Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Power of Perspective

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

We can all benefit from getting away.  Traveling asks us to try new things, to be tolerant of different ways of living, and to see unfamiliar places with open eyes.  Ironically though, being away leads us to reflect on our lives back at home.

When I went back to graduate school, I had the intention of becoming that teacher who got kids outside to learn as often as possible.  My years as an Outward Bound Instructor taught me the power of learning and adventuring in nature, and I wanted to bring this experience to a broader audience.    For six years as a third grade teacher, I took my students outside to hike through the  foliage in the fall, to look for animal signs on snowshoes in the winter, and to observe muddy vernal pools in the spring.  These little jaunts were wonderful, but I wanted to do more and to reach out to greater numbers of kids.

In 2009 I took a leave of absence from my third grade teaching position so I could travel with my family to Cuzco, Peru where we lived for the school year.   My new status as an unemployed expat in Peru was a welcome contrast to my full life as a school teacher in Maine.  On any given day back home, I would be busy planning lessons, grading, emailing, paying bills, taking a graduate class, fixing up our old house and driving our children to and from lessons.  But in Cuzco, we lived out of suitcases in a small rental apartment and spent our early days figuring out ordinary things like how to buy food and cook, how to navigate the neighborhood, and how to do laundry.  For the first time in a long time, I had the mental space available to contemplate what might be.

Distance may make the heart grow fonder, but it also sharpens the focus of the mind's eye.  Living in Cuzco, an ancient city built in a bowl-shaped valley ringed by rocky peaks,  I found myself nostalgic for Maine.  I missed the crashing surf on the rocks at Reid State Park.  I dreamed about the frosted trees lining the sides of ski trails, the creaking of their frozen limbs muffled by the snow.  I longed for the smell of pine sap and freshly fallen maple leaves.  As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, I became more and more aware of what a special place Maine is.  My mind began to work overtime thinking about how I could get children to see what I was seeing: their place through new eyes.

At some point during that year away, my attention turned to The Chewonki Foundation.  Chewonki  is a world class outdoor education organization, and its headquarters is located just fifteen minutes from most of the schools in RSU 1.  Why, I wondered, were we not working with this amazing resource?  One thing led to another.  I reached out to Superintendent Manuel and the principals of BMS and WCS.  I met with Andy Bezon, Greg Shute and Lisa Packard from Chewonki to map out an 8th grade canoe trip.  I spoke at school board meetings and planned extensively with the 8th grade faculty.

You know how the rest of this story turned out.

Year one of FLOW has just wrapped up, and ninety-six 8th grade students took us up on the offer of  getting away for a week.  "Away" though, as it turns out, was just four miles from school.  In a place like Bath, Maine, you don't have to go very far to get away from it all.

So now, my hope and my prediction is that the cycle will continue.  It took a year in Peru for me to recognize the wealth of possibilities we have here in Maine, and I returned home with a purpose.  For the students who participated in FLOW, what will the experience do for them?  What possibilities and pathways will open up for these kids that might not have otherwise been there?  Time will tell, but for now I know they came home happy, more aware of the need to protect fresh water,  and proud to have lived out on the islands for a week.  I have to believe they also came home with a new level of appreciation for just how special this world is, and how lucky we are to live in this part of it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The 17th Day of Every Month

I was talking in the hall at BMS with Jenny Galasso yesterday morning as she was preparing for her week of chaperoning students on FLOW.  Jenny is a highly organized science teacher, and I had offered to help her get her plans ready for her substitute teacher.  We were chatting as we collated papers and updated resources on websites used for student research.  At one point the subject came up of the challenge students face in bringing the big learnings from FLOW back to school life.  The tendency, we agreed, is to compartmentalize experiences like FLOW that are outside our normal routines.  As if on cue, Steven walked by.

Steven is an 8th grade student who until two weeks ago had never canoed and never slept in a tent.    Steven didn't have a raincoat (we found one for him) and was having difficulty coming up with the $50 tuition for the trip.  But he was willing to try FLOW because it sounded fun, different, interesting.  He was one of the 33 students who attended FLOW during its first week.  Steven offered up his hand for a high-five as he walked by and I asked him, "Hey, would you rather be back out on the water right now?"  He looked me dead in the eye and with a smile blurted "TOTALLY."  I explained what Jenny and I were discussing and asked him how he thought we could get kids to bring the feelings of togetherness and camaraderie back to school with them after FLOW.  He said simply: "October 17th."

"October 17th?" I asked.

"Yeah,"  said Steven, matter of factly.  "That was the day we really came together as a group, on September 17th.  We decided on that day that even though we weren't really friends before, we were really glad we got to know each other on the trip and that we would stay friends forever.  Our group made a pact with Mr. Hamilton (BMS Guidance Counselor and chaperone for Steven's group) to have lunch together all year long on the 17th day of every month."

