September 10, 2007

Hanging with my students


This weekend was our fall retreat with our first year students. We took them, yes all 250 of them, to a retreat center, asking them to color code themselves by wearing shirts that matched their team color. My sixty students, who all live together on one floor, became Team Red.

Saturday morning, we did a ropes/challenge course, designed to build community and encourage communication skills. We figured out ways to get through webs of rope, we pushed and pulled and lifted each other over a high wall, we practiced falling and catching each other, and we raced across a field while tied together. One of my favorites this year was rope web hung from a gym ceiling: we lifted each other up into the rope nest, climbing and shifting to keep the holes open for the next person. The fun part was not the challenge of getting everyone up into the web, but just hanging out on the ropes, watching people walk below us.

The weekend began with a hard rain, but by Saturday afternoon, the clouds had parted and a nice breeze was stirring. In small groups, the students walked around in the park that runs along Polluted Sacred Lake, using handheld GPS devices to guide them to different waypoints, where faculty members waited for them. At each waypoint, we had time to sit in the grass at the edge of the lake, usually in the shade of a tree, and talk about our surroundings. The chemistry faculty had the students draw water samples, which they will analyze in lab later this semester. A dendrologist asked questions about the trees along the lake, an ecologist talked about the pollution in the lake, and the botany teacher started a philosophical discussion about the value of the lake.

By the time we met for supper, students were talking excitedly about the day, some hyper and full of energy, and some looking like they needed a nap. (We'd gotten them on the buses at 8 am, so many were definitely sleep-deprived.) The older students who serve as mentors to the first year students took charge, forming small groups who took walks by the lake, observed the flora and fauna, and then sat in the grass with their notebooks do some nature writing. The threat of rain had disappeared by then, and the cool evening air felt good.

After dark, we all returned to the retreat center. The chemistry teacher had set aside one room for tie-dying, and students were playing poker in another room. In the dining hall, students helped me rearrange the chairs to set up for a coffeehouse, and students began cajoling each other to put their names on the open microphone list. I love the intimacy a coffeehouse creates. One woman played the saxophone, and several had guitars. One young man had us all drum a beat out on chairs and tables, and then he break-danced to the beat. Students read poetry, sang songs, and performed skits. One student did such hilarious impersonations that we kept yelling out names of famous people, wanting him to do more. One young man pulled out a harmonica and played while the whole crowd sang Billy Joel's Piano Man. Two students who were standing against the wall, swayed back and forth as they sang, and the sentimental moment turned funny when one student held his cell phone up to crowd.

Sing us a song, you're the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us all feelin' alright

By morning, we were all exhausted. Sleeping on a gym floor amidst a bunch of snoring students does not make for a restful night. But breakfast revived us, and I walked my students through a quick writing exercise, one in which they wrote letters to themselves. They will get the letters back in May. Then we gathered, all of us, out in the field, arranging ourselves to form the acronym for our college, while one of my new students took a photo from the roof of the building. It had been a wonderful but tiring weekend and I admit that when I saw the buses pulling up to take the students back to campus, I was more than ready to head home and take a nap myself.


One of my colleagues, lying on the floor after the students left.


Rana said...

What (exhausting) fun! I remember doing the ropes course when I was about to go into high school, and a backpacking trip the summer before college - but neither had much involvement with the teachers and faculty.

I like that idea, for all that young bodies are so much better at being excited on little sleep!

Yankee T said...

Are you SURE you don't want to move to the Berkshires to teach at a certain women's college? My daughter would LOVE you.

Linda said...

Is standing in that rope web as hard as it looks? I've done a ropes course before, but not a rope web. Looks interesting.

Psycgirl said...

That looks like SO much fun! I want to work at your college when I grow up!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I was never a freshman at little tree school and even if I was, I bet they didn't have as much fun back then. Not that I didn't have a good time in college, I did! But this sounds wonderful. We did stuff like this at Second Home nature center and with the kids from famous civil rights minister school. And I loved it. AS always, your posts are wonderful to read.
my word verification, udnuq, sounds like the name of a cave dweller thousands of years ago.
my word verificati

jo(e) said...

