I am standing atop a small hill. Rain drizzles from an impassive gray sky, forming brown pools around my feet that spill down the hill, carving tracks in the loose soil. I survey the field below me – a grassy expanse ringed by A-frame cabins – gripping the glow stick in my hand proudly. It was a surprise my mom had left in my suitcase, and we had just used it in our nightly class meeting as a “talking stick.” For a moment I am alone, and everything seems calm, muted by the rain and the dark. And then the stillness explodes in a cacophony of eleven-year-old squeals. My entire class streaks past me like water over rock, half-tumbling down the muddy rivulets to the field below. Everywhere there is laughter and screaming, and I feel light, lighter than I thought possible. Without thinking, I raise the glow stick and fling it into the sky above the mass of students. With a collective yell, they swarm toward it, jostling in the half-lit muck, until it is finally captured and triumphantly raised, and for a moment, I belong.
Outdoor School (ODS) is an alternative education program in Oregon which takes four sixth grade classes from four different schools to a wooded camp for a week to learn about the natural sciences. High school volunteers, called Student Leaders, live in cabins with the sixth graders in addition to leading their experiential science lessons during the day. The program is unlike anything else I have experienced; it has the ability to create intensely close-knit learning communities in under a week, forging bonds between sixth graders, high schoolers, and the adult staff alike.
“Okay guys, hold out your hands nice and flat, this is the last one.” I tell the group of sixth graders clustered around me. Using an old ketchup bottle filled with silt, I squeeze a little pile of the soil particles onto each of their hands, and ask, “Have any of you ever been to a lake or a river before?” Jonathon, a small, wiry boy with curly blond hair has already turned completely around on his milk crate, craning his neck to get a better look at the neighboring station, where his classmates are scouring the ground for twigs and bits of rock. “How about you Jon, ever been to a lake before?” He turns back.
A bright but seemingly indifferent student named Danica rolls her eyes at Jonathon before sassily adding, “I have.”
I suppress a laugh. “Okay, good. Have you ever stuck your foot in the water when it’s really clear? What happens?”
“Uuuuuummm… It gets all dirty?” she says. There is a murmur of agreement from the rest of the group.
“Yeah, exactly! What does ‘dirty’ mean though? What’s happening there?” They all take their best guess, and we go on to discuss the properties of silt and how over time, it can be compressed by water to form rocks. We finish by talking about what happens when silt is mixed with sand and clay, the two other soil particles they have in their hands. “Shall we see for ourselves?” I ask excitedly, and instruct Jonathon to give everyone a few drops of water from our eyedropper to help mix the particles.
“Ew, it’s slimy!” Kristine exclaims as we stir the concoction together in our palms.
“To me it feels gritty,” says Javier. “Like it’s cleaning my hand.”
“Has anyone here ever gotten a facial?” I ask.
Two of the boys snort indignantly, but Danica catches on. “Oh yeah! Is it like when people put mud and stuff on their faces? I did that with my mom once it was weird… but my face was super soft after!”
“Hmmm interesting… Do you guys wanna try putting it on?” I peer around at the group. Danica and Kristine nod excitedly but Javier and Zack remain deadpan. By the time I arrive at Jonathan, his soil – along with a mischievous smile – are already plastered across his face.
“Okay, how about this: it doesn’t have to be a facial…” Rarely do boys participate in this part unless I frame it differently. Turning to Zack and Javier, I say, in the coolest voice I can muster, “If you want, you can give yourself some soil warrior stripes. That way, everyone will know you totally rocked this activity.” I dip two fingers into my own soil mixture and trace lines across my cheeks and forehead. Javier and Zack grin at each other, and without hesitation, plunge their fingers into their soil.
I attended Outdoor School as a sixth grader, and returned as a Student Leader seven times throughout high school. In many ways, the program was the first to show me the community-building power of education, in addition to demonstrating the potential for structured learning outside of a classroom. Throughout sixth grade and high school, ODS was one of the few places I felt comfortable in an education system that often left me bored, stifled, and disillusioned with the dehumanization of standardized tests and rote memorization. It was instrumental in fostering my current passion for teaching and my commitment to engaged pedagogy.
“Today, I learned that ‘weathering’ means when rocks get broken down,” a muddied student announces proudly to the group. The sixth grade class is standing in a circle in a small tree grove, wrapping up today’s lessons.
“Okay, I think that’s everyone!” says Rose, a staff member. “If everyone will please follow your teacher and high school student leaders down the path toward the bathroom, you can get cleaned up for lunch.” As the group disperses, Rose motions for me to come over.
She’s a sharp woman, small, dense, and in her mid twenties, with thick, curly brown hair that is currently hidden by a knit cap. She is stern but fair, and we generally get along well. “Hey,” she says, “Nice job today. I saw you going over the tree root exercise with them, they seemed really into it.” I smile and thank her, but I can tell this isn’t why she called me over. “But!” she gently punches me in the shoulder, “You’re still wearing that shirt!” she gestures at my blue tee. I was hoping she wouldn’t notice. It’s a homemade shirt I made my freshman year to showcase my love for the band, Ben Fold’s Five. Across the chest, I wrote a quote from one of Fold’s famous ironic pop laments, “Ya’ll don’t know what its like / Bein’ male middle class and white.”
As I found the shirt nothing but witty and relevant, I had consciously left it on after another staff member had told me to change this morning. “Yeah… I just don’t see why it’s a problem.”
Rose pauses, taking a deep breath. “Look, between you and me, I think that quote is the start of a really important, much larger conversation… But it’s not a conversation that we can have here. And since that quote can be taken so many different ways, it’s inappropriate for you to be wearing that shirt in front of the sixth graders.”
In striving to bond students across various lines of social difference, Outdoor School is vehemently apolitical, strictly policing discussions of any potentially contentious subject. Unfortunately, when it comes to systemic oppression, the absence of dialogue only supports the status quo. The underlying ideology to Outdoor School’s claims of neutrality or non-politicism seem very white to me, as they effectively mean a refusal to address or even acknowledge race and racism or other issues of socioeconomic difference. While the program does strive to create otherwise unavailable learning opportunities for underserved populations – a fundamentally progressive goal, its manufactured silence on issues of identity and systemic inequality ultimately support the oppression of those populations.
Beyond it’s apolitical sentiments, other aspects of ODS are permeated by whiteness: the vaguely Native, appropriated and romantic “talking stick” we used when I attended the camp as a sixth grader, the similarly racist act of painting soil “warrior stripes” that I embraced during my time as a Student Leader, and the program’s censoring of a shirt which sardonically highlighted privilege. I explore the three preceding memories in an effort to highlight the inconsistencies between Outdoor School’s ostensibly progressive pedagogy and the whiteness behind some of its practices. I find it fascinating that a program so successful in creating community-oriented alternative education fails to address the issues of identity and oppression that often preclude sustainable community in more traditional educational environments.
The complexities of Outdoor School’s ideology and practices raise interesting questions for me. How do we build learning communities that embrace discussions of identity difference and systemic forces? How do we approach these subjects in diverse educational programs without dividing, alienating, or making students unsafe? And what is my place in these programs and conversations as an adult with my own complex interplay of privileged and oppressed identities?