Things I Know 114 of 365: I work without a net

Security is when everything is settled. When nothing can happen to you. Security is the denial of life.

– Germaine Greer

I’m not afraid of heights.

Well, my mind isn’t afraid of heights. My legs, I was reminded Wednesday, are afraid of heights.

As part of a new collaboration, all of SLA’s G9 advisories are spending a day of of challenge-based education at Outward Bound Philadelphia.

It was fantastic.

It was hilarious.

The last time I’ve experienced high ropes or other such elements was when I was teaching in Sarasota. Through a partnership with the local YMCA, we took all of our G8 students to climb their Alpine Tower.

The difference between that experience and Wednesday’s was the kids. While not entirely urbanized, many of SLA’s students have seen more cement in their lives than trees. On the 15-minute bus ride to Outward Bound, several students asked where we were and whether we were still in Philadelphia.

“I’ve never been here, Mr. Chase.”

Though it’s not a part of town I visit often, we were riding through neighborhoods I’ve run to from my house.

It was a reminder of how foreign parts of the city remain to students who have lived here their entire lives.

If the neighborhood was foreign, the woods were downright alien to some. The discussion of checking themselves for ticks stopped a group of girls in their tracks.

“Don’t worry,” our guide told us, “They’re everywhere in the city.”

One girl scoffed, “Uh, not around my neighborhood.”

I chuckled to myself.

After some introductory challenges, our group of 40 students were broken in two and my co-adivisor, Matt Kay, and 20 of our students followed Lauren, our guide to the high wire element.

To complete the element’s challenge, two people in full-body harnesses climbed separate ladders to staples about 16 feet up a tree. They continue up the staples to about 25 feet above the ground and then step onto a wire.

The two people work their way down their respective stretches of wire using a robe strung between their two trees counterbalancing one another with their weight.

The two wires are in the form of the two arms of a capital “Y”, and the climbers meet at the access.

From there, the robe won’t stretch any further, and the climbers must count on the weight of each other to counterbalance one-on-one as they make their way along the stem of the “Y” to attempt to touch a third and final rope before being lowered to the ground.

Meanwhile, on the ground, teams of students were on the ground belaying, literally holding their teammates’ lives in their hands.

If I could take students to places like Outward Bound once a month or once a week, I would.

Some of the students made it to the top of the ladder and decided they’d met their challenge. Others made it to the beginning of the “Y’s” stem.

When each one was done, and said they’d gone as far as they wanted to, we encouraged just one step farther.

After that step, their resolve to come back to earth steeled, we lowered them back down and celebrated their victory in meeting their own challenge.

True differentiated instruction.

Back in the classroom today, I started thinking about the implications of a similar approach to teaching. I wonder what would happen if we took kids to where they thought they couldn’t do one more thing, encouraged them to complete that one final assignment and then let them rest, celebrating the victory of how much they’d accomplished.

Often, in my own class, making it one step farther means a student is asked to make it yet another step farther and another step and so on.

While I do all that I can to praise my students and celebrate accomplishments, I could take a page from Outward Bound and let the kids get their feet back on the ground before asking them to take on the next challenge.

I wonder, if we push out kids to new experiences and then offer them a recess of play and reflection if they might not be the better for it.

There’s much to be learned from challenge by choice.

Things I Know 111 of 365: I did a foot’s worth of traveling

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. It seemed to me that I had several more lives to live.

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

This is what my right foot looks like at this moment. There’s a lot of story for one foot.

If you could see the underside, you’d be able to read even more.

The river did this to my feet.

The contrasting lines of red and Philadelphian springtime-inspired paleness are the result of wearing only my Chaco sandals for the last 7 days. Slathered with sunscreen regularly throughout the trip, the marks attest to the intensity of the sun along the river.

The fact that I made no move to fish my hiking shoes from the depths of my dry bag attests to the intensity of every moment along the river. Those red spots are sunburned. Showering after getting off the river, I felt the heat of my skin fighting with the heat of the water. In about a week, the burn will turn to itching as my skin repairs itself. I’ll take it as a kind of post card from the river.

Along the outer edge of my foot is a scrape.

Though it looks fresh, the scrape is now a few days old. Wednesday, as we were attempting to paddle down the river, the wind had another plan. Gusting from canyon wall to canyon wall, it first stopped our boats and then began to move them upstream. Making matters worse, the river was incredibly low and we continued to find ourselves stuck in the mud as our boat was buffeted from shore to shore.

Finally, in an act of frustration with all her paddling coming to naught, Steph, our river guide, hopped from our boat, grabbed the bow line and began to pull us down the river in thigh-high water.

Minutes before, the three students riding in the bow of the boat had been largely incommunicative, choosing to lounge rather than engage in conversation.

“What can we do?” one asked as Steph jumped from the boat.

“If you want, you can get in the water and help push the boat,” she said.

In seconds, the the three were in the cold muddy water.

I jumped from my spot at the stern and we all pushed together.

It was freezing and the kids were loud. I’m not certain how much we actually helped other than taking some weight out of the boat to ease Steph’s efforts.

Somewhere along the way, I slipped and scraped my foot on a rock.

Not until we were docked along the shore did I look down and notice the scrape. Even then, it wasn’t for another few hours until we’d set up camp that it began to sting.

