Experiential Education, Grit and Protecting What You Love

School trusts Boreal River for staff training and student expeditions

What is hard work? That’s an important question these days when many young people are addicted to immediate, often positive, feedback via technology. High performance sport coaches lament the lack of grit in many young people and so do, well, math teachers.

“I know there are math teachers who are frustrated with how students define hard work,” Cory Deegan says. “They’re really not working hard, but they think they are. They think the 70% they get for their ‘hard work’ should be a 90%; there’s a disconnect. I think that grit, character, and resilience are words that apply to math problems as much as surviving outside.”

Finding grit through experiential learning

Deegan is a physical education teacher at Selwyn House School, a private school for boys nestled on the side of Mont Royal in Montreal. He says part of the answer to that grit problem can be found through experiential education.

In the 9 years since the school’s new headmaster started to push experiential education, Deegan has helped their outdoor education program grow. It has evolved from optional overnighters to a mandatory 3-day winter camping journey for Grade 9 students and optional expedition-style canoe trips, plus white water training, for Grade 10 and 11 students.

If you add the variety of other optional trips for students from Grade 5 to 11, that means more than 200 of the school’s 600 students participate in outdoor trips every year. But getting there hasn’t been easy.

“It took a lot of change in terms of school culture and the family culture around it, too,” Deegan says. “Being in an urban setting, not a lot of families engage in winter activities. There’s a lot of fear around it because it’s unknown.”

Rafting expedition a rite of passage

But now students see the Grade 9 trip as a “rite of passage”, Deegan says. “There’s a bond that formed between the grades because they’ve all shared this challenge.”

And that challenge on the 3-day, 2-night trip is surviving outdoors in a Canadian winter. Students are responsible for everything from building shelters, to cooking all their own food over open fires. They have no access to technology, and apart from a few built-in reflection periods, students are left to fill their time however they’d like.

Resilience, Optimism, Curiosity and Kindness

Students aren’t marked on the trip, rather they’re expected to self-evaluate based on Deegan’s ROCK (Resilience, Optimism, Curiosity and Kindness) rubric.

“We ask them to assess themselves throughout the journey based on how resilient they’re feeling, how optimism or negativity is affecting their experience, whether they’re engaging in endeavours with a curious mindset, and if they are being kind to each other and to the forest,” Deegan says. And that’s where the grit comes in.

After 72 hours of surviving a Canadian winter, students have a visceral appreciation of how Resilience, Optimism, Curiosity and Kindness are crucial emotions to be aware of when facing adversity. Deegan’s hope is that they can take that knowledge and apply it to their lives back at in the classroom and to life in general. “Our big push is to connect the outdoors to the indoors,” he says. “So, how does resilience apply to living at -30C, and a new math problem you don’t know how to do? You have to be optimistic, curious and kind to others if you want help.”

Safety first when building an outdoor program

Of course, safety is a priority when bringing kids on winter camping trips, canoe trips and white water paddling trips. “Boreal River has been an integral part of our growth over the past 6 or 7 years,” Deegan says. “The moment I realized there was a chance to build an outdoor program in the school, I knew the first step was to get that wilderness first aid certification done.”

Deegan says 14 teachers have training from Boreal River. Certifications  range from swift water rescue to basic wilderness first aid to the high-level Wilderness First Responder. But the relationship goes beyond training for staff — students receive training too.

In Grade 10 and 11 students have the option to partake in a whitewater expedition and training course with Boreal River on the Gatineau River near Maniwaki. It’s a physically demanding program, in fast water. Students must learn to trust each other and themselves as they learn about how to safely navigate a river. Part of that training is leaping into rapids in October.

“That’s a pretty big moment for a 14 or 15-year-old kid,” Deegan says about swimming rapids. “To do that but feel safe and secure is critical to the program. The students believe in the ability of the guides to keep them safe, get them out and teach them what to do. There are moments of fear and anxiety, but every single guide I have met from Boreal River has had the soft skill set to manage it. They engage in conversations with our students and talk about those feelings in very non-threatening ways.”

Life changing experience on the river

Deegan says that after they’ve dried off, warmed up and are back at school, the boys talk about the experience as a life changing moment. “They reflect on it and they often speak to the tranquility out on the river; the impression of the power of water and the rivers is a common theme they reflect on.”

Another lesson that comes out of the expedition experiences is maturity. Not only do the boys learn how to be safe around moving water, they also learn how to be kind.

“Boreal designs an expedition set-up where students camp, cook, and eat together,” he says. “You wind up seeing these qualities in teenage boys that you don’t often see. They take care of each other, wash each other’s dishes and serve each other food without complaining about it. It’s impressive and the Boreal team does a good job of facilitating that.”

Nurturing a passion for nature

One of Deegan’s major goals for the program that hasn’t happened yet, is to get kids so passionate about nature that they begin to love it enough to fight for it.

“In Selwyn House there are fantastic young leaders who raise awareness and funds for cures for things like cancer,” he says. Many times, the students who begin those campaigns do so because of personal reason, a love one is diagnosed with cancer for example. Deegan wants students to realize that nature needs that kind of caring too. Deegan says he’s already brainstorming with Boreal River about how to bring sense of place to future trips, including fostering care for the rivers that make Montreal an island.

“If our outdoor program can give students a devotion to the world they live in then hopefully they’ll want to make a difference too.”

Learn how you can customize a Gatineau River Expedition for your school or group.