Superintendent’s Corner: BHS ExEd trips broaden horizons and foster new friendships
We were sitting around a campfire (Forest Service approved, of course) at about 9,000 feet, eating gooey high-altitude pasta and bantering as only high-schoolers, especially ninth-graders and like-minded high school teachers, can do. The group of Basalt High School students, their teacher, Eric Vozick, and I had summited a fourteener that day. Now we were winding down, enjoying the evening, learning the latest slang (sorry, I’m sworn to secrecy), and debating what time we would get up tomorrow.
The entire school had dispatched on similar adventures around the state: climbing peaks, rafting rivers, doing ropes courses, working on trails — whatever their teachers could dream up. In addition to the outdoor education experiences, some teachers and partner organizations taught yoga, self-defense classes, and led college visits to the big city. Many of our schools plan and lead similar experiential education trips throughout the year. The experiential education trips, which BHS calls ExEd, mixes students of different ages and backgrounds, and gives teachers a chance to see their strengths outside the classroom. It gives students a chance to see their teachers as three dimensional human beings, with interests, talents and quirks that don’t always come out in the classroom.
In addition to the fun and challenge of the trips, two or three days of uninterrupted time together gave students and teachers a chance to talk a lot, tell stories and really get to know one another.
I asked Mr. Vozick what benefits he sees from the ExEd trips. He cited community building and camaraderie; individual relationships that develop among students and staff; and learning new skills. He said, “For a lot of kids, it’s their first experience going to the outdoors, seeing college campuses, being on a river, or seeing wildlife in its natural habitat. Plus, it’s actively giving back through trailbuilding or service with Habitat for Humanity.”
Mr. Vozick explained that the BHS ExEd trip creates opportunities for him to connect with students in different ways. He recalled how the campfire games he played with students last year created an ongoing conversation with one student throughout the year. He had asked students to solve a puzzle. “Through the entire year, this one student never figured it out, but he wouldn’t let me tell him the answer. Finally he got it in May.” Mr. Vozick didn’t have that student in his class, but over time they built a relationship. For that student, Mr. Vozick became a trusted adult who got to know him and had an eye out for him. It tightened the safety net and gave that kid a stronger feeling of belonging to the school.
He told me about another student who didn’t enjoy a lot of success in school. “When you have some of the more challenging kids, it’s a great chance to see them in a whole new setting.” Back in the classroom, it gives a teacher new tools for understanding each student and better ways to make a connection.
Mr. Vozick’s observations, which I confirmed the couple of times I was able to tag along on ExEd trips, corresponded with the research on similar field experiences. In multiple studies, experiential learning outside of school has been shown to contribute to increased academic performance, teamwork skills, problem-solving abilities, and appreciation of the environment. It gives students time away from their screens and increases their interaction with more diverse peer groups. And things like climbing mountains or rafting rapids offer students and teachers a common metaphorical touchpoint for persevering through the more ephemeral challenges that school and life present.
I’m such a stickler for using our precious school time to maximize student learning, so it’s good to know that the benefits of experiential learning are so strong. In addition to costing a few days of school time, teachers spend a lot of time planning, packing, preparing food and supplies, and recruiting volunteers like me to make the trips happen at such a large scale. The trips definitely cut into family time, sports practices, and some parents worry about their kids being away in a strange environment for a few days. So it’s important that the time and effort pay off.
The next morning, a ranger approached us to make sure we were following rules and cleaning up after ourselves. He started out sternly, admonishing us about campsite etiquette and environmental impact. But as he interacted with our group, he warmed up. He gave us tips on hiking trails in the area, sites we shouldn’t miss, and ways to see wildlife. He pointed out a Georgia sweatshirt one of our students was wearing, and commiserated in his Georgia twang about the Bulldogs’ mediocre performance this year. By the time we left, he was urging us to return next year. Our students were excellent ambassadors for their school and community.
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools.
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