Camp Amazonia

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Last week I was lucky enough to join the 10th grade class on their trip to Camp Amazonia near the communities of Rio Blanco and San Alberto in the Amazon Jungle.  It was my tenth school trip in as many years and each has been unique in its own way.  This was my first time taking high school students on a trip and I can now say I’ve traveled for a week with every grade from 3-10 except 9th grade.  This trip included lots of hard work to help the local Kichwa communities, team building, cultural activities, and a trip to the Jumandi Caves.  At the end of the week everyone was exhausted but there was also an overwhelming sense of achievement!  

Awesomeness

Every time I take one of these trips there are wonderful examples of how amazing young adults can be when they are pushed out of their comfort zones.  This past week certainly did that, kids and adults alike were challenged in situations that went well beyond our everyday routines.  Right from the start we got right down to business with some hard work in the morning and then again after lunch.  We started the day in the rain and ended in fierce heat and sun.  Not only were we pushing ourselves hard to help these communities but the weather was pushing us as well.  However, by the end of the night everyone made it to dinner with a smile on their face and a sense of satisfaction in their hearts.  

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Working hard to create a botanical fence line.

The sense of community that develops over the course of a week like this is impressive to say the least.  Students who are struggling for one reason or another are picked up by their classmates without any teacher intervention.  Classmates who hadn’t really engaged with each other in the past can be seen walking, working, eating, and hanging out together.  New friendships are formed and old bonds are strengthened.  As important as community can be in international schools, trips like this are crucial!  

I’m not sure there are words to express how impressed I was with the efforts of the 10th grade group over the course of the week.  Through torrential rains, back breaking work, spiders and other critters, these kids stepped up in a huge way.  The work they did this

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Heading out to plant trees, helping to reforest a recently devastated area.

past week will benefit those communities for years to come.  Our students may never return to this area but their mark has been made, their efforts were not in vain.

What I Learned About Myself

While this was a tremendous learning experience for our students there were also some great takeaways for me too.  This trip was, by far, the most physically challenging of the school trips I’ve enjoyed.  I’m not shy about some hard work and I enjoyed every second of getting my hands dirty this week.  However, I learned a few lessons of my own through this experience.  

First off, I used to think that I would do pretty much anything to be out of the rain.  I HATE rain, or at least I used to think I did.  I mean, I’ve always loved a good thunderstorm but that’s conditional on me not being caught in the down pour.  In the Amazon, when it rains, it pours.  When it pours in the jungle there’s just no way to avoid it, no way to stay dry, get dry, or even remember what dry feels like!  However, it’s warm outside which makes being wet much more tolerable than I had ever realized.  In fact, by the time we got to Thursday and got stuck in yet another torrential downpour I was so used to the rain that I soaked it up and enjoyed every last drop.  I learned that I could manage being wet, even soaked with boots full of water!  

Another great reminder for me this week had to do with being prepared.  While I was prepared with all of the right materials and supplies, some of the kids weren’t.  Usually I pack extra and plan for this situation but for some reason I didn’t this week.  I gave up my gloves and came home with some blisters as trophies.  Not all of our kids had the proper footwear but thankfully Camps International had extra boots.  Finally, when it comes to being prepared in the jungle…bug spray is your best friend, I got lazy at the end of the week and my legs got eaten up!  Pack heavy and take extra gear, especially if you’re staying in cabins and not carrying it around all week.

Thankful

At the end of the week I feel extremely thankful that I was able to join this experience with our 10th graders.  We made a difference in that community, we learned about the Amazon, and we grew closer as a group.  Working alongside this inspirational group of young adults made me a better person and a better educator.  The best news is that I get one more week, this time with 7th grade…I can’t wait!!

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Hiking in the jungle, we stopped next to a 300 year old tree to learn how to create our own headwear.

