Recently, as I hiked toward Mohawk Lakes with a group of eighth-graders from Texas, one approached me. "Hey, Mr. Jeff," he said, "This is my Mount Everest!" The look in his eyes was serious, and he was clearly both exhausted and exhilarated.
For these middle schoolers, this class trip was eye opening in so many ways. They flew from Houston to Denver on a Saturday afternoon. The mountains greeted them with cold and wind like they'd never experienced before (not to mention the breathtaking elevation). Starting Sunday morning, they spent three days immersed in forest and aquatic ecology, and their trip culminated with a Celebration Hike up one of Summit County's classic peaks.
In that moment, with that student, hiking on that trail took on a new meaning for me. It's a trail I've been on dozens of times, but that day I was treated to new perspectives. We started by talking about what our goals were for the hike. For some it was getting cool views along the trail, or seeing the old mining ruins. For others, it was getting to the lakes. As we hiked up Spruce Creek Trail, I began to see moments of recognition in the students as they discussed what they'd learned earlier in the week. A few students had a running debate about what mountain life zone we were in: montane, subalpine or alpine. They identified the flora and fauna, asked me probing questions, and fully immersed themselves in the experience. Four days earlier some of these same students had never even seen a mountain!
I was boggled. I sat back and smiled as I overheard them noting the lack of lodgepole pines or aspen, eventually coming to the conclusion that this was a climax forest and we were hiking up through multiple life zones. The group conversation turned to mining as we passed the ruins, and eventually led to some talk about the beautiful tarn that is Mohawk Lakes.
This hike was by no means an easy stroll. We hiked a short distance, then stopped, hiked a little higher, then stopped again. Rest breaks by patches of snow became a goal (snow is particularly astounding when you live in a warm climate!) As we approached the lakes, the Summit County winds picked up. People were losing hats, jackets were flapping, and the powerful winds were literally taking our breath away. Feeling the excitement, I ran ahead of the group. As each student crested to the lake I shouted "Get your hands up!" and took a celebratory picture of each student, arms raised, fists pumped.
This day at Mohawk Lakes got me thinking: as a teacher, what are my "Mount Everest" experiences? What really brings me a sense of pride and accomplishment? Is it teaching a difficult concept? Seeing the curiosity in a student's face while learning something for the first time? Or showing a local student the amazement of the things they so often overlook right here in Summit County?
A common rallying cry amongst fellow teachers at Keystone Science School is "go change the world!" I think that's my challenge and reward: finding that sense of satisfaction that comes from guiding students toward curiosity about the world, observing them apply what they've learned to real life, and knowing that it will lead to new explorations. Sharing in their accomplishments only enhances my own.
Jeff Grabham is a Program Instructor at Keystone Science School. For more information on Keystone Science School, give us a call at (970) 468-2098 or visit www.keystonescienceschool.org.