I’ll be a bit sad when it’s healed. I was working with students to move forward against forces outside our control. Usually, we do that sort of thing in a more figurative sort of way. I’m happy to have the battle scar as a reminder of the progress we made.

The scrape and sunburn are all the sweeter when taken along with my toenails.

They’re painted – by Steph, actually. The other foot’s nails are decorated as well – by a student.

Our second night on the river, as we waited for dinner to cook, I sat in the sand with my back against a rock face, alongside the other men of our group and had my toenails painted.

It’s something of a tradition on river trips.

In the case of rain or boredom, every trip brings along a retired 20mm ammo can labeled the “Fun Box.” Invariably, the box contains a collection of nail polishes.

I’d be lying if I claimed I wasn’t momentarily surprised when I pulled my feet from my sleeping bag the next morning.

A few days later, now, and I’ve gotten used to them. I won’t be removing the polish when I get home. I like the portrait the toes create combined with the marks of my sandals and the gash of our journey.

I like the idea that the polish, like everything else, will slowly chip and fade. For now, I like the story the heart and polka dots afford me when I catch strangers trying to make sense of my feet.

They are a map of my last week on the river.

Things I Know 104 of 365: I learned outside

I went into the woods to live deliberately.

– Henry Davi Thoreau, Walden

I grew up surrounded by nature.

When I was younger, I’d go visit my grandparents and explore the farm that has been in my family since my ancestors settled in Illinois over 150 years ago.

When I entered fifth grade, we moved outside of Springfield and my postage stamp yard was suddenly 5 acres.

Many a shoe or shirt or pair of shorts was sacrificed to the mud I inexplicably fell into while playing in the creek that ran along our property line.

When I got back from South Africa last summer and was emotionally drained, I set out to the woods of New Hampshire and then Acadia National Park to remember who I was.

Tomorrow, two teachers, ten SLA juniors and I will make our way to Arizona and then Utah for camping and rafting down the San Juan River.

I cannot wait.

Last year, when the students saw the Grand Canyon for the first time, one commented, “I looks like a screen saver.”

I know I’m biased, but there’s immeasurable value in outdoor education.

Encouraging kids to recycle is much easier when they’ve experienced an environment beyond sidewalks and streetscapes.

Students will exist sans cell or iPod for a week. They’ll breathe air cleaner than they’ve ever experienced and they’ll get to know the planet.

Mr. Trueblood required all of his advanced biology students to curate leaf collections of at least 40 species of trees when I was in high school. Later in the year, we took a quiz requiring us to identify species of local birds. Walking through a park is a different experience for me still.

And, while I don’t imagine our students will return able to tell an oak from a maple or a starling from a sparrow, they will come back knowing they’re connected to a larger system.

They’ll experience beauty beyond any painting they could ever find in a museum. They’ll hike and raft and explore.

When they get back, what they’ve learned about themselves and the world will be akin to what I learned on the farm and in the creek. They’ll know mess and the beauty of nature.

It should be a part of every child’s education.

Things I Know 102 of 365: My classroom isn’t one place

Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard.

– Standing Bear

At the beginning of each year, SLA parents sign a permission slip which allows for the freedom of field trips without much notice. So long as we are within the Philadelphia city limits, teachers can plan experiential learning for our students.

Today was one of those days.

My last class of the day has been workshopping their vignettes chronicling their lives as readers.

Each student’s vignettes are placed in a manilla folder along with a cover letter explaining their purpose and asking questions of the reader.

Students, armed with pads of paper and sticky notes read one another’s work, comment and then trade one folder for another.

As Emily, our literacy intern, said, “It’s like a Christmas present when they get back their writing with all of the comments.”

A nerdy, nerdy Christmas present, but yes.

After two days of cold, rainy, dank weather, the sun shown in Philadelphia today and the temperature neared 70.

A golden moment.

As I walked to get my lunch, I realized there was no reason our last day of workshopping needed to be inside.

As students filed in, I told them they would need jackets.

“Are we going outside!”


We walked the three blocks to the running/biking path that runs near the school and along the Schuylkill River.

The students spread out on the grass, folders in hand, and read and commented and enjoyed the weather.

Save a few complaints about some errant insects, it was a beautiful thing.

A visitor to SLA documenting project-based, inquiry-driven education tagged along with the class.

“Why go outside for an English class if all you’re going to do is read and respond to papers?”

It’s one of those questions that begs the answer, “If you have to ask, then I can’t explain it to you.”

Instead, I worked to put my reasoning into words.

School design mimics prison design too closely already. Any time I can work against that association, implied though it may be, I’m going to take the chance.

More importantly, my job is to help my students become real readers and real writers who engage in those activities authentically.

When I think about where I want to read or write, where it feels most natural, I do not picture a school.

We went outside because I don’t want my students to think the only place they can do the work we’re doing is in a classroom.

And, we went outside because there are beautiful parts of our city and sometimes it’s enough to just be in them.

Some might argue a more fitting use of the space would have been to ask the students to write about what they saw or be inspired by the nature around them or wax poetically about public green spaces.

We weren’t there to focus on the space anymore than we stay in the classroom to write about the classroom. We were there to focus. That’s it, to focus on the task and spread apart and read and comment while sitting on benches and lying on the grass and every once in a while losing track of ourselves while watching the river.

The air was better, the vitamin D was pumping and the students had space to breathe and focus. It won’t be every day, but it was today and it was good.