Connecting Wilderness Field Experiences to Academic Success

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As frequent readers of the Eagle Rock Blog may already know, the Eagle Rock School New Student Wilderness Orientation Course is a staple rite of passage in the Eagle Rock student experience. All new students, since the founding of the school in the early-1990s, are challenged to start out their Eagle Rock experience by leaving behind the comforts of modern society and heading out into the wilderness for 24 days with a small group of strangers/fellow incoming students.

They are required to sleep on the ground, cook their own food, face the challenges that Mother Nature presents, and deal with all of the issues that arise in small group living. On top of that, these students are challenged to take a deep look at themselves, working on self-awareness, self-control, effective communication and tools that will help them to be successful in the Eagle Rock community.

Our wilderness courses follow a typical Outward Bound type model (backpacking, rock-climbing, solo, service, etc.) where the group — focusing on personal growth and development — gradually builds towards more independence from the instructor team. But we differ dramatically from most outdoor programs in that this is truly an orientation program with the primary focus of preparing students for both the academic and student living experience on campus.

Eagle Rock School Wilderness Orientation

Literally everything we do during the first five weeks of the new student experience should be focused on helping these novice Eagle Rock School students to achieve success in their time here.

When new students arrive, their first week is packed full of the Eagle Rock experience. They are expected to fully engage and participate from Day One. The intention of having a full week on campus is for the students to fully understand what they are getting into. That time also provides our wilderness instructors the opportunity to observe these “newbies” and have something to draw from later when they’re all in the backcountry.

Academically, students are expected to have memorized the Eagle Rock School 10 Commitments, and attend “Show Me the Love” and ERS 101 where they are introduced to the core values of the school. They’ll also participate in Wilderness Prep classes and work in the kitchen (KP). Wilderness Prep introduces them to the Enduring Understandings and Learning Target’s of the New Student Wilderness Orientation Course as well as mini-solos, where students get into the habit of 20 or 30 minutes of quiet writing time on a daily basis.

Our Outdoor Education program directors have long attended the School’s Instructional team meetings and, in the past five years, have worked hard to implement the language and strategies used in the classrooms while students are in the field.

We even give each new student a New Student Wilderness Journal that lists the Enduring Understandings and Learning Targets for the Distribution Requirements that students are working toward on the course (Creating and Making Healthy Life Choices and Participating as an Engaged Global Citizen).

ER40 Wilderness Backpacks

In addition, all expectations are written out for students in rubric form so expectations are crystal clear and instructors are able to have frequent check-ins with students related to these expectations. When students are asked to write during mini-solos, they are given timely feedback on the ideas in their writing and are coached for improvement.

We have been working recently to bring more explicit learning style curriculum to the New Student Wilderness Orientation Course. Some instructors have students perform learning style inventories or teach lessons on these topics. Jen Frickey (our director of curriculum) asks new students to write her a “Learning Letter” toward the end of the course that introduces themselves and explain who exactly they are as a learner.

This letter is the foundation for the students to take ownership of who they are and what they bring to a learning environment, and we build off of this work as they transition back to campus.

Immediately upon return from the New Student Wilderness Orientation Course, the new students prepare and present a five-minute Wilderness Presentation of Learning (POL). The intention of this is to distill the major learnings of the wilderness experience and give the students practice for their end of trimester POL. As a result, they obtain immediate exposure to a number of staff members and Public Allies Fellows, as well as being introduced to graphic organizers, deadlines, public speaking, feedback and POLs as a regular practice in our community.

As we wrap up the course, we always conduct a debrief with the director of curriculum, director of students, and health and wellness counselor. The intention of this meeting is to share as much relevant information as possible with a transition team that will help support the new students as they move into the classroom and living village.

The first week back on campus brings the students to ERS 201 — a one-week experience focused on helping new students explicitly transition from their wilderness experience to preparing to fully engage in academic classes at Eagle Rock with our veteran students.

The academic intention is to empower students to critically reflect on who they are as a learner, and how they affect their success moving forward at Eagle Rock. We spend the week reflecting on their growth during wilderness, and exploring how that combines with their future aspirations to create academic success and self-empowerment moving forward.

Students finish their week by drafting their first learning letter into a better-focused piece of writing that they want all their future teachers to read. This process helps students better understand the critical role they play as the driver of their own success at Eagle Rock, and the importance of their own ability to be self-aware and in charge of their success moving forward.

As with any enterprise involving students and staff, there have been problems. For instance, in spite of our best efforts to bring tools from the school into the backcountry, many students expressed a large divide between the wilderness experience and actual life on campus.

And while this is to be somewhat expected, we went back to the drawing board to come up with some tactics that might help bridge the gap. For example, the Outdoor Education team conducted some staff “Teach Me’s” where members described strategies used in the wilderness that might prove useful for classroom teachers. In addition, we have been working to get more of our instructional specialists involved in the New Student Wilderness Orientation Course as well as provide veteran students with outdoor experiences in order to see how academics are integrated into outdoor experiences.

During the second five weeks of each trimester we continue to meet with the new students once a week to support their transition into the community, both academically and socially. Peer mentors and the Outdoor Education department take turns running these meetings. While the content differs depending on the needs of the group, we are always interested in supporting these students throughout the duration of the trimester in whatever ways are needed.

As mentioned, we have found that integrating academics into other outdoor/adventure experiences has been successful in a number of our other veteran student classes. Classes such as For the Birds, River Watch, Outdoor Leadership, Colorado Rocks, Winter Ecology, People and Places of Colorado, and the Physics of Mountain Biking are just a few of the Eagle Rock School courses that have successfully integrated outdoor experiences with academic content.

If you would like to learn more about the Eagle Rock School New Student Wilderness Orientation Course, please leave a comment below.

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Jesse-BeightolAbout The Author: Jesse Beightol is the outdoor education instructional specialist at the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colo. There, he is responsible for all outdoor and adventure activities that take place at the school, including Eagle Rock’s 24-day New Student Wilderness Orientation Course. He also serves as the chair of Eagle Rock’s Risk Management Committee, oversees Eagle Rock’s Leadership for Justice curriculum, and assists with Eagle Rock’s Discipline Committee. Prior to Eagle Rock, Jesse worked as a wilderness instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Wilderness Inquiry, Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge and Kent Mountain Adventure Center. Jesse earned a bachelor of science degree in outdoor education from Northland College (Ashland, Wis.) and a master’s degree in outdoor education from the University of New Hampshire (Durham, N.H.). He and his wife Denise both live on the Eagle Rock campus.

Comments (8)

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  2. Elinor Lowry says:

    Hi, Jesse! This sounds amazing! I teach in Swaziland, southern Africa, and we are starting a similar programme: a three-week-walk around Swaziland so students get to know Swaziland, learn to get on with others and get to know and love themselves along the way. I’d love to chat!

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