Backpacks, Bow Ties and Beyond


photoI can still remember the rain drenched afternoon I realized I would devote my professional life/life to young people and education.  My wife and I were leading  six students in the remote backcountry of Alaska’s Chugach Range.  At a river’s edge 12 miles from the last human sighting (fairly good considering seeing a human at all was rare) I waded in to test the crossing.  On the other side of the river (still miles away) was a rare trapper’s cabin that I had (still) not made it to in my travels in Alaska. I “knew” that these dedicated 14-16 year olds would have “the experience of a lifetime” there.  At midstream in the river  I was waist deep in the river torrent shouldering a full Dana Designs Arcflex Astralplane Overkill pack and (at that time of my life;))built like a solid piece of muscle–it was unsafe…. but I wanted the cabin.  But as I glanced back at my group on the shore I let go of “my” world forever and looked into the eyes of learners for the first time.  What did I see?  A group of cold, scared, able, intelligent, caring and wonderful young people looking at me seeming to  say, “alright we will follow you….”.  I moved back to them from the torrent and words came out that were newly natural: “this is not going to work”.  Instead of testing my W-EMT by courting disaster with kids washed down a wild Alaskan river, we set up tarps on a river bar in the rain and ate burnt beans (yes I also cooked that night)….and thankfully were avoided by thousand pound brown bears.  As we ate, I said the words that changed my life forever….”let’s plan what we are going to do from here-together”. We had no schedule when I dropped mine, and beyond the obvious considerations of safety and health they were given the power to learn for their own sake.  In the future, I co-designed all of my wilderness programs and programs of any kind with learner control at the center. I became an educator.


Fast forward to my “classroom” experiences. I have learned little about young people in the structure of schools.  I have learned to be pained by what I have seen as “schooling” (from schedules to carrot and stick approaches in curriculum), watched confusion and complexity soak up the time and hearts of caring adults and young people….. I will stop here because  you know these issues, they are a litany of “softballs” thrown in education– they are the “cabins across the river” in education.  What did I do? I looked at the young people at the edge of new rivers.  I encouraged learning communities that did not have the boundary of the classrooms assigned, I refused to numerically judge students.  Instead, I saw the internet as a ubiquitous learning environment. I did then what is now called flipping, blended learning, and ePortfolio assessment.  I  needed to make learning as ubiquitous as I could, because I saw those eyes looking at me again and again–“alright we will follow you….”.  I gave and still give the freedom to students to tell me and their learning communities about their lives, weaving that life into the history, geography, global studies, information studies and interdisciplinary projects we undertake.  I didn’t give grades, instead narratives and facilitated constant feedback through peer assessment.  I could not do this all in the school structure.  I had to invent a wilderness experience on the internet.  So with some luck,  Moodle then Mahara, Basecamp, blogs, Twitter, Project Foundry and more we built communities that were integrative and start with the question “lets plan what we are going to do from here-together”.


Where we go from our places of Backpacks or Bowties is vital.  Private school, public school, unschool, homeschool, other programs aside, we have a mission to look into the eyes of the young people who have either decided or been compulsed to learn with us.  Your choices as adults and educators intensely matter and you will be challenged by school and at times even the students who have grown comfortable in the ease of traditional schooling.  The challenge is worth it.

My reflection here comes after meeting Deb Meier for the first time last week.  Deb is a champion of democratic education and a wise, wise elder in our collective community.  Her talk was an amazing blend of her common material, but also wildness.  After a long pause in her speech and seeming to drift with thought she said simply:  “our job as educators is to help create unconquerable humans”. Yes, unconquerable…., the words and meaning of these words are like a fresh mountain air to me.  Will the “beyonds” you design help create unconquerable humans?  Mine will.  But regardless of what you decide to do,  please always look back, see the young people you have dedicated your life to and I hope you hear yourself say “let’s plan what we are going to do from here-together”.

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