Linda: From the ground, I thought that the rope web looked like a hammock and that it would be really comfortable. But the reality was that the ropes would really dig into your body and the soles of your feet if you didn't find the right spot.

Silver Creek Mom said...

Sounds and looks awesome. Makes me want to attempt college which I was too chicken to do 25 years ago.

SusieJ said...

I slept on the floor at the zoo once -- and I need my sleep. It was so painful to go without.
The pictures are beautiful -- as are the words. They soothe me.

Patti said...

Wow, so much fun!

Abby said...

Hi Jo(e). I was wondering if you could tell me what sort of camera you use. My husband and I are toying with the idea of buying a digital SLR and you always take such beautiful pictures. I know that the majority of that is your skill as a photographer (coupled with an artist's eye), but any camera suggestions you could give would be much appreciated.

Glad to hear the term is starting out so well.

jo(e) said...

Abby: Thanks for the compliment.

Someday I'd like to buy a digital SLR -- but right now, I can't afford one. The photos on my blog are taken with an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera. It's a Kodak EasyShare CX7330.

Keri said...

Sounds like a wonderful weekend!

purpleteardropsofhappilymarriedness said...

From the sound of how great a time the retreat was this year, all I want to say is "that's
soo not fair." I mean ours was ok an all - the best part for me was the coffee haus, but
an indoor ropes course? With mats?! I soooo would've participated in the ropes activities
rather than just stand around as I did. Knowing that it was a gym floor (that I have
landed on before - my back can take it) and not hard ground in a forest would've eased my
fear of heights/hurting myself! The Captain Planet skit from my floor was the most
amusing part of the Coffee Haus, and I enjoyed the free-write activity, I just wish I had
been in a better mood for most of the trip. The Billy Joel reference makes me think about
the campfire we had that evening and I think myself and a few other kids sang some songs.
That weekend was rough for me, seeing it was the 2nd weekend of school and it was that
"being alone" without My Other Half for the first time really that made the night awful.
The only reason I left the campfire was because I was falling apart. Other than that and
the ropes section of the excursion I would say over all it was a good experience, even
though I really didn't get much closer with any of my floormates.

Oh, and Yankee T - we need her here! - she is the lifeblood of the freshmen experience
here, extremely understanding and always willing to help, jo(e) is a necessary component
of preventing transfers and dropouts, exactly the medicine for lost and confused
undergrads. I 'm thankful always for being able to have been taught and befriended by
such a beautiful soul as her.

Abby said...

You're KIDDING! That's amazing (about the camera). Well, you may have just inadvertently saved us a good chunk of money (or longing) that we can't really afford either.

Consider me doubly impressed, too. My point and shoot pix don't turn out that beautiful!

Rana said...

Yeah, jo(e)'s pictures always impress me too! :)

Based on my own experiences with a bunch of digital cameras, the three main advantages of SLRs are fast shutter speed, looking directly through the lens, and greater control of the settings

So if you're photographing a lot of fast-moving things, or are picky about the framing of things, or want to be able to control variables like contrast and exposure, SLRs are good - but they're also heavier, bigger, and (often, but not always) more expensive.

(Mine's a Pentax ist DS, it cost me $700, and I feel it was among the best money I've spent. But I'm a photo geek!)

I'm glad someone mentioned the indoorsy aspect of the ropes course. Ours were always outdoors, and one was among the redwoods. I still love the smell of a redwood forest - perhaps because the fear of being up high magnified the sensations?

jo(e) said...

Purpletearsdrops: Thanks for the nice compliment.

Rana: I vastly prefer the outdoor elements on a ropes course, climbing high up into the trees. We had to do some indoors this year because of the weather.