Out of the corner of my eye I saw my fellow teacher's upper lip quiver for a moment.  I felt a lump in my throat too.

Steven wasn't saying those words to get a rise out of us.  He was being real.  And for an 8th grade boy, being real is a big deal.

Later that day I was over at Woolwich Central School in the 7/8 grade wing.  I saw some familiar faces as I moved through the halls,  and they greeted me with little smiles and "good mornings."   As I was leaving, Kyle Beeton (WCS Language Arts teacher and FLOW chaperone) stuck his head out of his door and asked me to come into his classroom for a moment.  He was leading a discussion about agricultural and industrial water use when I came in, his students sitting in a semicircle around him on the floor.  He stopped the discussion and asked the students if they had something to say to me.  In unison, they chanted:  "THANK YOU Mr. Kovacs!!"

"I can't tell you all how much I appreciate that," was all I could muster.  And I meant it.  I involuntarily placed my fist in the center of my chest, over my heart.  I asked if any of the kids might be willing to talk about FLOW with 6th and 7th graders to prepare them well in advance for their turn in 8th grade.  Every single hand shot up.

As the last FLOW group of 2014 reaches the halfway mark, it's obvious that this trip has struck a chord with both our 8th grade students and the community at large.  Parents have stopped me on the street to thank me for providing this experience for their child.  Teachers and chaperones have been thrilled with the trip.  Friends and strangers have reached out to offer donations for FLOW because they see the intrinsic value in the experience.

And just like the students whose challenge is to apply the lessons learned on FLOW to their everyday lives, we have the responsibility to look carefully at the trip and think about ways to sustain it, improve it, and recognize it as an important part of growing up in Bath.  Maybe more of us should make a pact to get together for lunch on the 17th day of every month.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Another Successful Week

Today started out cloudy and cool, the grey mist a perfect canvas for the blazing reds, yellows and oranges of the leaves changing on the trees.  My dog tracked the morning dew onto the kitchen floor as I let him back in and I thought about this week's FLOW groups, wondering if everyone was staying warm and dry.

I made space in my morning schedule to head over to Chewonki in time to welcome the kids back to civilization.  I arrived a bit early, and was able to sit alone at the waterfront, watching the outgoing tide carry the water of Montsweag Bay to the ocean.  It felt familiar yet odd to be here again, just two weeks since my own group landed in the same spot.  The last time I was here I smelled like wood smoke, sunscreen and saltwater.  My feet were wet and muddy, and my arms both tired and strengthened from a week of loading and paddling canoes.  This time I was fresh out of the shower and dressed in my "teacher clothes,"  khakis with a button down shirt and sensible black shoes.  I walked over to the fleet of upside down canoes and ran my hand along their hulls.  The scratches and dings on the boats hinted at stories about the places they had been, and the people they had carried.
Photo © Lawrence Kovacs

I self-consciously pulled my iPhone out of my pocket to check my email.  While I was out on course two weeks ago, my phone stayed at home.  As I answered messages, one of the Chewonki instructors from my trip, Bryce, came walking down the path toward me.  I was happy to have an excuse to put my phone away and to have the chance to share some nice stories about our 8th graders.  Reflecting on the overall success of this endeavor, Bryce's observations were the same as mine;  nearly every single student returning from FLOW has been ecstatically positive about the experience.
Photo © Lawrence Kovacs

The first wave of canoes glided gracefully into view, and I listened to the happy banter that accompanied them.  People were singing, talking, laughing, and occasionally chanting a short cheer in unison.  I wondered which group this was coming in, and at first I thought they might be from another school.   With everyone bundled up, sprigs of uncombed hair protruding from their hats and hoods, I had difficulty recognizing familiar faces.  But then I thought maybe there was something else about the kids that had changed, something less tangible.  Perhaps they were carrying themselves a little differently.  Stronger.  More confident.  More connected to each other.  More relaxed.  Less distracted.  More focused.  More joyful.
Photo © Lawrence Kovacs
Photo © Lawrence Kovacs

It wasn't long before I had to leave, but I was delighted by what I saw.  The kids barely noticed me as they got right to work unloading boats and hauling gear up the hill to be washed and put away.  Students gleefully helped each other shoulder loads and pull canoes from the water, smiling and joking as they worked.  This sort of cooperation doesn't just happen.  It is the result of living, learning and adventuring together in beautiful places.
Photo © Lawrence Kovacs
"A good team, like a good show, comes into being when the separate individuals working together create, in essence, another separate higher entity - the team - the show - which is better than any of those individuals can ever be on their own."