A few weeks ago, a fellow teacher and I took girls into the wilderness for a little writing class. Just as I expected, good things happened.
When I taught high school in St. Louis ( before retiring two years ago,) one of the best parts of my job was taking kids on “Summer Seminar” trips. We’d travel far away from the city so we could hike and kayak and camp in tents on the prairies and by rivers. But we’d also read science articles and discuss literary essays and respond to historic documents right out there in the woods. I saw kids engage in learning in a way that they’d rarely done in my classroom; their questions were authentic, their ideas original and non-contrived. (You could read a lot more about how much I loved these experiences in an article I wrote for National Parks here. )
So when I had the opportunity to help organize and implement a “Camp out/Write In” program here, it seemed the right thing to do. I can’t say enough good things about Write On, Door County, which is the organization that sponsored this event. Write On offers programs and classes for all levels of experience and age groups in order to nurture and foster writing. The workshop that I taught a few weeks ago was just one of many that have been offered this summer.
But of course this campout involved work. We needed tents, cooking stoves, pots and pans. (And lanterns and coolers and tarps and camp chairs.) We needed to plan meals and shop for the food. Would we have vegetarians? Would we need gluten free foods? And then of course, we needed to plan how to structure the time, to figure out the best way to provide good writing instruction. But that could vary greatly if we had 13-yr-olds sign up vs having 17-yr-olds sign up, so until the last minute, we’d have to be flexible. Oh, and what would we do in the rain?
So there was a lot to think about and plan for. It’s a weight to be responsible for the safety and happiness of other people’s kids. So we planned and provisioned, and then… we showed up and waited for our kids to arrive.
Here’s the thing about the wilderness. It makes you a bit vulnerable. It takes away other distractions and helps boil you down to the real you. And here’s the thing about writing: it makes you articulate what you think and believe. It helps you remember. It helps you figure out what you’re feeling, and it gives you clarity about your life.
So, when seven girls who did not know each other hauled gear and set up tents and killed bugs and then sat down to write, we heard some pretty powerful utterances.
When we gave them some prompts to get them writing down words, these seven girls sitting under green trees put words together in ways that could awestrike a person.
On the first go round, they were a little bashful about sharing their work. But their words were good, and after awhile, it just felt good to hear what each other wanted to say. More than one girl’s family isn’t happy and that made us sad, but writing and sharing helped. Another has felt like a misfit for years. She hasn’t been able to “succeed” in sports or popularity, but she has certainly found a way forward with her words.
We were gone for only two nights and three days. We hiked and we swam and ate good food and we told stores around a campfire.
And as these young women girls filled up several pages in their journals, they thought about themselves. When they shared their words they were kind to each other and affirming. So they went home feeling a little more empowered to live their lives.
So, I remain a believer in this combination: take kids to the woods. Ask them to think, ask them to write. Then be ready to tear up at the beauty of, the power of their words.
I’m not exactly young anymore, and it’s getting harder as the years go by to sleep on the ground. But I’m glad I went camping with these kids because I’m just not ready to give up being witness to the magic that happens when kids in the woods write down words.