Transcendentalism and Class Identity- 11th Grade Camping Trip

School News
October 1, 2018 What does one find in the wild? Often, it’s a new sense of time and space, a new sense of one’s place in the world, one’s community and perhaps, even, a new sense of self.

“Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
-- Theodore Roosevelt

The VMS junior class didn’t know what they were going to find when they embarked on the annual class camping trip to Sweetwater. But, it’s safe to say they found a little bit of all that out there, among the ancient pines and cottonwood trees, along the Colorado River and between each other as individuals. It was far more than a class “retreat”, more than a chance to get out of school for a couple days – this trip became an exploration of self, community and Transcendentalism.

But, let’s rewind. Back to the genesis of this high-country adventure. Because it began as most diamonds do: under immense pressure, both social and academic.

As Ross Sappenfield, the Junior Homebase Advisor Science Department Chair and at VMS put it, “Junior year tends to be a time when students are forced into academic survival mode.” It is the time in their academic journey when they are taking the hardest classes, subjected to sophisticated standardized tests, researching colleges, all while trying to manage their social relationships. It’s a juggling act. “This trip removes those academic pressures and allows the Juniors the chance to think about what motivates them, what defines them, how they treat others, and how they want to be treated,” said Sappenfield.

Beyond the pressures of the college search, graduation and everything associated with the two, this trip represented a chance for the juniors to really coalesce as a class – to come together and define who they wanted to be. Cliques and “sub-groups” within a class can dilute students’ sense of unity and purpose. It was something these students recognized within their own class and wanted to address; something the teachers wanted to help them address; but something that didn’t really fall into any subject—the issue of class community and identity.

So, the entire junior class, accompanied by their class advisors, English teachers, the Outdoor Education Program Leader, and the Upper School Director, ventured up to an undeveloped area up near Sweetwater. Into the wild. They would be camping in tents and engaging in activities designed to build community, inspire reflection, find art in nature, and explore a strong English Literature thread focused on Transcendentalism.

“This program allows us to reset, to talk about what makes each student unique, and to celebrate the community that the class brings to the school,” said Liana Sideli, who is in charge of the VMS Outdoor Education Program. She explained that they really ask each student to think about their own personal role among their peers and within their class. They ask them to look around, at one another, and find things that they appreciate about their classmates.

Throughout the two-day experience, they are exposed to this kind of cooperative community-minded thinking. Even from the beginning of day one, as they load the vans with everything they’ll need for the excursion, teamwork is a strongly emphasized element. Who is helping? Who is observing? Who is filling water jugs? Who is readying the cooler? Straight from the get-go it’s about doing one’s part; about being a member of something bigger than your individual self—a unit—a class.

Once they arrive at Sweetwater, the students embark upon an outdoor education transformation. Through partner activities like “Piercing”—five minutes spent silently staring into another’s eyes and developing a connection with each other—some of the students were exposed to non-verbal communication skills. Through group activities, they get to experience things like trust, as their peers guide them blindfolded through obstacle courses using nothing but a series of stomps, claps and hisses. And through prose and quotes centered around the theme of Transcendentalism, they discover the power of nature to help ground and inspire them.

Julia Littman, one of the class advisors and upper school English teachers, explained how they weave transcendentalism into the trip using some of their favorite excerpts from works of literature. “We use those pieces as a launching point for further discussions and about learning in nature, how to connect with your surroundings, and have a solid sense of place.”

The teachers encourage their students to look into nature and find intuitive and spiritual truths; to reflect on their place within it, how they relate to the natural world and what they can learn from it, about themselves, and about the people around them. It is a case study in what Thoreau called “civil disobedience.”

“A trip like this one shows students that what you put into an experience is what you get out of it,” said Maggie Pavlik, the Upper School Director. If students shut off and observe the whole time, they end up doing a lot of listening, but not a lot of meaningful personal learning, says Pavlik. “Those who jump in to help, those who take risks, put themselves out there to share during discussion, or who delve into the journal writing, or who help when someone's tent is blowing away—they really get the most out of it because they're fully immersed.”

As Roosevelt put it in the quote above (from the trip reader that was distributed to all students in advance), it’s all about daring greatly, trying your best, and persevering through both failure and successes. That’s how to live fully. That’s how to triumph through life. And that’s what these juniors discover out there in the wilderness.

The Junior class trip is only two days long, but the amount of personal growth that the teachers observe in their students makes it seem more like a couple of weeks. The trip is described as transformative, by the teachers who accompany the juniors on it.

“Sweetwater demonstrated that the [junior] class is adaptable and willing to listen and to support each other,” said Pavlik. “Some students really went above and beyond for their classmates - that kind of willingness and kindness is relevant in today's society that sometimes over-values the individual.”

So, in the end, perhaps the juniors found exactly what they were looking for out at Sweetwater, even if they didn’t know what that was when they set out. It found them. When they left the high country on day two, bound for civilization once more, the teachers agreed, the class felt a lot more cohesive and functional as a community. They had identity – a sense of self and a new sense of purpose.

These things happen in the wild. Which is why this trip represents such a valuable learning moment for these budding adults – it shows them not only their own strength, motivation and individuality, but the bond that exists even among people who aren’t best friends. It’s a lesson that is difficult to teach in a classroom, and yet one that blossoms out in nature.

This story was contributed to VMS News by freelance writer, Will Brendza, working in collaboration with the Vail Mountain School Advancement Office.