Since Eagle Rock’s inception, a new student wilderness orientation course has been an unconventional tradition that sets ours apart from other learning habitats. As an Outdoor Education Fellow, I continue to be blown away by how Eagle Rock engrains — and then celebrates — the wilderness experience as a right of passage for new students.
The moments they first step foot on campus, new Eagle Rock School students find themselves surrounded by veteran students and the first topic of conversation is inevitably, the wilderness course. These more experienced students talk about how much they enjoyed it or hated it. They offer the newbies tips and tricks on staying clean, or the best way to snag some extra toilet paper.
And soon, these fresh new faces hear about circles — a restorative process that is used frequently while in wilderness. Like the name suggests, students and instructors form a circle in order to create an emotionally safe space for discussions. Interestingly enough, there has been an evolution in how students reminisce about their experience with circles.
It was often described as a negative experience, but over time, something has changed. The concept of circles, and the perspective of them, has changed. I’ll explain why I think this change has occurred in just a moment.
I often tell students near the end of the 24-day wilderness expedition, that one of the many reasons we go out into the backcountry for two dozen days is because there’s really no place to hide. Wilderness forces us all to step up to the plate, to embody our strengths consistently, and it exposes areas with which we are struggling.
Sometimes, it exposes problem areas we didn’t even know we had. But the one thing 24 days gives us is time. We have time to stop, time to contemplate, time to discuss what’s going on. And time to figure out how we can move forward in order to curtail, contain or take the power out of a conflict that might impede the functionality of the group — our community.
Of course, conflict is unavoidable. We like to think it is a healthy approach to developing a positive group culture that correctly, and appropriately reflects the vast values and perspectives of its community. An introductory way that we do this is with affective statements and questions. These tools are incorporated into circles and the progression of questions the facilitator uses. One-on-one coaching is an essential tool of the wilderness instructor. Students often need support in how they bring up issues or frustrations with affective statements.
“Start with separating the deed from the doer.”
“Let them know how that specific action affected you, the impact that it has had on you.”
“Make sure you speak from the I, don’t speak for others.”
There are obvious growing pains throughout this process. Trying to remove the initial emotional charge from how one communicates frustration is extremely difficult. But if the objective of communicating your frustration is the hope that the behavior exhibited by another will change, then we need to try and communicate our needs in a way that will be heard and listened to.
Hearing constructive feedback, or that you have rubbed somebody the wrong way, is also difficult. That same one-on-one coaching applies to receiving feedback, as it does with giving it. Affective questions are incredibly useful in this context, and when students ask them in an attempt to try and understand their feedback, there are a variety of benefits.
“Try not to get defensive and justify yourself. Seek to understand, does this feedback make sense to you?”
“What can you take ownership or responsibility for in this situation, how can you empathize with that perspective?”
“This feedback might not apply to you right now, but do you think it might be useful in the future?”
Using affective questions can often generate a willingness to empathize with another. In addition, the feedback-giver feels as if what they have said has been listened to. Both of these feelings have healing power in a small community.
During morning and evening gatherings (class time) students consistently use and hone these skills through feedback. Pros and Grows are Eagle Rock School terminology for positive and constructive feedback. This feedback is offered daily to the Leader of the Day. In addition, students take ownership for something they are proud of that day, and another thing they have the desire to work on or improve. These discussions are the gateway to our first and last informal circles of the day, known as Patrol Time because student groups on wilderness are referred to as patrols.
The circle is introduced to students as an opportunity to discuss anything they feel they need to talk about. It can be props and appreciations, or a safe space for a student to bring up something that is frustrating them. The floor is theirs, and often times, incredible conversation organically, proactively, and restoratively informs how the next day will be lived. As a result, students on our 24-day wilderness experience begin to see the value in them because they progressively take ownership over how they can look. Goals are set, frustrations are discussed, and love is shared.
Willi Unsoeld, who was part of the first American expedition to reach the summit of Mount Everest ( May of 1963) and is known to this day as “The Father of Experiential Education,” once said : “If the wilderness has not prepared us for life back home, then from my perspective, it has failed. Seek ye first, the answers in the kingdom of nature, so that the kingdom of man may be better realized.”
There is a reason we use circles. There is a sense of equality strength associated in their shape. As a result, here at Eagle Rock, we believe that the strength within ourselves is better realized.
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About the Author: Jack Hilbrich is the 2014/2015 Public Allies Outdoor Education Fellow at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colo. Prior to working at Eagle Rock, he was a lead instructor and course director at Voyageur Outward Bound School in St Paul, Minn. Jack is passionate about leadership development, personal growth, comedy and adventure.