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It Takes a Village To Raise a Child – Successfully

The first semester is quickly coming to a close and a number of students’ names have come my way for having late and missing assignments.  I’ve had a number of conversations with teachers about strategies for holding our students accountable to their work.  It seems that whether we’re talking about a 6th grade student or a high school senior, the conversation goes the same way.  Often times, as responsible adults, we have a hard time figuring out what is preventing these young adults from living up to the expectations we’ve laid out for them.  

I don’t think there is any one “problem” or “issue” that is common to all students struggling to meet expectations.  In fact, there usually isn’t even a common factor when I sit down and look at a small group of 6th grade boys, for example.  Every student has different struggles and they usually are experiencing these difficulties for various reasons.  There are myriad factors that play into the development of a young mind and trying to place our thumbs on any one “problem” is a bit of a fool’s errand.

As I sat back and thought about all of the different struggles that our students experience and considered their excuses (I think I could write a pretty long book full of the different excuses I’ve heard over the years!) I tried to think back to my first days as a teacher and recall the strategies I’ve used to help hold kids accountable.  To be perfectly honest, the list is long and it’s full of failed attempts but in the end there are two strategies that, when combined, have achieved the most success.

Just for kicks, let’s see…In the early years, there was the guilt trip which was very successful at drawing forth tears and a careful analysis of footwear (lots of hung heads and feeling ashamed).  There were also the whole class heart-to-heart sessions about responsibility, these seemed to have an immediate but very short term effect…I just didn’t have the time or energy to pull these out twice a week!  Then there were the raised voice conversations, random calls home, and sending students to the ‘in-school-suspension’ room.  None of these did anything for the students’ responsibility levels and they most certainly didn’t help me build any form of positive relationship.

I learned though, thankfully, and I turned my attention to more positive motivators.  I gave raffle tickets to those who completed their work, we started a challenge with other classes to see which class could have the most consecutive days of homework completed by everyone in the room, I wrote positive notes home for kids who finally turned in homework on time, and I praised, praised, and praised some more.  While these alternatives helped me form better relationships I still saw little progress towards increasing levels of responsibility among the students of concern.

To be perfectly honest, I know I haven’t solved the riddle yet and I’m most certainly not done pursuing better options.  However, over the last couple years I’ve employed a combination of two strategies that have led to increased responsibility over the long term and also led to positive relationships.

These two strategies are certainly not rocket science but they do require a level of dedication that will take a concerted effort to maintain.  So, what are they already, right?!

 Consistency is Key:  Many people, and young adults are no different, need consistency in their lives.  The students who struggle to meet expectations for timeliness and responsibility most certainly fall into this category.  The first thing we need to provide for our students is a level of consistency that might even border on manic.  As these young minds develop they are facing so many changes, stressors, and emotions that anything outside of a routine will easily become lost in the shuffle.  Establish precise routines for your classes.  For certain students who you’ve noticed struggling even more than the usual, increase the rigidity in their routines.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

    • Post a detailed daily agenda in a visible place that will remain for the entire class period (build in small breaks that will act as targets/checkpoints.)
    • Ensure that students use a consistent system of organization (agenda, digital calendar, etc)
    • Post any homework or outside of class responsibilities in the same place each day AND give kids sufficient dedicated time to record their homework in a(n) agenda/digital calendar each class period.
    • Create a dedicated “inbox” for completed work and/or ONE specific system for turning in digital assignments.
    • Remind students about long term assignments every class period AND check-in on progress toward the long term goal.
    • Make time at the beginning (waiting until the end doesn’t work, trust me) of each class to check-in with students who need reminders, never let a class pass without this happening…remember, consistency is key!
    • Change up other routines to encourage flexibility…I know this seems to fly in the face of the whole point but try things like:  Changing the seating arrangement, seating chart, groups, or elbow partners.  Also, keep your bulletin boards fresh, rotate student work displays, and keep your room current.  

