Brewer High School has been offering a course in outdoor education for the past 20 years. This program provides Brewer students with an alternative to regular gym-centered physical education. It has become a model for other schools in Maine.
At Brewer, students who enroll in the course satisfy their physical education requirement to graduate. The first week of school, I visited with Mark Savage, who teaches the course along with his life partner, Cindy McLaughlin, to find out exactly how an outdoor education works. What I discovered made me wish I were still attending my old school. Well, almost.
We met at the outdoor education (OE) building on the campus and when Savage opened the door we walked into a huge space, probably 40 by 80 feet or bigger, crammed with a few dozen canoes on trailers and racks. Savage said, “Everything in this building was built by the students. All the equipment was paid for with fundraisers.” We walked around where space allowed and then went upstairs to a mezzanine, where there was more gear; backpacks, tents, mountain bikes, paddles, wet suits hanging from the rafters, snowshoes, skis and helmets — lots of helmets.
As we walked, Savage, who also is the school’s soccer coach and health teacher, explained that his teaching assistants, upperclassmen and women, run the program. “I just direct, but they run it,” he said. His daughter, Makayla, a freshman in the program, joined us.
We left the building and he took me out back through the trees to the ropes course, a course that takes students through several elements; knots, techniques and team building, from low ropes and wall challenges, to high ropes including a 20-foot high, 200-foot long platform-to-platform zip line through the trees.
During some exercises the students learn problem solving in group challenges that require them to work together. When asked what students get out of this part of the curriculum, Savage said, “They learn to work with others. I don’t care where it is, with your family, in the workplace, or with your business, you have to be able to work with others. They learn to be better communicators as well. Those things are critical. They go way beyond any one career path. These are things they need to learn for life.”
Some of their students choose a career based on what they learn, such as game warden, park ranger or mountain guide. “We have one student who went on to work at NOLS, [National Outdoor Leadership School],” Savage said.
We left the ropes course and headed back to the parking lot in front of the OE building. Savage handed me a curriculum describing the other activities that students participate in, and said that if I wanted to meet some of them I could come back in about an hour when they held their planning meeting for a fall trip.
There were about 20 student teaching assistants in the classroom and Savage introduced me to them so I could ask about their program. The group was about half boys and half girls. At first they wanted to give me textbook answers about how they “facilitate the younger students learning,” until I said I wouldn’t use their names in the story I was writing, if it made them more comfortable. Then they opened up about how the program works and their role in it. Then, everyone wanted to talk at once.
When asked how this program is different from regular phys ed, one student, a young woman, said “In regular phys ed, cliques stay together, but in OE, there’s like no social status, we’re all one big group, like a family. All of us in this room enjoy what we do. We all want to be here.”
That sentiment was agreed to by the others in a chorus of “oh yeahs” and laughter. Another student said, “He’s not dragging us here to help him teach a class. We’re willing to write a paper for this class, so we want to be here.”
Savage asked them to describe their trips to their camp in the Katahdin Iron Works-Jo-Mary Multiple Use Forest, where the school has a facility. There, they spend several weekends, including winter overnighters, using skills they learned in the course.
One student in the back described how they plan meals for the group on overnighters. She said, “We come up with a menu of what everyone wants. Then on Thursday before the trip, one of us goes shopping with Savage and we choose all the meals. Then, when we get to camp, we’re the ones cooking it. We basically run the camp.”
“If we have a problem,” she said, “we talk together and solve it. We don’t go to Savage for help unless we really need it. Very rarely do we go to Savage.”
“It’s like we’re responsible for once,” said another, to much laughter from the others.
“The TA’s [teaching assistants] basically run the camp,” said another.
When asked where they go on these trips, one young man said, “We’ve whitewater paddled on the West Branch of the Penobscot, Seboomook, the Kenduskeag, Soudabsacook, we go lots of places.”
“We’ve hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail, we ski up into Gulf Hagas, on the river,” said one.
Their enthusiasm for the outdoors was obvious. If I didn’t know better I would never have guessed this was a high school class. It’s probably the same for them, I thought. They might know they’re learning, but it probably doesn’t seem like it at the time. If the success of the program depends on the quality of the teachers and students, then this one should be around for a long time. Now, if I can just figure out a way to be invited on one of their winter trips. That would be fun. I might just learn a thing or two.