Monday, July 2, 2018

Lessons in Patience and Failure at EOEC

Most of my final week of school was spent at Albion Hills at the Etobicoke Outdoor Education Centre with the Grade 8s for their graduation trip. This was an amazing and exhaustive three days and two nights with superstar educator Dean Roberts (you've read about him on my blog here) and nineteen fantastic intermediate division students.The program and activities were active and challenging. Students played lacrosse and archery, rode fat tire bikes along forest trails, performed skits during our campfire and searched for hidden clues using GPS technology.

The sunset on Tuesday evening at Albion Hills

 The staff at EOEC were wonderful. I can't say enough great things about
  • Lynda = our first friendly face we met and our "wise woman of the woods"
  • Dean = more machine than man (he led two 6 km, 4 hour bike rides in two days!) but had such rich perspectives and life experiences to share
  • Dave = congratulations on your retirement, sir, and thank you for the stories!
  • Jim = leading with wry humour and knowledge; enjoy your new site next school year!
  • Abbey = organized official, ready for anything (and thankfully, no puke!)
  • Kristina = my "co-nurse", comforting those with bites and itches so professionally and empathetically
  • Jamie = my "book buddy" who read Optimists Die First in a day and a half and took time to chat with me about the plot and characters
  • Bronte = my rock of encouragement with only kind words who patiently watched me slooooooowly chug up the hill on the bike (making it only sometimes) and supported my attempts
Dean, me and the great kitchen staff
Me, Jamie, and the book we loved!

This blog will focus on what I saw Chris do. Chris Mermer led one of the two groups in our teamwork challenge. I know it's popular in some quarters to mock team-building exercises, but when lead well and taken seriously, there can be a lot of growth for the participants. Watching Chris in action reminded me about the importance of not jumping in to "save" students as they struggle with how to solve a problem. 

Teamwork isn't easy. As Chris reviewed with the group, teamwork involves all the character traits that TDSB promotes. Chris taught an acronym to use to help remember the process: U.B.O.J. (Understand the Problem, Brainstorm, Organize, Just Do It). The group I was with consisted of nine students, four boys and five girls. Four of those girls were English Language Learners. Communication is key to teamwork. When some of your teammates are reluctant to speak and others are more keen to jump in on tackling the task than on surveying quiet peers, then it makes for an interesting conundrum. 

Chris never scolded the students when they forgot to listen to each other or became fixated on repeating the same strategy repeatedly without altering it. The first thing he'd do is wait. He waited. Then he'd wait some more. After each activity, he'd group the participants in a circle and lead some reflection. 

Occasionally he'd remind the students about the observations from the previous reflection cycle. Once in a blue moon, Chris would ask a probing (but not leading) question. 

I kept quiet, but it was hard. The urge to help was strong. Here are a few of the many, many photos I took of their work together. I deliberately tried not to share here any of "solutions" they came up with, so that the images aren't "spoilers". The names of these tasks may not be accurate; these are based on the way Chris described them to the students.

Crossing the Hot Chocolate on Marshmallows

Students had to get from one spot to another but could only travel using three small hula hoops. No students could be left behind.

 Monkeys Gathering Fruit From Trees

Students had to reach a tree, using only ropes and a wire to walk on, and then make it to the next tree (there were three trees, in a triangle) while other monkey teams were also walking and gathering simultaneously.

Sharing Shrinking Space

Teams had to make sure everyone could stand on a small platform without touching the ground.

Balance Beam

The group had to load everyone onto a seesaw-like contraption and get it to balance evenly.

Remove the King's Ring from his Finger

For this task, students had to figure out how to get the "ring" up and off the long pole, without either the ring or their hands touching the pole. The ring also had to come off in a "controlled manner" (i.e. not flicking it off wildly) As Chris observed and helped students reflect on their own progress before, he made a new rule for this challenge - only the girls were allowed to talk.

I think teachers who aren't involved with outdoor education regularly feel the time crunch and are tempted to provide hints so that the group can "move on". Thankfully, Chris prevented me from even asking questions during this task. There was a lot of wait time, but once the students realized that Chris wasn't going to quit unless the girls talked and started to make suggestions, then, slowly they did. At first they got into a "rut" by trying only one method with the same people in the same roles, but eventually, their thinking branched out a bit and they were able to succeed. Chris never let us feel that we were going to "miss out" on other challenges by taking so long with this one. He also ensured that the students focused on themselves as a group, instead of comparing themselves to other groups. Occasionally they'd ask "Did we solve this faster than other groups?" or similar questions where they wanted to evaluate their performance based on other teams from the past. Chris gently discouraged that sort of assessment. It wasn't about that sort of a contest - it was a challenge for them as a team.

Their last task was super-challenging but most of the photos I took of it would reveal too many tricks or techniques. It was great to see them using some of the collaboration tools (like standing in a circle to discuss strategies, or using a talking stick to ensure all voices and ideas offered were heard). Big thanks to Chris and everyone from EOEC for making this a fun trip and a useful learning experience.

The EOEC staff waving goodbye to us on the bus

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