Sunday, December 12, 2010

The best classroom in the world.

The best classrooms aren't necessarily the ones with four walls.

Year 9 is an interesting time for kids. At our school it's a limbo space, a twilight time between the children that they were and the adults they will become. The desire to work to please parents or teachers has long passed. The need to work in VCE seems still far distant. For some, it's a time to opt out and when that happens it's often really hard to opt back in.

That was certainly my own personal experience. A bright and engaged student until year 8, I became a stereo type of angst ridden adolescence. I hated the conformity of the classroom, I despised the boring text book, one size fits all approach of many of my teachers, I found it difficult to find relevance to my world in the tasks I was asked to complete at school. I did opt back in eventually, but only because I was lucky enough to have a couple of teachers who took the time to see the value in me despite my arrogance and refusal to toe the traditional line.

That was 30 years ago but nothing much has changed. We still expect kids to keep plugging away , doing things our way even though we know it is essential for them to find their own way.We serve up a regurgitated diet of text book content seasoned with a sprinkling of 'active', but not necessarily relevant learning. We expect them to conform to school uniform and school rules, even though we know they'll learn best by making their own mistakes. And a lot of kids respond just the way I did. They switch off from school and more critically, the type of teacher student relationship that is so vital to engaged learning becomes very hard to maintain.

This year we decided to try something a bit different with our year 9s at the end of the school year. Like many of the programs that run in private schools (where funding makes it possible to be alternative), and the government run Alpine School program (where places are limited), we wanted to give them some real life, rich tasks to finish off their middle years schooling. We called it the 'Survivor' program and based the final 5 weeks of term around a range of life skill's and outdoors activities. I think the whole program was pretty successful but this blog describes the two activities that I was involved in.

One of the 'Survivor' challenges was to bike ride 100kms from Colac to Apollo Bay along the Beech Forest Rail Trail over 3 days. I was lucky enough to be the support car driver ( my glutes are no longer designed for a bike seat!). The first day was 45 kms of mostly uphill riding on bush tracks. It was hard physical work and even the super fit front runners were struggling by the time we reached the run down into Beech Forest. We lost a couple of bikes but with some reshuffling everyone managed at least 40km of the ride. Sara took a tumble during the bush leg and arrived at the lunch time pitstop covered in blood from where her braces had punctured her bottom lip but a couple of kms in the bus was enough time to staunch the bleeding and she was back in the saddle for the rest of the day.

When we arrived at our campsite (a local cricket ground with toilets but no showers or power), in drizzling rain, I wondered about my own ability to survive the next two days. But the kids had their tents up in no time and their trangia stoves were soon cooking a gourmet array of beans, tinned spaghetti and noodles. A game of cricket in the gloom of dusk ended the day.

On Thursday we rode another 30 km through the beautiful Otway Ranges, up and then down into Skenes Creek.With hair pin bends at every turn and sheer drop offs from our side of the road, I was a nervous wreck and spent so much time watching and counting heads in the rear view mirror that I missed the majesty of the rain forest. The kids tell me however that it was an exciting and exhilirating experience to hurtle themselves down the side of the mountain without touching the brakes!

Our camp site in Skenes Creek was right on the beach which afforded tired legs with a welcome sea bath. It also had a shower block which was a relief to everyone's senses. Suprisingly, almost everyone was keen to ride the 6km and back into Apollo Bay along the Great Ocean Road that evening. Not surprisingly, everyone was also happy to take up the offer of fish and chips before bed.

On the last day we rode into Apollo Bay again and then drove to Forrest where everyone rode enough of the bike trails there to make up their 100km. Remarkably, in 3 days together, I didn't hear a single complaint and I didn't have to 'speak' to a single student in anyway but the positive.

So clearly everyone ( including the staff) had a great time. But what did they learn? As a YCDI school, the keys to success jump quickly to mind. Persistence; staying on that bike after the first 10km took bucket loads of it. Resilience; likewise. Confidence; you bet. Some of these kids have never ridden down the street let alone 100km. Success like that breeds confidence.Organisation; their bikes had to be in top shape and if they hadn't organised their food, they went hungry. And finally, Getting Along; speaks for itself if you can manage to spend 3 days with 22 unshowered classmates and teachers!

I can tell you there was a fair quota of numeracy involved in calculating mileage, speed, velocity and the percentage chances of rain. As for literacy, I heard a lot of really good stories and conversations during the two days :-) I also heard laughter and encouragement and cooperation. Not the things 15 yr olds are usually well known for at school.

The second activity I was involved in was 'The Christmas Elves'. During the week after the bike ride, the year 9s spent sometime in the kitchen whipping up batches of Christmas rum balls. These were wrapped in cellophane and the Years 5-7 students added a card of Christmas greetings. Then on Wednesday, everyone dressed in elfish finery and each year 9 led a group of 5-7s on a journey through town delivering the gifts to each household. The gifts were accompanied by some spirited carolling.

We thought this would be a fun way to provide some leadership opportunities and share some multi age comraderie while teaching the kids a little bit about altruism. I think the activity succeeded on both those counts but I don't think anyone anticipated how successful the activity would be from the recipients point of view.

We were inundated with thank yous from the townsfolk and even from some passing travellers.
One lady cried, another provided a song in return and yet another told the kids it was the first time she had felt the Christmas spirit in many years. Some insisted on giving the kids money (which they donated to a Breast Cancer fundraiser run by one of our Yr 8s the following day).

And so what, if any learning occurred here while the children were gone from their classrooms for the morning? One of the Year 6 boys summed it up. " I never realised you could have so much fun giving people stuff. I feel great!"
You know what they learnt? They learnt about Goodwill. The best Christmas lesson of all.

I'd love to hear about programs other schools are running to engage their students outside the traditional classroom.

What happens with the Year 9s at your school?