Often a rite of passage for budding teens in the elementary world, field trips to the great outdoors are a must! Permission slip forms turned in and buses loaded, it’s time to wave goodbye to anxious parents and enjoy a rambunctious three-hour ride.
Students leave phones, tablets, and computers behind to soak in the picturesque mountains of the Sierra Nevada.
At Sierra Outdoor School in Sonora, California, students learn about arrow heads, experience the laws of gravity, (courtesy of a 30-foot catwalk and zipline!) observe actual birds of prey, build shelters in the wilderness, and even tear open owl pellets to find the bones of unsuspecting vermin.
After a long day of hiking, students gather around the campfire nestled in a pocket of the forest to learn songs, (yes, even 6th graders love it) take part in goofy charades and skits, and reflect on the activities of the day.
At dusk, famished students, teachers, and chaperones head to the dining hall to enjoy a meal full of fellowship, laughter, and above all… connection. One would assume that the next activities would be showers and bedtimes, but not yet. If the weather permits, a short trek up the hill opens a twinkling night sky unencumbered by streetlights and city life. Powerful telescopes connect students to the stars… and if they’re lucky, planets.
When I was a newbie, I thought that by this point the students would pass out once their heads hit pillows. Not so. Instead, students are gifted with an unbelievable second wind from fresh mountain air. If you find it challenging to get your own kids to get their showers in, try 35 students. The dorms are separated by gender, which makes it easier, but not much. This is the point in the three-day journey that you pray your chaperones are worth their weight in… strictness. Every year we throw knucklehead chaperones into the mix, and it’s a recipe for disaster. When a chaperone turns in a permission slip form, vet them extensively and everyone will be better for it.
Just when it seems the students have calmed, the bunks have settled, and you can rest your head after an exhausting day, your phone rings. Panic attacks are not just for adults, apparently. Expect for at least a handful of students to have a complete meltdown once they realize they are sleeping in a strange bed in a strange place. Some of these students have slept nowhere else — No friend’s house, cousin’s house, not even grandparents. And it hits them like a ton of bricks. A good rule of thumb: Thoroughly explain what is to be expected for an overnight field trip well beyond bug spray and extra shoes.
It will be up to you to help regulate that student’s emotions. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call home. At the end of the day, you have built trust in every student, so use that as a guide through those curveball moments.
Panic attacks averted, you may now adjourn to your majestic quarters — A mattress and four walls. You’ll fall asleep instantly, since by now it’s at least 11:30pm. However, the blaring alarm will go off at 1:00am. The bed wetter. If a parent warns you about this, take it seriously. Each night, I made my way back to the boys’ dorm, pulled this student out of his sleeping bag, and waited. Every night I slept deeper than the last, and one night I slept right through that 1:00am wake up call.
The comradery built as students explore nature, play games, and face their fears, will never be forgotten.
At 2:30am I hustled through the brisk morning air to cover up my mistake, but it was too late. The entire bunk had flooded, and it was my turn to panic. A sleepy 6th grader from the top bunk lifted his head to see the commotion, but was too drowsy to stick around. Luckily, I found some garbage bags and stuffed all the soiled items as quickly as I could. The boy’s reputation and self-esteem were in jeopardy here. Luckily, Sierra Outdoor School has a washer and dryer in the “Teacher” dorms, so… crisis averted… again.
Now in a rhythm, students participate in a fan favorite, the “Silent Mile.” They space out and are tasked with something unfathomable at home. Be still. Look around at the beautiful scenery, listen to the sound of the creek, the birds singing, leaves rustling. Feel the breeze flow through your fingertips. Simply, enjoy nature. The most “uneventful” activity is one of the most memorable for students.
However, “Newton’s Law” still applies. Students that can reach the creek, will fall in the creek. I recommend an extra pair of clothes on this hike for those students that like to push the limits. This also goes for those that try to “wander” to the dorms of the opposite gender, and inevitably, the student that runs down the rocky hill. It doesn’t end well.
And so it continues, eventful hikes during the day and educational classes at night. But this entire experience, through all the crazy, all the drama, all the… wet sheets… is about the bonding. As a teacher, you get to be a student during this trip. They staff the school with professional naturalists, and they lead all the teaching and activity. You get to participate! It’s so rare for teachers, but so important. The comradery built as students explore nature, play games, and face their fears, will never be forgotten. Whether taking the venture at the beginning of the year to build trust, or heading up the hill in the spring to solidify lasting relationships, Sierra Outdoor school is an experience no student should miss.
Bags packed, and farewells delivered, it’s time to head home. But first, a pit stop to Columbia State Historic Park. An entirely preserved main street provides one last jolt of excitement for students. Here they can pan for gold, purchase items from an actual blacksmith shop, snack on sweets and old-fashioned sarsaparillas, and try their luck on the oldest bowling alley I have ever seen.
Students smuggle treats back onto the bus, and we make it the rest of the way, completely exhausted. Eager parents crane necks as the bus rounds the corner, and in seconds the school is a ghost town. You’ll be running on fumes, but every minute is absolutely worth it!
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