September 18, 2005

Weekend with my students: ropes, fire, and poetry

We left Saturday morning, all piling onto two big buses. It was raining, but that did not deter us. I have 60 first year students (three sections of 20), and they all live together on one floor of a residence hall. They were a sleepy group as they climbed on the bus, but an hour later, the bus was filled with chatter and song.

It was an overnight retreat at a lodge in the middle of the woods, in an area famous for cliffs, gorges, and waterfalls. We spent the afternoon doing a Ropes or Challenge Course. I love how the teamwork of the low ropes elements helps set a supportive atmosphere that will extend into the classroom as we do such things as peer review. I know that some faculty are hesitant to participate in a Ropes Course because it is so physical: yes, you have to touch students, sometimes holding hands, balancing on a small platform clinging to each other in what is basically a group hug, letting them pick you up and lift you through an opening in a rope spider web, or doing a trust fall into their arms. But I've done ropes courses with my students for years, and I am comfortable with the physical closeness. The high ropes elements fill me with adrenaline - I am afraid of heights - but I love the feeling when I actually do leap from a platform high up in the trees. I love how supportive the students are, cheering on each person who attempts a high ropes element.

After dinner (pasta and salad, of course), I split the students into small groups and sent them off for a nature walk. They disappeared in all directions, some climbing down the steep sides of the gorge and others taking manicured trails. When they all returned an hour and a half later, we gathered in the main room of the lodge to write about the experience. The room was perfectly quietly as they sat, most of them cross-legged on the floor, heads bent over their notebooks, and wrote furiously.

In the evening, we had a coffeehouse. Students read poetry and journal entries. They pulled out musical instruments: a viola, a clarinet, a trumpet, and any number of guitars. One young woman sang a Joni Mitchell song, and everyone joined in on the chorus. A bunch of students teamed up for a funny skit that included all kinds of jokes about our campus. Always we have students reading sappy poems about high school love - and angry activist poems. Always, someone plays Stairway to Heaven on the electric guitar. Every performance, no matter how lame, received wild applause from the other fifty-nine students in the room.

After the coffeehouse, we built a campfire outside the lodge, talking, singing, and roasting marshmellows. One student who grew up in another country had never tasted a S'More before, so we all watched his face while he ate his very first one. As the fire burned down, many of lingered near the coals to talk. Topics included politics, racism, religion, and marriage.

The full moon rose in the sky behind us as we talked, and as the light shone over the meadow, I looked around to see that I was surrounded by sleeping bodies: students who had gotten their sleeping bags and were curled up in various spots near the fire. Others had disappeared into the woods. A few slept in the lodge.

In the morning, we ate breakfast together, and then my unwashed, half-asleep students set to work cleaning the lodge, filling bags with trash, mopping out bathrooms, sweeping the main room, scrubbing pots in the kitchen. Despite the early hour, everyone seemed cheerful, happy that we had come.

"I slept in a field last night," announced a student from Brooklyn. "I still cannot believe that." He kept talking even as he was busy piling cans into the recycling bin. "I never knew before that the moon rises and sets. It traverses the sky. I had never seen that before. I don't notice the night sky where I live."

Travelling back to Snowstorm City, students slept and chatted quietly on the bus, many leaning against each other to get comfortable, a few asking me questions about a paper due tomorrow. In the parking lot of their residence hall, I waved goodbye to them and headed home.

18 comments:

ccw said...

Your students seem wonderful. They are certainly lucky to have you. I'm sure they will still be talking about you many, many years from now.

The retreat sounds like a lot of fun and a great chance to get to know your students.

Anonymous said...

I want to redo college and be in your class this time around!
Neighbor Lady

Songbird said...

What a fantastic experience for those young people!
#2 Son leaves on an Outward Bound sailing trip with his class tomorrow (five days and nights on a sailboat), which I hope will be an equally wonderful and opening opportunity.

jo(e) said...

Five days and five nights on a sailboat? Oh, that ought to be an absolutely amazing experience.

Friday Mom said...

Sounds wonderful. So does Songbird's son's trip!

Kathryn said...

Excellent stuff :-) LoudBoy came home yesterday from a similar experience, c/o the diocesan youth officer...Caving, climbing, night walk, and the odd bit of Christian input via Godly Play along the way too. He didn't much want to go, but came home shining, which was pretty much the desired effect.
Go on,though,- you know I'll have to ask the question. S'Mores??
They certainly don't happen under that name this side of the Pond...will my children be scarred for life if they haven't experienced them?

BrightStar said...

that sounds like a fantastic retreat. I think it's excellent that this university has thought about first year experiences for students that help them find community -- staying together on a floor in a residence hall, having retreats also attended by faculty, taking classes with this residence hall floor grouped together. All around good planning for first year experiences. It makes me wonder what else is structured for them and what is in place to help them transition into year 2.

The retreat sounds more like what I would experience as a retreat leader for high school and college students at church. How smart to incorporate this with the college experience more broadly!

joanna said...

The retreat sounds excellent--the kind of out-of-classroom event that makes college touch the hearts and souls of our students.

reverendmother said...

(o)

jo(e) said...

Kathryn: Here is how to make a S'More. Break a graham cracker (similar to digestive biscuits) in two. Put four squares of chocolate on the graham cracker. Add a marshmellow that has just been roasted on the fire. Then use the other half of the graham cracker for the top half of the sandwich.

I haven't actually eaten one in years but they are very popular around campfires, some kind of deadly sweet tradition.

jo(e) said...

Brightstar: We started these living/learning communities six years ago, and they have been very successful. Our retention rate has increased as has student satisfaction.

First semester, they live together and have linked classes. The classes are linked to residence life programming as well.

Second semester, they live together but their classes depend on what programs they are in. The classes are not linked to their residence hall programming. They spend time together on community service projects.

By sophomore year, most live off campus and they are on their own ....

halloweenlover said...

Sounds like a fabulous trip, Jo(e). Funny, though, because my husband just started business school and during the first week they had a few Ropes sessions. As he was describing the games, I exclaimed "and you had to touch people?" It seemed to foreign to me that you would have so much physical contact in these games! I guess I need to loosen up : )

Rana said...

This almost makes me want to be 18 years old and a student again.

Almost. *wink*

Your students are terribly lucky to have you!

Running2Ks said...

You make a great retreat. I really wish I was there :)

Piece of Work said...

Ropes courses were big in prep school--but where I went to college, we got none of that kid-glove handling, unfortunately. (Very big, state school) Sounds like you all had a fabulous time.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I wish I had a teacher like you when I was a student in Snowstorm City, wished I could have been a teacher like you! You're amazing!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I did do a lot of this stuff with my kids from King--and we had a great time at it, too! I miss that. :-(

Erin said...

Gosh, I had no idea that they were doing that these days, but it makes a lot of sense.

I was a Retreat Guide in '97. Everyone seemed to have fun, including the guides! :-) I was very glad to have been a part of it.

(BTW, just wandering through the archives...)