With the tent now dried out and put away, I have had an opportunity to reflect back on a recent three-day retreat outing with forty-eight middle school students earlier this month. I know what you are thinking…? My response to that question is for another post.
Smack dab in the cross-hairs of my reflections have been a handful eleventh-hour comments shared by some parents about the event itself. Their concerns were valid and reasonable: What is the actual purpose of the retreat? What does the programming like? How does it work with adolescents sharing a tent together? What about the missed academic and learning time? What about the cost burden to families?
So, let’s dig into each of these raised concerns separately…
The why. According to the parent information package that was sent out to our families seven weeks prior to the event, the purpose of the retreat was to “provide opportunity for students to spend time together and celebrate each other and a year of learning”. Place-based learning in action (some might say). I would also reckon that the retreat provided ample opportunities for students to cultivate a sense of gratitude for their experience (i.e. beautiful outdoor context, support of seven parents that volunteered to spend three days in the woods, freedom to chose their food and bunk mates, etc).
Furthermore, the planned year-end celebration gently, and purposefully, forced some learners towards their ‘edge’ offering a safe and supportive context to challenge and draw upon their individual resilience and stretching comfort zones; sleeping in tents, sleeping away from home for the first time, sharing sleeping arrangements with another person(s), as well as planning, creating, and preparing a meal plan with others are all exemplars that immediately spring to mind.
With guidance from the staff, all of the programming for the retreat was student-orchestrated, planned, and led. The activities ranged from small to large to individual configurations in nature. Some were challenges. Others were cooperative-based. In every instance, students were always given the opportunity to not participate. I can recollect on one hand how many times this happened. Essentially, it didn’t. All of the activities were received and supported by fellow peers. Oh, and there was a ton of laughter, too.
Three weeks prior to the retreat, our staff worked to support the student grouping as they carefully and thoughtfully organized both accommodations and meal planning. Staff held space for students to approach with compassion selecting groups. Many students paired up. Many more arranged into larger groups of five or six. Still some went it solo or in pairs. Each student found a space for them to feel safe and included.
And as to be expected, issues arose within a few groups (what’s three days without conflict among adolescents?); normal types of conflict that happens in all communities: sharing space, respecting another’s property, respecting another’s need for sleep (you get the picture). Meal planning and preparation, from staff perceptions, was an act of collaboration and cooperation.
The cost to families for attending the retreat was never intended to become a barrier. Consciously, we made it abundantly clear in all correspondences to families that if the recommended $10 to cover food and campsite rental fees was a hindrance that the school would support those that identified confidentially. Cost was (and will never be as long as I sponsor off-campus experiences for my students) never an issue.
And what about that missed academic and learning time, huh? What’s all of this being outside running along the beach, sharing responsibilities food feeding each other, sharing close sleeping space, spending time cooperatively building sandcastles, gauging need for and taking personal/alone time, taking leisurely guided nature walks, running haphazardly through the forest at night as a team in support of each other?
And where the heck is the learning in all of that?