It seems like a lifetime ago. Before COVID shut down the state, we snuck away to the desert for some warmth, a change of scenery, and unstructured exploration. There is no describing the magic of the desert: the alien landscapes and fickle weather, the colors and creatures. It also keeps you alert. In the desert you have to be prepared and dynamic, competent and humble. Little did we know this trip would be the key deep breath before the overnight switch to online school, Zoom everything, masks and isolation.
As typical most days, my husband, son and daughter headed out pretty early to hike a slot canyon, to capitalize on better weather and better attitudes. Though not typical of previous days, ten minutes into the hike, the clouds began to roll in, the temperature began to drop, and some decisions had to be made.
Usually at the beginning of an outing, we huddle up to take stock of our crew, review the weather, set some intentions for the day, and get on the same page. As an educator for 20 years, I’ve used this technique in a variety of settings: on field trips, in the classroom, and now with my own family. As the weather rapidly shifted, it seemed like a good time to review:
Who needs what? First, we cover our basic needs: Does anyone need to go? How about a quick snack? Do we need our stuffie to come with us?
What’s the weather? Next we anticipate future needs, and consider the day’s changing weather. Let’s grab a layer. Do we need any sunscreen today?
What’s the point? Then we get clear on the why of our outing. Where do you think this canyon goes? Let’s see if we can find the source of the creek. Do you think any critters live here? If you want to climb that 14er this summer, this is a great training hike.
We’re in this together! Finally, we toast (extra hydration!) to each other, the day, whatever we’re feeling. We commit to looking out for one another and helping as we can. And most importantly, to being our best selves and having fun.
Soon the wet snow covered the canyon walls. We giggled over the flakes tickling our noses and, as the slot narrowed, rose to the challenge of hopping rocks to avoid the cold creek water. My son and daughter took turns leading, showing confidence, independence, and determination. Proud parents, we hung back to let them guide, to let them grow.
Despite our positive attitudes, the weather didn’t let up. Our feet began to numb. The beauty of the slot and the novelty of the adventure carried us a long way, but I knew the inevitable, “I’m wet…I’m cold…I’m nervous,” was coming.
A week later, in the midst of online learning, I wistfully thought back to the beauty, mystery, freedom, and simplicity of the desert. Lamenting our current situation, I realized, maybe we could “huddle-up” to get through this challenge. It works in the field, and it works in the classroom, so I tried it. Who needs what? We can’t get anywhere, mentally or physically, without addressing our basic needs. Forget the lesson if these needs aren’t met. This is even more true in the online learning environment. What does this include? Our need for a dedicated work space, permission to take breaks, mindfulness of what helps us focus and what distracts us. What’s the weather? We must anticipate the storms and rainbows ahead to prepare in the present. Is a big project coming? Gather supplies and break it into manageable steps on a mini white board to track progress. Look ahead: what days are more packed with school and activities? When will there be a break? Together consciously decide to shift reward activities to days with more space. What’s the point? If we don’t make our current work relevant, it’s nearly impossible to stay motivated through the struggle. Dig deep and find “the why” of everything. If you can’t justify it, it’ll be hard for your kiddo too. We’re in this together! Lately, I find myself repeating, “This family doesn’t function unless we all work together,” something my mom would say to us four kids all the time growing up. It’s true. The only way to make it through is for all of us to engage, pitch in and participate.
So that’s what we did in that snowy slot canyon. After our family huddle, we took care of ourselves, prepared for what lay ahead, made the choice to stick with it, and ultimately stuck together. Remarkably, the sun eventually appeared, warming our bodies and our spirits – a reward for our perseverance. And, we’ll all make it through this uncertainty too, perhaps a little more calloused and ragged, but also stronger, more thoughtful, and grateful for each other.
Planted in the Rocky Mountains, Virginia native Margot, MEd, has educated children and adults for two decades, using an interdisciplinary and inquiry-based approach. A founding faculty of the Mountain Academy (formerly Journeys School) of the Teton Science Schools in Jackson, WY, Margot now forges school transformation with the Place Network. She develops innovative, place-based curricula that promote core academic content, design thinking skills and community engagement. As a coach, she provides teachers with the tools and training to leverage the power of place to drive student growth and learning. She is a leader in guiding students, both young and young at heart, to discover, inquire and act. To read more about the Place Network initiative click here.