by Peter Kornmeier
“This was the best day of school ever!”
It wasn’t so much that my student had enjoyed missing a day of classes, but that he and his friends had just completed the strenuous nine-mile hike and rock scramble to the top of Old Rag, the highest mountain in Shenandoah National Park. The trip was the culmination of my Outdoor Adventures class, where the students exercised and learned technical outdoor skills while participating in several rock climbing and hiking field trips.
Fortunately, my least favorite question was not asked during the class. No students asked, “When am I going to use this in the real world,” because, well, we were in the real world. As a math teacher, I am constantly striving to engage my students, but outdoor education is the one venue where I never have to try. My favorite day was when a student announced he had learned the Prusik knot and wanted to teach the class how to use a Prusik to ascend a rope in case of emergency. I just sat back and watched. This authentic sharing of knowledge—common at our school—was still a refreshing change from me assigning a presentation and the student attempting to discuss the topic well enough to earn a decent grade. When a student does not feel like she is doing work for a class, it creates a fun and collaborative atmosphere where she wants to be present.
According to Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, there are many ways to teach and learn new information, and every student has his or her own unique pattern of intelligences. Traditional classroom learning is heavily biased towards students who possess strength in what Gardner refers to as logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligences. At The New School, we strive to incorporate each of the intelligences into our methods of instruction and assessment, which has a profoundly positive effect on the level of student engagement.
One day I took a linguistic approach toward teaching the students the steps to tie a figure eight knot, an essential knot for rock climbing. Most of the students easily followed the instructions I had written on the board and quickly mastered the figure eight knot. However, one student was particularly frustrated and confused. The next day, I took a visual-spatial approach and drew him a diagram of the steps, and he understood it instantly. That visual-spatial strength also helped him excel at mapping complex climbing routes up a rock face. I was amazed to watch him transform from a quiet and relatively apprehensive student into a confident, vocal leader who was eager to help out his classmates on climbing trips.
At the end of a class, I always hope that I have inspired my students. As they were leaving on the last day, they thanked me and told me about their plans for their own adventures outside of school. I smiled and reminded them to double check their figure eight knots.