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Outward Bound with Highland School

“If we take to heart the lessons of history, we will regard it as a very serious responsibility of schools to build up nervous strength in the vulnerable, the imaginative, the sensitive, by methods which will harden yet spare them, so that they will be better able to stand the strain which responsible citizenship imposes.” -KURT HAHN, OUTWARD BOUND 

Under the school’s Character and Leadership program, Upper School students have the opportunity to pursue a Certificate of Leadership Development. Criteria for the certificate include completion of a Leadership and/or Social Justice elective course, holding three leadership positions, and completion of an expedition or project that demonstrates the student’s development of their leadership capacity. In 2010, Highland began partnering with North Carolina Outward Bound to offer a summer 5-day backpacking and rock climbing trip in the Table Rock region of Pisgah National Forest as a complement to the school’s existing Experiential Education and Leadership programs. What follows is a summary of the trip and the benefits this type of partnership offers to the school, the faculty chaperone, and participating students.

Lucas had been up there on that rock face for 15 minutes. Despite being terrified of heights, he’d mustered enough courage to strap on the climbing gear and clamber his way up the first section of aptly-named Devil’s Cellar. Built more for facing opponents on the lacrosse field than for shimmying up cliffs, his hefty frame shook slightly as he perched on a narrow strip of rock. Minutes passed as he considered which was scarier –making another attempt at climbing up, or trusting his belayer to lower him down.

Which choice do you make?
Pivotal moments like these leave an indelible impression on those who are a part of them and provides data about important questions. As the climber, what do I say and do when confronted by a challenge? As a member of the team on the ground, how do I support my teammate in a way that they want to be supported? As an educator, once the moment is over, how can I help students transfer the lesson learned to future challenges and experiences? My trip with 10 students this summer to the Table Rock region of Pisgah National Forest produced many pivotal moments for each of us to reflect on these questions, struggle against obstacles, celebrate overcoming challenges, and practice supporting each other.

Institutional benefits
While the trip had obvious and significant impacts on each of us who participated, a program like this provides great benefits for our school. Highland works closely with North Carolina Outward Bound (NCOB) to plan trip curriculum based on our school's programmatic goals, current issues in our school community, and which students are coming on the trip. Because there is significant overlap with the Outward Bound reflective process and organizational values, and the academic and extra-curricular program Highland offers, lessons learned on the trip are easily transferable to our everyday school experience. This trip benefits Highland School in three main ways:

  • Building a cohort of students in the Upper School community who have a shared intensive outdoor experience that emphasizes stewardship, personal development, leadership, teamwork and leadership, who can then use their perspectives and skills to positively impact their classrooms, teams, clubs and social groups.
     
  • Developing a cadre of faculty who also have a common professional development experience where they can learn backcountry trip leadership and group facilitation skills from seasoned Outward Bound instructors. Because a different faculty member chaperones the trip each year, we have more faculty who bring these skills to our field studies programs during the academic year.
     
  • Serving as a complement to our Experiential and Leadership programs. This trip is challenging physically and mentally. From start to finish participants are pushed out of their comfort zone. This environment allows leadership capabilities and team dynamics to develop at an accelerated pace and intensity, providing great lessons for us to draw upon throughout the school year.

Faculty members learn from the experience
Each of the faculty members who has chaperoned this trip would jump at the chance to do it again. For me, there were numerous personal and professional gains.

This trip gave me time to think, specifically, two and half hours straight of uninterrupted, undistracted time in my own head during our “solo” reflection. Since having children, I can’t recall 2 ½ minutes of continuous silence. I would chaperone again in a heartbeat, if only for those beautifully silent hours. I used it to reflect on my year at school, my year with my family, and to articulate and journal about my core values, a process our Leadership Seminar students engage in as they draft, finalize and present This I Believe speeches.

From our superb course instructors, I picked up a slew of teaching tools: icebreakers, facilitation techniques, reflection activities and readings, and ways to teach/frame camp craft lessons. The NCOB staff is incredibly talented at both backcountry trip logistics and group facilitation, creating an unforgettable experience for all of us.

The most important benefit was the opportunity to get to know the ten Upper School students in a backcountry setting away from school and their regular peer groups. I saw more layers of their personalities and perspectives, learned more about each of their lives, families, and interests, and watched their individual strengths come to light.

The most important benefit was the opportunity to get to know the ten Upper School students in a backcountry setting away from school and their regular peer groups. I saw more layers of their personalities and perspectives, learned more about each of their lives, families, and interests, and watched their individual strengths come to light.

Students benefit from participation
Students self-select for this trip. Their reasons for doing the trip ranged from wanting to test their own limits, to doing it because a teacher said they should, to being “strongly encouraged” by their parents to go. Generally, the group that results is an eclectic one in terms of peer group membership and this year’s group was no exception. They individually and collectively impressed me and our Outward Bound instructors. They bought-in fully to the experience, were willing to stretch their physical and mental comfort zones, supported each other beautifully, and were incredibly thoughtful and articulate in their observations, and take-aways.

For many of them, it was one of the most challenging experiences they’d had, and though some weren’t sure they’d do it again, they were all glad they had. One student’s assertion that, “Everyone needs to do this!” was met with a chorus of “YES!” Whether physical, social, or emotional, each student overcame a personal challenge. 

One student’s assertion that, “Everyone needs to do this!” was met with a chorus of “YES!”

This trip was an opportunity to discover and use skills as leaders and effective team members. Each day, students selected specific roles outlined by our instructors, so they could practice being the group motivator, trail navigator, cook, or water guru. And beyond these specified roles students took on others as the trip and group dynamic demanded: mood lifter, pack mule, expert bear bag rope thrower, comforting encourager. Students are specifically asked to consider what lessons they will take away from the trip to apply to their student life and add value to the school community.

Students also had time to think. If there was a frontrunner theme for their reflections, it was gratitude – for the experience, for each other, for nature, for a break from cell phones, for their parents. One young lady who deflected a public hug from her mom at the start of the trip said, “I didn’t realize how much my mom does for me. She really works hard – making lunches, taking care of the house, working. I should really let her know how thankful I am.”

Others verbalized, with a tone of relief, how nice it was not to be glued to their cellphones and the latest photo on Snapchat. One young man acknowledged that he’d found a group of classmates he could trust to have his back – something he’d struggled to identify prior to the trip. Another, in our closing ceremony, declined accepting his Outward Bound pin, earnestly noting that he wants to continue to working on becoming a better person. He’ll accept his pin when he feels he’s ready.

Highland recognizes the value of the experience
I am proud that Highland recognizes and emphasizes the importance of offering experiences like this for our students, and am honored by the students who willingly participate fully them. In reality, we weren’t out here long enough to test fully our personal limits or to expose and work through the more challenging stages of Tuckman’s group dynamics. And though it was certainly difficult, it was a “challenge by choice.” Each of us knew our discomfort was temporary. That soon enough we’d be on a bus back home to an air-conditioned home, warm shower, refrigerator full of food, cozy bed, our favorite people, and all the “necessities” of a comfortable life. But it was enough for now. Enough to make us grateful. Enough to make us think about others who face this or worse obstacles by circumstance rather than choice. Enough to set the stage for future challenges and conversations.

Lucas, as it turns out, used a strategy that will be an excellent addition to his tool belt for life. He got down off the rock, took another look at it from below to reconsider his route, gave his body and mind a five minute break, then tried again. The second time, accompanied by the cheers of all of us below, he reached the top carabiner.

Megan Catalfamo is the Director of Experiential and Service Learning at Highland School.

Sender Image Posted by david in Academics on Tuesday July, 28, 2015 at 08:08PM
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