snow. She offered this- how cool would it be to hike the most remote portion of the Appalachian Trail, seeings as how it was practically in our backyard?
As is usual for me when adventure is involved, I agreed. Several other brave souls did too. We trained diligently and set out on July 6th, a band of 6 intrepid women carrying an average of 40 lbs. on our backs. Our survival and success depended on our “homework” leading up to this authentic assessment, and our choices of what to put in our pack. Our plan was to hike an average of 10 miles per day and finish the hike in 10 days.
This we did. But that’s not the interesting part. When you hike for 10 hours a day, it gives you plenty of time to think. I often find myself relating what I am doing in daily life to what I do in my professional life- which is to guide young people to academic and general life success. This trip provided me plenty of food for thought. In the interest of time, here’s the Reader’s Digest version of my ideas:
1. It’s all about pace.
In education, we give a lot of lip service to letting students work at their own pace, but the reality is that we try to make their pace fit our calendar year. If they aren’t quick enough to finish in a year, they “fail.” To our credit, many school districts (my own included) are looking at a practice called “leveling” which allows students to move at their own pace through the curriculum. It might mean that they take 3 months to work through a class- or it might mean they take more than a year. I think it’s important that we build that flexibility into the schedule, but we have to take into account the second element:
2. You have to carry the pack you packed.
I was very worried on this hiking trip about food. All I had heard from colleagues that had undertaken this trip was that they were starving on the hike. I was determined NOT to be among the hungry, so I packed food. A LOT of food. That meant that I carried that food until I ate it. It was heavy, but I decided I would rather carry it than ditch it and risk regretting it later on.
It made me think about the packs our students pack. I know of students who find it difficult to get to school before the start of first period every day. We nag them and give them detentions. What about asking them how they will “carry the pack”- are they willing to double up on classes the next year, or go to night school? Rather than punish them for their choices, how about letting them live with them?
Carrying the pack goes further. If they use their laptops for games rather than classroom work, as some choose to do, are they willing to take the classes over again? What about relationships? Some students get stuck in the drama and then are surprised when it impacts their ability to progress. We need to help them focus on what they choose to carry with them on a daily basis. Is it something worth putting into their pack?
Our students must learn from us the importance of their decisions on a daily basis. In high school, there needs to be room for redemption- but the real world is a place of cold consequences. Had I decided to jettison food on Day 1 of my hike (and believe me, I thought about it), I would have paid dearly on Day 9. We need to help our students look forward and dig a bit deeper when faced with struggles. It’s not an innate skill for most of our kids, and it’s easier to have them think about choices BEFORE they are in crisis mode.
3. Be flexible and look at the big picture.
We were a group of 6 individuals, with different goals, speeds, and abilities. To put it into eduspeak, we were the ultimate heterogenous group. We ranged in age from 56 to 23, and varied greatly in our hiking experiences and comfort levels.
We had two itineraries- an aggressive route that got us out in 9 days, and a conservative one that took 10. Even with this plan we had to be flexible. An injury set us back a bit as did the weather. We had to work as a group and listen to all viewpoints to avoid what could be a catastrophic event if we pushed too hard. This made me think that in the classroom we need to take the temperature of our students and see how they are doing more often. This isn’t necessarily done by testing or assessing- it is often better done by creating a climate where all voices are valued and allowed to be heard. Then we need to ask them to tell us how they are doing and really listen to what they are telling us.
4. Flexible group work…works.
Our hiking group had 3 speeds. We had a fast group that blazed the trail. We generally had a middle group that was within earshot of the speedier hikers. We had a deliberate group with a slower pace. The interesting thing was how these groups changed. No one stayed in one group every day, although by the end we could see preferences. The flexibility to hike where you were comfortable on that day made for increased success for us all. Our place in the group varied by the task- some were stronger uphill while others were more adept going down. Time of day effected our place in the pack. We all learned from each other. Most importantly, we all finished, satisfied that we had done the job we had set out to do.
As teachers we need to find the way to create this sort of flexible grouping in our classes. I’m not sure how we do this- if you have an idea, please be sure to share it in the comments section below.
As I head to September and my new group of freshmen advisees, I can’t help but wonder what they will bring in their pack that first day of school. Some things I’ll never know about- only they will. I’ll be sure to get them thinking about it and hope they will choose carefully. My goal is to create an environment where they can trust me and their colleagues with the elements in their pack. I know I will forever remember to think about what I am willing to carry.