Experiential Education: 70 Hours In the NC Mountains

Dear Future Teachers,


I apologize for the delayed post! Students within the MAT program at UNC have recently wrapped up their Experiential Education (EE) Week, so I've been spending some much needed time catching up on assignments and settling back into the routine of school. I've mentioned EE Week in previous posts, but today I will be expanding on what EE Week is and sharing some of my learnings from the week! So far in my program, EE Week has been my absolute favorite experience and I am excited to share this life-changing trip with you all!


gif

Background Info


EE Week is a week scheduled into the UNC MAT program. The MAT cohort is able to choose between 2-3 opportunities to embark on for their week. The consistent options over the years have been exploring the Durham Museum of Life and Science or signing up to participate in a 5-day course with the NC Outward Bound School! I selected NC Outward Bound, which was a little outside of my comfort zone as I have never gone camping before.


Outward Bound is not limited to those within the MAT program, it is its own organization that branches out through different states in the U.S. An extremely generous donor pays for UNC MAT students to attend this 5-day course. The only financial responsibility students will incur is the clothing for hiking if they did not already own the required materials (i.e. hiking boots, trekking pants, etc.). The Outward Bound School provided the rest of the materials such as the backpacks, tarps, dishes, water bottles, food, sleeping bags, and other materials necessary for the camp site. We also would not have access to our technological devices, meaning we were completely disconnected from the world. No prior experience camping experience was necessary, but the trip still sounded daunting.


The Trip

There was a lot of anxiety leading up to the trip. I personally wasn't really sure what to expect exactly. I knew our course would take place over 5 days, I knew we would be rock climbing, and I knew we were going to be participating in "Leave No Trace" camping practices, so we were learning how to camp without negatively impacting the environment too much. We were informed that we would be sleeping in tarps that we would learn how to set up, and outside of basic sanitary practices (i.e. washing hands, brushing teeth), we would be going without the privileges of using indoor plumbing or showers. Needless to say, I was terrified and apprehensive about enjoying the trip.


On the morning of Day 1, we drove up to meet the Outward Bound director in Morganton, NC. From there, we were split up into 2 predetermined groups and bussed for another hour and a half to the mountain we would be spending our trip on. Upon arrival to the woods, we met our course instructors and went over the supplies we would be carrying on our course. They provided a very comprehensive introduction to packing supplies and making sure crew supplies was equitably distributed amongst the group. As individuals, we set our intentions for what we hoped to gain from the trip. Finally, we were off, hiking to our first camp site. We learned how to tie knots and set up our sleeping tarps, and we learned how to safely operate the kitchen materials. Our instructors cooked for us the first night as we settled into our crews. I found it hard to believe I was on this trip with peers I only ever had surface interactions with in class. Lingering anxiety made it a little hard to sleep that night.


On day 2, we had 30 minutes to wake up, break down our sleeping site, and circle up for breakfast and lessons. We learned how to begin to read maps of the trails we would be hiking and how to u our compasses to orient the maps as well as orient ourselves. I had never used these materials before, nor had I hiked on trails that didn't have very clearly marked paths. We were allowed to ask our instructors for support as the second day was mostly learning the procedures in navigating as a crew. Once we were prepped, we began our hike. I've hiked before, but it didn't compare to the steep terrain we were traveling with 50+ pounds on our backs. We made several stops as a crew when anyone needed a bit of a break. Two members of our crew also volunteered to be cooks, two reminded us when to take water breaks, and two operated as visionaries, checking in with the whole group to adjust our hiking pace or check the maps like we had been taught. Finally, we reached our camp site for the evening, and we had even more skills to learn! After setting up our tarps, we learned how to collect creek water and filter it to be safe to drink. We also learned how to set up a bear hang to protect our food. I felt a lot more comfortable with my crew at this point, and was relishing the break from my phone and laptop. Before bed, we even played a game where we got to know each other more! I was pleasantly surprised with how great my crew seemed to be getting along.


The third day of our trip was one of the most challenging and emotional days of my entire life. We woke up early, and I was one of the cooks, so I prepared everyone's breakfast. We huddled together to map out our path for the day. Our instructors were slightly more hands off, allowing us to rely more on each other as a group. We had an appointment to rock climb in the afternoon, so we had to start hiking early in order to make it in a timely manner. The hike was TOUGH. It was very steep and we were sore from carrying the weight of the packs during the previous day. Physically and mentally, it was difficult to push through, but everyone remained positive and encouraging. We helped each other out and made sure everyone could keep up with the pace. We were making such good time on our hike that we were able to summit Table Rock, which had a breathtaking view.

Image is the gorge filled with green forest trees seen from top of Table Rock.
Picture taken by Outward Bound Director on top of Table Rock.

Crew sitting in a circle, speaking with one another on the rocks, overlooking the gorge on top of Table Rock.
My crew bonding and celebrating our summit!

