Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Raquette Lake

My boss stopped into my math class and mentioned that the kids from my old school are on the way to Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks. It's a trip that used to happen every other year and was a cornerstone of the school. Three days and two nights far from the home challenged the hell out of the kids at our alternative school. In the woods we did a ropes course, took long hikes, played killer horseshoe games, kayaked at dawn, ate meals together, took care of one another, and became family.

Quite a school trip, eh?

Within a week and a half of joining that school, I got on a bus with staff and kids and rode north. It transformed my thinking about schools and teaching. I learned right away that a school, in order to best serve kids has to be a family dependent on one another to a degree that can't be taught but has to be learned. That trip was the most significant teacher experience I ever had.

Then, years later, the school fell apart.

The administration mistook trips like Raquette Lake for unnecessary extras. A new superintendent brought in a new team of administrators who centralized all power and decision making, a system that remains in place today.

So I was surprised to hear the trip was on again.

I my administrators, especially the boss who dropped in on me today, would think I was dumping on them and mischaracterizing their designs. I'm not dumping on them and their not evil. They were just flat-out wrong and their priorities in education are completely ass-backward.

I've taught alternative education for fifteen years. I've learned that learning begins with relationships, especially for at-risk kids. You don't build those with scripted lessons purchased by administrators and forced on teachers. You build relationships with things like the trip to Raquette Lake and a program built on the values that trip instills.  

My favorite quote about alternative schools is from a kid helping install a garage door at my colleague's houses. My colleague asked the kid, "what do you remember from school?" The kid smiled and said, "the trips, man. The trips." And then he talked about how the Raquette Lake trip and others he took at that school changed his life.

No one will ever say that about test prep or Common Core aligned lessons.

My boss was proud that some of the kids and staff were going back to Raquette Lake. I would like to say that it's a sign of things turning around. But it's not and wishing don't make it so. The trip used to change the world for kids. It changed my world. It spoiled me by showing what extraordinary schooling looks like. That school is gone and there's nothing I can do to change that.

All I can do is look back fondly, wish that old school well, point myself in a new direction and write on.