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.
Posted by jo(e)