Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Hands-On Method of Teaching Utah History

Like every other kid in Utah, I had Utah history in fourth and seventh grades. I remember some of that. But we never did anything like the stuff my son's charter school class does.

I spent the day volunteering to hike with my son's class on a 4-mile stretch of the Mormon Trail, up Little Emigration Canyon to Big Mountain. The class had already discussed how this stretch of trail had been used by the Donner Party, the first companies of Mormon Pioneers, and the Pony Express.

For many that came from the east, cresting Big Mountain afforded their first view of the Salt Lake Valley. Learning about this in the classroom is one thing, but actually standing there at the end of a hike looking at the valley provides an entirely different level of learning.

As the students sat there on Big Mountain eating their lunches, they pulled out their class journals and recorded what they imagined their feelings would be had they been among the Mormon Pioneers looking down into the valley. They thought about the great sense of relief at being near their journey's end. But they also thought about the hardships of settling the sparse valley.

Then the students were tasked with doing the same, imagining that they were members of the Donner Party. That group had taken this route as a supposed shortcut. But they ended up using precious time to build the road through the route. From Big Mountain they could see the flat valley that they would have to cross. But it had to be terribly disheartening to see the high and seemingly impenetrable mountains on the other side of the valley, given that their destination was California.

It was chilly this morning when we started hiking. The trail was muddy in many places. The closer we got to the monument at Big Mountain, the more snow there was. We walked past beaver ponds that were iced over enough that rocks tossed onto the surface bounced off.

The entire four-mile stretch runs uphill. This time of year it is quiet and it appears quite desolate, since most leaves are gone from the trees. I was surprised that we passed no other users of the trail on our hike.

Some of the students had no problem on the hike. Some lagged or struggled. But we reminded them that pioneer children younger than them walked that stretch in bare feet. Yeah, I know that's probably as effective as when your mother told you to eat your broccoli because kids in Africa were starving.

It was kind of overcast, but the weather was very good for hiking. There was little wind. It was windier atop Big Mountain, but it was sunny while we were up there.

We had shuttled the kids to the trail head in volunteer's vehicles. A bus was coming to pick the crew up at Big Mountain and haul them back to the school. I was among a few of the volunteers that both drove and hiked. Those of us that did that knew at the outset that we'd be making a round-trip hike.

While the kids were finishing up lunch and their writing assignments, I packed up and headed back down the trail with the other volunteers. We made the trip in about a third the time it had taken to hike up. It's all downhill and we had no students to slow us down. I'm a pretty experienced hiker. One of the other hikers is a high school volleyball coach that runs marathons.

This event was just a sampling of the kinds of things that students at my son's charter school do every week. It is pretty common for them to get out of the classroom and do something hands-on.

I explained how this works to a friend of mine that teaches in an inner city school. He said that he would love to do that kind of thing with his students. Red tape is one of the things that stops this. Getting everything worked out with the school district's legal department is a nightmare. Getting adequate volunteer support is problematic. Making sure that students have proper equipment is an issue.

This friend told me how he taught his students about the trails in the mountains east of Ogden. (Check Weber Pathways.) When he suggested that they get their families to explore the trails, one of his students incredulously asked, "You mean that people like us are allowed to go up there?" He was stunned. Students that have lived for years only a couple of miles from spectacular outdoor opportunities know nothing about such things.

I'm grateful that my kids have expanded opportunities for learning. I'm grateful to have opportunities to support them in these pursuits. I wish everyone could enjoy such blessings.

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