The day wasn't even halfway over, but my crew felt euphoric for the remainder of the hike to rock climbing. The closer we got to our rock climbing site, the more difficult and rocky our path became. We were also closer to steep drop-offs, which made me incredibly nervous with my fear of heights. My crew members were incredible, though. I never felt alone and they helped me to feel safe and supported. I didn't know how I could possibly rock climb when the height felt so petrifying. Once we reached the site, I didn't think there was any way that I would be strapping into the harness and scaling the mountain. The instructors modeled the entire process for us before putting us into small groups to climb, but I wasn't feeling enthusiastic. I watched two of my group members climb, and I helped belay them! However, I didn't think I had enough courage to follow their footsteps and make the climb.


Outward Bound had a mantra about "perceived vs. actual risk". They had many safety procedures and they told us the actual risk of danger in rock climbing was incredibly low. If one was a little apprehensive about climbing, they would ask "What's stopping you?" and gently encourage us to take just one more step forward. Eventually, I decided to attempt a climb. I was determined that I would go no more than 5-10 feet off of the ground. As I climbed, my small group shouted affirmations and encouragement to me. I didn't look down, but I was feeling like I could push myself to climb just a bit higher. At a point, I was super close to the highest point they were letting us climb to. I was motivated by the continued cheers from my crew and felt that I had already come so far, I didn't want to back out now. After a little bit of struggle, I shimmied my way up a crevice and onto the rock our instructors told us to stop at! I made it all the way, and it was thrilling. I still couldn't look back down toward the ground, but I felt so proud of myself. The hardest part was having to repel back down, but my group and instructors guided and affirmed me the entire way. I hit the bottom with a lot of tears, but also with a lot of pride in what I was able to accomplish with this group.


After our rock climbing excursion came to an end, our instructors delivered some upsetting news... due to the strengthening of Hurricane Ian, we would have to leave our course the next morning. Along with fears for everyone impacted by the hurricane, it was also really upsetting to have to leave the mountains so soon. Many of us were disappointed in having to leave, although everyone agreed that we would rather be safe and leave before the storm officially hit our location. Due to the shortened trip, we also had to speed up our scheduled events for the remainder of the course.


First, we were supposed to complete a navigation as a crew without the help of our instructors. We ended up completing this navigation on the way to our camp site for the night. The trail we were to navigate was super challenging, and we were all tired from our day and bummed out with the news of the hurricane. It took a couple of hours, and we had a few disagreements on the proper direction to take, but we successfully navigated to our camp site! It was beginning to get dark, but we had a few more activities to complete before we could go to bed.


Second, we completed what is known as a "solo." This activity can look different on various courses, but for the purposes of our condensed course, our solo took place completely in the dark. The instructors select a part of the woods for each crew member to sit in. We are separated from one another, unable to communicate or see each other. We also gave up our watches so that we would not be watching the time go by. We were allowed to have our personal gear to sit with, as well as a journal to write in. We spent nearly 2 hours in our solo, reflecting and learning how to sit with the silence. Solo proved to be a new challenge in itself. I was a little anxious being alone in the dark, but my instructors were extremely comforting when they delivered me to my solo spot. Back home, I'm constantly overstimulated with news, social media, emails, class, and student teaching. I take very little time to disconnect. During solo, I had no choice but to sit with my thoughts and emotions. While a little scary at first, I actually really liked the quiet. The time passed relatively quickly, and before I left my solo spot, I knew that I would miss living in that moment, completely disconnected and able to relax.


Finally, we ended the night with a group reflection, and sharing positive thoughts about one another. Sitting with my crew, I was amazed with how comfortable and happy I felt. I never could have guessed how quickly and easily we would be able to bond and trust one another. I thought a lot about how collaboration is so vital to the field of education, and I was glad to be in a crew with such inspiring and uplifting future educators.


Lessons Learned

There were so many little moments and experiences that I was not able to capture in this one blog post, but I wanted to wrap up this post with some lessons I'm taking into my personal life and my classroom as an educator!

  • Take time each day to reflect and/or meditate. While it's not always feasible (or safe!) to take time to solo in the woods by yourself for 2 hours, it's important to make some time for reflection and disconnection from our various devices and responsibilities. Right now I'm spending between 5-10 minutes a day without any technology and without completing a task. I sit by myself and focus on my breathing, enjoying the silence, and being intentional with not overstimulating myself.

  • Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Each day in the classroom, we ask our students to go outside of their comfort zone in some way. However, we, as teachers, may find ourselves staying within our own comfort zone and not challenging ourselves. While not everyone will be able to go on a journey such as Outward Bound, try to find ways to challenge yourself and go outside of your comfort zone! It will help you relate to your students and you can learn new skills.

  • Collaborate. It may seem easy to stay within your own classroom and not ask for help or work with others. However, teaching should be collaborative. Whether it's with your same grade, same subject, or with different people within the school, collaboration can transform your pedagogy and practices. There is always something you can learn from others, but also it's a great way to create a supportive environment within other educators. It may also be a way that you push yourself out of your comfort zone!

I hope to carry the lessons and memories from NC Outward Bound for many years to come. To go from apprehension to genuine excitement and participation was truly a transformative experience. I'm glad that UNC provides this opportunity and I hope that in some way, all future and current teachers will have their own powerful experiences that can change their perspectives on life and the classroom. If you'd like to hear more about the Outward Bound experience, you can chat with me via the Contact Form on my Home Page or via email at dearfutureteachers@gmail.com.


Much Love,


Ms. Banks