In honor of Throwback Thursday (#tbt) – and our recent FemSquad Owyhee backpack video – this post brings us back to English magic from the Owyhee backpack.
Our last unit – “Human in Wilderness and the Wilderness Within” – looked at character from both literary and leadership lenses. We read Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” and debated the protagonist’s character in student-driven Harkness discussions. Students then used this information to write an argumentative essay responding to the prompt “Is Chris McCandless’ character heroic or foolish?”
We also looked to examples of contemporary adventurers for comparative analysis. Martha Brummitt- an Alzar School teaching fellow from Spring 2013 – and Andrew Forsthoefel – a Middlebury College alum who walked across the country in 2012 with the mission: “Walking to Listen.” Students analyzed social media like Facebook and blogs to see how adventurers conveyed their mission to the world. After listening to NPR’s “This American Life” episode on Andrew Forsthoefel’s “Walking to Listen” story, we then had the opportunity to Skype directly with Andrew “face to face.”
I looked on with pride as students eagerly stood in line with their iPads to ask Andrew questions born out of genuine interest such as “Were you ever scared?” and “What state had the best food?” and “What was the most important lesson you learned on your walk?” To students’ surprise, Andrew proved himself to be more analytical philosopher than dreamy nomad; he answered each question with deep reflection and surprising honesty, and then turned the tables on the young journalists. “What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your life so far?” he asked in return, never letting them off the hook until they truly reflected critically on their own life experience.
Andrew’s NPR piece includes a poetic rendering of what it’s like to simply walk and walk and walk over 3000 miles. Alone.
There’s all kinds of walking. There’s float walking when it’s the easiest thing in the world. And there’s urge walking when you’re just desperate to stop. There’s high walking when you’re high and hurt walking when you’re hurt. I like weep walking the best, when all you can do is cry.
When one student asked Andrew “What kind of walking do you miss most?” he brought the question back to our upcoming expedition: “How are you feeling about the walking you’re about to do in the Owyhee desert?” Students expressed excitement to embark upon their own adventure, reflecting that “If you can walk 3000 miles I can walk 27.” Andrew smiled before giving his last piece of sage advice: “Be present. Whatever you do, even when it’s hard and you’re grunt walking, be present. Becuase this won’t last forever and it’s a beautiful opportunity.”
Two days later we set off for the wide desert of the Owyhee Canyonlands. In split-gender groups students explored their own character as “Leader of the Day” teams and as active followers. Each day students completed a micro journal entry for English class in homage to our two explorers – Chris McCandless and Andrew Forsthoefel. Just as Chris McCandless created a pseudonym for himself (“Alexander Supertramp”) students picked an epic epithet perspective from which to write one sentence per day describing their adventures with third-person grandeur. They would title each of these sentences with the type of walking that characterized their hike.
The day before we hiked out of the canyonlands, the femsquad I was with spent English study hall deep in a dry oxbow, nestled between 5oo foot sheer red rock walls. A wild horse brayed as he looked on to our gathering. We discussed Joseph Campbell’s monomyth called “The Hero’s Journey” and students sequenced their own pseudonym/walking sentences to steps in the hero’s journey.
These young woman all noted their “call to adventure” as their personal and independent decisions to enroll in the Alzar School semester – to demand more of themselves than the average high school experience. While they were able to recognized challenges they had overcome and able to note feeling “stronger” or “more resilient,” they couldn’t quite see with the perspective I had, removed from the ongoing teenage turmoil and intensity of their experience. These young women have built confidence in their voices to not only formulate a logistically-complex plan for their peer group but to lead with poise, compassion, and high expectations. The rose early for each other in turns to make breakfast before dawn. They offered to shoulder weight from a struggling friend to help them make it to the next peak. They were learning to communicate with a co-leader through frustrations and self-doubt.
Sometimes change can be so gradual, so constant, you’d never notice it – like the water that carved this same oxbow through thick red canyon walls. Or it can take your breath away in an instant.
With confidence in our lungs we owned our experience, shouting our types of walking to the canyon walls. Sparrows littered out of a hundred bird-sized caves, and our echoes filled the oxbow, like a river of newfound pride.
Finish line walking!
For the complete assignments by student click here.