Experiential education has been a long held value of mine. I have been going on camping trips, doing team building activities, and solving puzzles for as long as I can remember. All through college I expressed that I was learning more outside the classroom than in it. In no way do I devalue traditional education – I’m a teacher right now, after all – but I am of the belief that children can learn best when placed in a context outside of the norm. When they can get their hands dirty with learning, both figuratively and literally, the lessons will stick better.
As one of my favorite education theorists, John Dewy, says “education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but is life itself.” Rarely do Shanti Bhavan children get to realize that education IS life itself. We live in a bubble of standardized testing and excelling for an abstract goal: bettering themselves for the sake of their futures, their family’s livelihood, and India’s potential. While this is beautiful and ambitious, we often forget that these kids are just that, kids. While they grow up in an incredibly loving environment – in a class with inseparable bonds like that of family – they know little outside these walls. When they go home they remember what it is like to live in poverty and why they study as hard as they do. They return to Shanti Bhavan and get right back in to the grind. Few have left the state of Tamil Nadu. Fewer have been on a train. A handful have been able to leave the country for opportunities provided to them by Shanti Bhavan. The field trips we take them on have all entailed tours of companies or conversations with business professionals.
Last week, I had the opportunity to offer my children something different. A few months ago a dear friend from The Mountain School messaged me, saying that “The Garden Hill Fund” sounded perfect for me and Shanti Bhavan. The only requirements were to live out the mission of TMS and “serve the greater good.” So I went out on a limb and found some outdoor ed programs in Bangalore. I sat down with the 11th grade Business students and used this as a learning opportunity to introduce the idea and writing style of a grant. In the process, I discovered Shanti Bhavan’s former connection with Pegasus Institute, an outdoor education camp located outside of Bangalore run by an ex-military official with a big heart for CSR. They offered to fund our expenses at their learning institute.
I think this was the first school secret I’ve been able to keep from the kids! I didn’t tell them we were going until two days before, and only after I’d sufficiently frightened them into thinking they were in trouble. Their faces went from nervous to pure glee the moment I said the word “Pegasus.” They’d heard of this trip from some of their seniors, but it had been years since a class got the chance to go. After distributing torches (flashlights) and extra sweaters from the volunteers the kids were prepped for an adventure of a life time.
On the ride to Pegasus I was reminded of just how unique of an opportunity this was. One of the girls in my car, Preetha, kept repeating “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful before in my life!” and others could not stop remarking on the mountains we were passing (in any other context they would be considered large hills, but I didn’t have the heart to tell them that.) When we arrived we were greeted with tea and coffee and biscuits, and immediately realized how spoiled we would become that week.
The first activity we attempted was the classic ropes course “spider web.” We split in to four teams and were given the goal of getting all of Shanti Bhavan from the southern side of the web to the northern side, without going through each hole more than once. This entailed a lot of lifting each other and trusting your teammates not to drop you. After every activity we re-grouped to grapple with what we learned. Anushya reflected “I’ve always been responsible or myself and had my feet planted firmly on the ground. All of a sudden I found myself depending on other people. At first I tense up, but then I realize that my teammates were supporting me and I could trust them.”
After some time to rest and a good game of volleyball we went for a night trek. It was the first time most children had ever gone hiking. We let our eyes begin to adjust to the moonlight, took a few torches for safety, and started on a hike up the “mountain.” A few of the girls in my exercise group assured me that our running helped them get up the hill in one piece. We reached the top in no time and there was much rejoicing. Group photos – mostly selfies – depicted our success, and many people got shots of themselves holding the moon. We could have stayed on that summit all evening. But instead, we had to get back down for a delicious Indian dinner around the camp fire.
There are few things that promise me a better day than when I see the sunrise, so I proposed a morning trek. Even though clouds masked the sun’s full beauty, racing the sun up a mountain with 35 of my favorite teenagers started the day better than I could have dreamt.
Next we climbed in the back of a truck to be driven to a large boulder for rappelling. I would estimate that at least half of the students have a fear of heights, but most of them were excited regardless. I tightened harnesses and tested helmets and cheered my children on. But, not everyone was excited. One of my dear 12th grade girls refused to try the activity and another was crying on the top of the rock terrified to go down. After long conversations and words of encouragement I convinced them to rappel. I think they found it worth it, though they might try to tell you otherwise. Regardless, every Shanti Bhavan kid learned what it is like to face a fear head on, and why we choose to overcome them. Some said they just wanted to know if they could do it, others explained they knew they wouldn’t get this chance for another long time, and all of them realized the retrospective value of trying something outside your comfort zone.
