Saturday, September 27, 2014

Chewonki Harvest Dinner

Around two months ago, I was asked to reserve the night of September 25th for something called a Harvest Dinner.  I plugged the date into my calendar, but it was only later that I found out I would be speaking about FLOW at the event.  I'm a little bit superstitious, so it worried me to be planning a celebratory speech for something that had not yet even happened.  So, I didn't prepare.  I had already been talking about the idea of FLOW to a variety of audiences for over 18 months, and I thought I would wait to see how the actual trip went on week #1  and adjust my comments based on that experience.  That turned out to be a good decision.

The seed for FLOW was planted when I worked as an instructor for Outward Bound in the 1990s.   I led 14 year old students up into the Cascade Mountains of Washington on 22-day backcountry mountaineering courses.  These courses were intense, and in the beginning, pretty hard on kids.  Backpacking in that era, before the development of ultra-light gear, was a grueling affair.  As we marched into the mountains on day #1, our packs  between 40 and 70 pounds, there were swears, blisters, and often tears.  For those kids who made it to the end of the 22 days, the experience was a tremendous achievement.  I will never forget the transformation that each of these students made over the course of those three weeks, but I will also remember those kids who didn't make it for one reason or another, and went home.  I wondered how we could provide an experience similar to these Outward Bound courses, but with less suffering. 

Time marched on and I became a public school teacher 8 years after instructing my last Outward Bound Course.  In 2013 I had the privilege of attending the Expeditionary Learning National Conference in Baltimore.  It was here that I connected with other teachers from around the US who were finding ways to get their kids involved in outdoor adventures as part of their school experience.  I was inspired and empowered, and came back to Bath with a mission.

I approached our superintendent and the principals of both middle schools with the general idea of getting our 8th graders out on weeklong trips each year.  The reaction I received was favorable, but there were many hurdles.  Who would pay?  Where would we get the equipment?  How would we handle conflicts with sports and academics?

I originally had the ambitious (and misguided) idea that I could run a sea kayaking trip for 8th graders all by myself.  I applied for a grant to buy 50 kayaks and all the gear needed to outfit them.  Thankfully, I did not receive the grant.  Instead, Andy Bezon of Chewonki reached out to me to see if our organizations might be able to work together. Over the course of the next year and a half, a group of teachers and administrators from BMS, WCS and Chewonki pieced together FLOW, a weeklong salt water canoe trip.   

So to prepare for my brief address to the Harvest Dinner guests, I spent some time reflecting on the experience I had had with the kids during week #1 of FLOW.  I reread the Expeditionary Learning Design Principles.  I looked at The Chewonki Foundation's Mission Statement.

Design Principles

Learning happens best with emotion, challenge and the requisite support. People discover their abilities, values, passions, and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students undertake tasks that require perseverance, fitness, craftsmanship, imagination, self-discipline, and significant achievement. A teacher’s primary task is to help students overcome their fears and discover they can do more than they think they can.
Teaching in Expeditionary Learning schools fosters curiosity about the world by creating learning situations that provide something important to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.
Learning is both a personal process of discovery and a social activity. Everyone learns both individually and as part of a group. Every aspect of an Expeditionary Learning school encourages both children and adults to become increasingly responsible for directing their own personal and collective learning.
Learning is fostered best in communities where students’ and teachers’ ideas are respected and where there is mutual trust. Learning groups are small in Expeditionary Learning schools, with a caring adult looking after the progress and acting as an advocate for each child. Older students mentor younger ones, and students feel physically and emotionally safe.
All students need to be successful if they are to build the confidence and capacity to take risks and meet increasingly difficult challenges. But it is also important for students to learn from their failures, to persevere when things are hard, and to learn to turn disabilities into opportunities.
Individual development and group development are integrated so that the value of friendship, trust, and group action is clear. Students are encouraged to compete, not against each other, but with their own personal best and with rigorous standards of excellence.
Both diversity and inclusion increase the richness of ideas, creative power, problem-solving ability, and respect for others. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students investigate and value their different histories and talents as well as those of other communities and cultures. Schools and learning groups are heterogeneous.
A direct and respectful relationship with the natural world refreshes the human spirit and teaches the important ideas of recurring cycles and cause and effect. Students learn to become stewards of the earth and of future generations.
Students and teachers need time alone to explore their own thoughts, make their own connections, and create their own ideas. They also need to exchange their reflections with other students and with adults.
We are crew, not passengers. Students and teachers are strengthened by acts of consequential service to others, and one of an Expeditionary Learning school’s primary functions is to prepare students with the attitudes and skills to learn from and be of service.
Copyright © 2003 by Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound. 

Chewonki inspires transformative growth, teaches appreciation and stewardship of the natural world, and challenges people to build thriving, sustainable communities throughout their lives.

Moments before I walked up to the front of the room, a friend sitting at my table told me to focus on what I thought were the five most important aspects of FLOW.  So I quickly jotted them down.

  1. Giving kids the opportunity to spend time in nature.
  2. Encouraging kids to take reasonable risks and to challenge themselves.
  3. Providing experiences that encourage and build community.
  4. Building in children the character traits of perseverance and grit.
  5. Instilling a positive connection to the place where we live.
Photo © Monica Wright
After my talk, a number of people came up to me to congratulate me and thank me for providing this experience to the children of our community.  But I don't consider myself a visionary.  The effects of spending time adventuring outside have been analyzed extensively,  and the findings show an overall positive change for both individuals and groups.  The most compelling effect is a reduction in stress, a benefit that I would argue is quite important for teenagers.  I thought it was fitting that I came across this article today.  It is yet another study that shows that people who hike are happier.

Thanks to Chewonki for asking me to speak and feeding all of us a wonderful (and local) meal.  But especially,  thanks for making the commitment to work with RSU 1 for at least the next ten years, touching  the lives of as many as 1,500 kids from our community.  It's an exciting time to be teaching at RSU 1, but maybe even a more exciting time to be a student here!

Photo © Lawrence Kovacs
Photo © Lawrence Kovacs

Photo © Monica Wright


  1. Thank YOU Mr. Kovacs! I hope Zeb is having the time of his life.

  2. It sounds like it was a great week. I hope Zeb enjoyed it!