The River Experience at FBRA, February 2018

I am often asked why we commit so much time, effort, and resources to take our students canoeing one day a week throughout the fall and spring. My short answer is that “it creates the capacity for us to fulfill our mission in the best possible way we know how.” In this edition of The Current, I will provide a longer answer to this question and break down the “why” of our canoe program, as well as share our rationale for our unique approach to middle school experience for young people.

Our mission is to build character and integrity in young people for a lifetime of learning and service. Paddling whitewater in a tandem (two-person) canoe creates the most unique, unforgettable opportunities for our students to develop their character and test their integrity in a variety of ways that no other classroom or program can replicate. Co-founder David Byers captures the essence of our program with the following quote:

I still believe that tandem canoeing is a great way to build social skills in middle school boys. Canoeing with a partner not only develops whitewater paddling skills and teamwork, but it also strengthens self-confidence as the boys progress down rapids and are forced to make quick decisions with instant feedback from the river. Tandem canoeing also forces socialization and communication at a level that few other outdoor pursuits do.

Whitewater rapids are not the only place where tremendous learning and growth take place. The level of communication and collaboration required for a group of sixth graders to successfully load multiple canoes on to a twelve-foot trailer is tremendous and rivals that of a highly trained military unit. The empathy shared for a student who took a long, difficult swim at Nantahala Falls by a classmate is impressive and authentic. The planning and execution of a successful 3-day trip on the Chattooga river requires an attention to detail and level of preparation that sets our 8th graders up for success as they prepare to tackle the unpredictable challenges of high school and beyond. I have witnessed all of our students demonstrate these skills first hand on countless occasions.

I attribute my own success and accomplishments to my river and camp experience. While I cherish and appreciate my traditional schooling experience at Harvard and Vanderbilt, I learned early on that education requires much more than high levels of numeracy and literacy. It requires opportunities to safely experience failure and to have the capacity to learn and grow from that experience. Yoda reminds us all in the most recent Star Wars, “The greatest teacher, failure is.”

 Education also requires a sense of community built around unique shared experiences with shared language and metaphors. During the first week of school at camps Green Cove (girls) and Mondamin (boys), each student at FBRA quickly learns that they are part of something bigger than themselves. This sense of being a part of a team carries over into the math classroom when a group of students collaborate to solve a math problem, or when a class is challenged with a difficult service project in rural Costa Rica. The shared language and metaphors instilled from day one are applicable throughout the three years at FBRA and extend into high school and the world beyond.

While many of these skills and habits can be obtained through programs outside of the traditional school environment, the FBRA experience cannot be replicated because the same person teaching you 7th grade science is also your international trip leader, your PE teacher, and your whitewater canoeing instructor. Therefore, the expectations and culture of FBRA are consistent, and as a result, the outcomes and growth are consistent.

Do we canoe for the sake of canoeing?  On a certain level, yes. Being outside on rivers with children and exciting rapids is fun, even exhilarating at times. It rejuvenates our spirits and reminds us of the sheer joy and pleasure we once experienced. However, on a deeper level, canoeing is a means to a different end. It allows us to build the character and integrity in young people that is so desperately needed in a society where children are increasingly detached from the natural world and where the line between “virtual reality” and what is actually happening in young people’s lives is becoming more blurred and indistinguishable each day. It allows us to create a special community built around unique shared experiences with common language and metaphors.  The river experience is not the only way to accomplish these goals, but it absolutely makes the most sense to me.

So, peel out, read, and react!

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