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child:  The African proverb is so popular and has been around so long for a reason…it’s true!  Students who require the most effort and attention will need the whole “village” to be involved.  Communicate with your grade level teams, share and harmonize strategies, and include other support (Sped, ELL, Counselors, Admin, etc) as necessary.  Similarly, communicate with the parents in a positive and supportive manner.  As a team share the strategies that are being employed, ask for support, and let them know that this is a team effort.  Last and definitely not least, include the student in the conversations as often as possible.  They need to understand their role in their success.  Try:

    1. When an assignment is late, or better yet about to be due, send the student a reminder email and CC the parents and other relevant support.
    2. Let students know that they should be proud of themselves when they do well.  Building the intrinsic sense of achievement is exponentially more powerful than letting them know you’re proud of them.  Try, “You should be proud of yourself for…” instead of “I’m proud of you…”  They will still know you’re proud of them but it also sends a message that they should be working for themselves, not to please you!  Remember, you won’t always be there to be proud of them!!
    3. Use Growth Mindset language with your students.
    4. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  I can’t stress enough how important it is to have all relevant stakeholders involved in the process of supporting a struggling student.

You can try yelling at students, ignoring the problem, or giving them detention, some of these will make you feel better but at the end of the day these strategies will achieve nothing more than a acidic relationship and a distaste for your subject or class.  By this point I’m 100% sure that you already have a small list of students in your mind.  Consider the strategies you’ve employed thus far and think about what alternations may be needed to help improve the level of success they are experiencing in school.  Finally, please involve me in the conversations.  As I hope you know by now, helping struggling students is one of my passions as an educator.  Every teacher in history has had students who’ve struggled for one reason or another, let’s work together to help those students succeed!

Learning Beyond Academics

This past week sure has been busy and a good microcosm of the school year as a whole so far.  Wednesday in the High School was PSAT testing for the 10th and 11th graders and Group 4 project time for the Seniors.  I was lucky enough to spend my time working with the 9th grade class during this time and we had a blast working as a whole grade level group!  Our 9th grade class is certainly a strong bunch but they are also very nervous about what the future holds for them.  As they look to the future and see college looming they begin to quake ever so slightly.  What are they most worried about?  Academic success?  Yes, certainly.  However, they’re beginning to realize that they’re going to have to make it in this big, scary world on their own and they’re curious about what they have termed “life-skills”.  This revelation has made me step back and think, “what are we doing to prepare our kids to become ‘free-range’ adults?”

Our 9th grade students, when asked what they’re most interested in for mentor time lessons, overwhelmingly said ‘life skills’…but where to start?  And, is four years really enough time to teach them all they need to know?  So we started here, close to home, in our community.  The focus was on community building and the importance of communicating effectively with those around you.  We had lessons on introducing yourself professionally, engaging in conversation with new acquaintances, and discussed the importance of understanding differences (cultural or otherwise.)  Our aim was to start working through some of the things that just don’t seem to get taught within the course of a normal workload during the school day.  This all culminated in a huge pot-luck brunch (life skill: following a recipe and cooking) which allowed them to practice and improve their conversation and community skills, it was awesome and the feedback from the kids is that they really enjoyed and took a lot away from this opportunity.

Take a moment, no matter what level you teach, and think back to your days in school.  Think back beyond university or high school if possible.  Who was that teacher who had the biggest impact on your time in school?  Maybe there are a few names that come up.  Now, WHY did their name come to you so quickly?  What was it that they did to make you remember them after all of these years?  I have a strong feeling that it wasn’t something academic, they may have had a huge impact on your academic success but I would guess that their impact wasn’t specifically academic in nature.  They probably influenced you in more of a ‘life skills’ sense.  In your classroom there are plenty of opportunities for teaching students skills that will transcend your subject area and stay with them further on in their lives.  

Have a look at this article, it’s an interesting view on some things that we may or may not explicitly teach our students during their academic time (some may be more relevant to our context than others.)  How can lessons like these be incorporated into the things you do on a daily basis?  I would also suggest that there are a lot more ‘life skills’ being taught every day in your classes…what are some of those skills?  I’d love to hear from everyone about the amazing opportunities that our students have to grow beyond the classroom!