Experiential Learning | Being Prepared for the Social and Emotional Challenges of Life
I was first introduced to experiential education in high school when I begged my parents to enroll me in an Outward Bound (OB) course. I chose a 21-day kayaking/sailing course in late July of 1999. Even though I had self-selected to participate in the OB course I was pushed and challenged in many ways – mostly socially. I remember wanting the course, to never end and the group of people who I had bonded with to never forget. This experience, unbeknownst to me, had prepared me for coping with struggles and disappointments in my senior year of high school that may have otherwise been devastating.
Now more than ever, I realize the importance of being prepared for the social and emotional challenges that later adolescence and early adulthood present. As an advisor, activity leader, teacher, and adult at Gould I continue to live these struggles each year. When I work with students on orientation trips, afternoon hikes with the outing club, at Sunday River with ski patrol, and on Junior Four Point, it is crucial to help them identify how their reactions and skills help frame each new challenge. Later follow-up conversations entail asking questions and pushing self-reflection.
In college, my desire to get back to Outward Bound was stronger than ever, and I applied to be an instructor in 2001. Staff training the following spring was more challenging physically and mentally than my initial OB course and left me stronger and more mentally tough than I would otherwise be. For instance, intentionally capsizing a 30’ pulling boat underway in 50º F Penobscot Bay water, then righting it, and bailing it in full foul weather gear will be a moment forever etched in my memory. But yet again, I finished that training feeling bullet-proof and more closely connected to my fellow new instructors than any other friendships in my life thus far. I was hooked, I worked six summers following, attended staff training in Florida and during my March breaks instructed sailing courses in the Florida Keys. I also incorporated my passion for experiential education in my college work declaring a double major in History and Fine Arts with a European Studies minor. I studied abroad in London for a semester where I worked with a foundation that created sporting clubs and events for people with disabilities all around Greater London. I went back to school determined to anchor my thesis around the development of progressive education in the United States which led me to write a biography of Kurt Hahn. For this project, I was approved for a study grant to travel to the Gordonstoun School in Scotland and research directly from their archives.
This part of my life was very formative for me. However, it continues to shape my personal philosophy and pedagogy of education. In all of my past experiences learning is most powerful when it is authentic and meaningful, when there are both individual and social challenges to overcome, where honest feedback is provided in a timely fashion, and trust is shared among the community. Sitting on a pulling boat, on a damp foggy morning, after just dipping in the water, and sipping cowboy coffee is not my happy place because it is romantic, but because it offers a shared experience for the instructors and students. Each person sharing the space is committed to the cause, and crucial to the equation.
These moments are also felt at Gould between our students and faculty. When Junior Point solo is over, and kids and adults engage in a dialog about personal challenges and group goals, or in Ski Patrol when students learn to pull toboggans on challenging terrain and struggle to trust themselves but with careful and thoughtful teachers are able to navigate the glade. I am also proud that visiting Hurricane Island and working with the Hurricane Island Foundation for Science and Leadership in the spring has become a tradition at Gould. This is an opportunity for students to hone their leadership skills, get a taste of marine science, and embrace a powerful and special community. Students come away from this experience with new skills, friendships, and goals for their future. In each case, careful planning, direct feedback, and thoughtful reflection are crucial to the experiential learning process. Experiential education happens at Gould and I am excited to see how it can be taken further with authentic learning opportunities for our students.