The afternoon’s activities were team-building oriented. For one activity we got blindfolded and had to verbally organize 16 odd-shaped objects by color. We were split in to two teams and when the first succeeded the task in 12 minutes the second proposed they could do it in 10. Our instructor chose to push them harder, explaining that they learned from our mistakes and could aim to beat the camp record of 8 minutes. Instead, the kids were willing to settle. Upon reflection, however, they realized that while setting their goals in a safe zone worked, they could have done better if they’d strived for more.
For another activity, we had to get the entire school from one side of a field to the other using only large metal cans and wooden planks. This is where I began to see the shift in their thought process and how the children interacted with each other. The first change was discovering that not everyone had to make their own mistakes: we can learn from observing others and benefit from their faults. But, the most miraculous moment was the tipping point between competition – the focus on “me and my team” – to cooperation among the whole entity. This is a trait that continued to grow over the few days we were at Pegasus, and I hope to see fostered back at school.
That evening we put on a hysterical “cultural performance.” The kids performed everything from skits, to dances, to songs. In true summer camp style I introduced the game “light as a feather stiff as a nail” to my group and we crafted a whole skit around learning the importance of team work via lifting a classmate in the air each using only two fingers. It’s so fun to have a fresh audience for these tricks. The campfire that evening was followed by endless song, but was made even more special with a homemade ladu birthday cake for Viji.
Already it was our last day at camp, and the kids were not ready for the fun to end. Once again we got up for a sunrise hike, but this time went to a nearby lake, skipping stones, and singing songs. The morning’s activity pulled much of what we’d been learning together. Two of the students appointed themselves leaders, and they had to choose 6 other team leaders by stating what qualities that person had to make them a good pick. The choosing continued to form the 6 teams – stating traits each team player possesses to create a strong and cohesive group. Looking back on the activity, one of the group leaders Sowmani recognized that “we don’t always get to choose our teams in life, but we can always identify and use others’ strengths.”
From there, the activity began. We were given 15 wooden planks and a basic diagram on how they should all fit together. My team just started playing with it, and after a few minutes Anushya, one of the self-elected leaders, came through to tell us that after 110 minutes we would have to put the puzzle together in front of everyone, and collectively all 6 teams would have to do it in less than 240 seconds. Meaning we were all aiming to put our individual puzzles together in 20 seconds.
My team leader was Aaron. At first he was wary of what to do – should he help us build the puzzle or take charge of it or watch and give suggestions? Initially he settled in being the stopwatch timer and filling us in on the information we were getting from Anushya and Akash. But after watching us struggling to complete the puzzle quickly without his participation, he questioned himself: “What am I doing? I should be working with them” he later told me. He continued, “I learned to lead properly. You have to work with your team and accept your own faults.” Just as our team was becoming very quick, we were told that one of the other teams broke a plant. It instantly set us back. All of my students were fretting about how they were going to pay for it and how mad Ms. Beena was going to be. Eventually we took a deep breath, got back on track, and succeeded at our best time of 17 seconds. My heart had not beat as quickly as it did when all the teams gathered for the moment of truth since watching the last 2 minutes of the UNC-Duke basketball game last year.
On the first try, we far exceeded our target time. One team was seriously struggling. The leaders gathered and rearranged our order so that the slow team didn’t feel pressure. The second try some teams sped up, but one was disqualified from the round because of not following directions. We only had one more chance. On our last trial all 6 teams put their puzzles together in a total of 130 seconds, beating our goal by nearly 100 seconds!
Each student learned so much from the activity: how to be aware of our surroundings, the need to listen and respect others’ opinions, everyone is capable and therefore should be empowered to participate, that good leaders make a good team, and that we must accept people the way they are and not the way we want them to be. I learned how adept my students are at reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses, allowing themselves to align personal direction with that of their team’s.
The whole week was a remarkable success. I am so pleased that Pegasus will become an annual event, and that The Mountain School grant will allow children of all ages at SB to experience some form of experiential education. Outdoor education has a unique power to let children challenge their inhibitions, recognize their potential, and grow in an expanse of ways.