Education is a journey, and not a destination. What children want from that adventure, what they think about and dream about can be vastly different from parental notions. What we can all discover along the journey is a better understanding of who each of us is becoming – lifelong learners, engaged and reflecting upon our education all the time.
I recently had the opportunity to consider this reflection on education while traversing the wilderness of the Appalachian Mountains. Since she was five years old, my daughter Maddy has dreamt of hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT). She began to accomplish that dream this year, and for a week in July I joined my 22 year old “Leeloo” for a section hike in mountainous Virginia.
Maddy planned this hike as the culmination of college studies in fine art at the world-renowned School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. It is a vision quest to integrate the natural environment into her amazing visible thinking that is represented in drawings, paintings, and sculpture. It will serve her throughout her professional teaching and art production career. I wanted to participate in the process to provide a family reflection somewhere in the middle of the experience. Her plan is to complete the 2,186 mile journey before New England winter weather makes completion improbable. She left Springer Mountain, Georgia on May 24 and expects to climb Baxter Peak in Katahdin, Maine on October 15, an almost 21-week trek on a trail developed in 1937.
The original plan for my section hike was to spend ten days and nine nights backpacking roughly 16 miles each day with half of my food to start and restocking after five days. Planning far enough in advance to purchase airline tickets and arrange for transportation to the trail entailed a fair amount of estimation, and as the time drew near, text communication with Maddy from the trail was critical. Thankfully, Virginia holds about a quarter of the total 2,100 miles of the AT, so a former colleague in Richmond was certain he could get me wherever I needed to travel to intersect her progress.
The plan was to hike together in the Shenandoah region, the most hiked section of the AT, which is gradual and graceful and provides many spectacular views. The Blue Ridge Parkway crosses it multiple times and the trail is very accessible. By comparison, the rocky ups and downs of the western boarder between the Virginias is a very strenuous and remote section. Unfortunately, due to an old athletic injury, I was forced off early and was only with her a mere five memorable days.
As parents you are your child’s first teachers, and you guide them through the greatest and most accelerated learning adventure of their lives, infancy into early school age. More neural connections are established in this timeframe than in any other time of life. As I prepared for my trip I asked myself, was it our family’s “just do it” attitude during which we took our kids into nature on hikes, camping, cross-country skiing, winter animal track hunting, canoeing and all manner of outdoor activities that set the stage for Maddy’s young interest and lifelong determination to take this hike?
Making the metaphor more obvious, there is advance planning (curriculum design – taking the hike), delivery of sustenance (class meetings – regular drop boxes of food), and the daily work to make progress (personal learning plan – pacing your distance with enough water). School is a time for growing independence and self-reliance. Temporary setbacks are to be expected. Not everything goes according to schedule – 55 days into her hike, Maddy was a week behind the original location where I planned to join her, and consequently I got to hike in the wilderness rather than the tranquil area I had anticipated.
Our primary school students are on an educational path to manifest their personal learning in their projects. Rather than simply “getting it out of the way,” they instead invest themselves in personal ways through writing and other visible forms of complex human communication. As parents you cannot participate in each lesson, nor would this kind of engagement allow for the personal growth we expect to see in our children. Independent and group learning will prepare them well for secondary school studies and set the stage to further their education in college. How we, as educators, reflect on each child’s individual growth and engage you, as parent partners in our teaching and learning environment is becoming more of a sophisticated journey beginning this year. At times the path will be open and clear, and at others times it may feel challenging, but either way we will navigate the journey together.
I spoke last year of a more informative reporting process, and we began with expanded teacher commentaries covering a longer permanent grading cycle. We want students to have developmental time to grow and more importantly to integrate their daily experiences into long-term cross-curricular understandings. Their daily “hiking progress” and what they think about during each learning cycle needs to be captured in writing a journal, making a video, or simply talking about how they are developing new understandings about material and themselves. Our choice of text and online resources underscores our plan to help our students become complex problem solvers and global citizens.
The family-school partnership is meant to be a collaborative effort among student, teacher and parent to design the ongoing structure for reflection leading to high order reasoning skills. As part of this plan, each student’s journey will be unique.
We look forward to our ongoing partnership in supporting each child’s personal adventure at Henderson International School and beyond.