Fluffy Chicken Suit, Experiential Education, and Meaningful Work

It’s midweek of midterm break. Today is the first day in awhile that I’ve had to pause and reflect. I’ve been doing a number of community engagement events over the past week, and although I love them, they make days go by in a flurry of activity. I’ve been reflecting on how I might tie some of my teaching experiences together today in this blog entry and I think I will turn to my down-suit for that link.

I am lucky to have an adult-sized snowsuit. It’s a specialized snowsuit filled with goose down and you can’t help but smile at it’s bright yellow, reminiscent of Big Bird, colour. I don’t get to wear my snowsuit all that often since it requires temperatures of minus 20 or so to wear it comfortably and most social engagements I attend in winter, occur indoors. I often show pictures of my suit when presenting in schools and I don’t remember exactly when I started calling it my “Fluffy Chicken Suit” but the name has stuck and whenever I say that name, folks young and old tend to chuckle.

As you know, I’m getting ready to climb a certain big peak over in Nepal later this spring and I’m sure you can imagine that my life is quite “rich and full” as I try to juggle a full teaching load, being a Teaching and Learning Chair, and training 15 to 20 hours a week. Thus, I like to/need to time deepen (as we leisure scientists call it-other might say multi-task).

“Try on down-suit” had been on my to do list for the past month but I hadn’t managed to check it off. As down-suits are a bit tricky to come by (i.e. I can’t drop down to my nearest store and pick one up off the rack) and since I hadn’t worn mine since late 2011 when I climbed Mt. Vinson in Antarctica and given the joys and changes of adult development (i.e. menopause), I wanted to be sure, I still fit into my fluffy chicken suit…and I needed to do that pronto. A school engagement visit late last week presented the perfect opportunity for some time deepening as I figured I could wear the suit to make my entrance into the classroom.

Two fourth year recreation students, Nicole and Kirsten, accompanied me on that visit. They, along with three other students, approached me in January to be able to do a course with me this term. They had done two courses with me last summer and none of the other courses offered were a good fit for them, so I agreed. I was eager to do the third course in the outdoor recreation sequence since I rarely get to teach it and since this was a group of students who were asking and lobbying for the course, I knew they would be motivated and engaged. I realized that I had a unique opportunity to run the course (HKR 3545 Outdoor Recreation Leadership) in a much more student centered/student driven way because of the small size of the group and the relationship I already had with the students from previous courses. They were a bit surprised and taken aback during the first class when I asked them how they wanted to demonstrate their learning in the course. This is what the first draft of our course outline looked like.

The students decided that, as the capstone learning experience for the course/their degree that they would plan, design, write, and implement the curriculum for the school engagement project that will accompany my climb of Everest. I have provided them with some resources and showed them examples from past expeditions but essentially they are working as a team (without me) to complete the work.

It is work through which they will learn much. It is work that will challenge them. It is work that is real and meaningful. One of the most memorable keynotes I ever attended was by the Executive Director of Expeditionary Learning and he talked about how students need to complete meaningful work as a part of their learning process. He also said that it is important that student work be witnessed, that it be “real work for real audiences.” I remember that both of those messages moved me and I came home from the conference and made immediate changes to some of the work/assignments I had students complete as part of courses. The students and I were able to weave both of these into the evaluation items for the course.

Back to the fluffy chicken suit, the three of us arrived at the school and the students helped me don the suit and accessories. Nicole and Kirsten, just like most, chuckled and smiled as I transformed into a short, stocky version of “Mountain Big Bird.” They, like me, delighted in watching the face of the Grade Four student sent to fetch us, stop, analyze the situation, and then break into a beaming smile. There were smiles and cheers, especially from the co-operating teacher (who signs her emails as “Reader of Everest books”) as I sauntered my yellow-fluffy-self into the classroom. Of course, it wasn’t minus 20 in the classroom so I soon had to drop the top part of my suit explaining that this is how we manage heat while climbing-by tying the arms of our suit around our waist.

I stayed in the suit until near the end of the presentation when a student asked, “Is it hot in your fluffy chicken suit?”

I answered, “Let’s find out.”

I took off the suit and preceded to have six students and the teacher try on the suit. Because Nicole and Kirsten were there, the moment was captured. I asked them to come on the school visit because I wanted them to see who their work would be serving, I wanted them to hear the kinds of questions Grade Four students ask, and I wanted them to experience the magic of experiential learning-both the Grade Four students and their own. I wanted them to have an experience of a Grade Four classroom to inform their team’s work, to remind them of the students’ developmental levels, and to infuse them with passion and excitement for their work. It worked. For Nicole and Kirsten, for Tiffany, Emily, and Jaymee as well. And it worked for the Grade Four students…

For seeing a picture of a down-suit is one level of learning, seeing a real live human wearing a down-suit is a whole other level, and wearing a fluffy chicken suit is…a powerful learning experience that won’t be soon forgotten. Back when the Graduate Student Teaching Training program was called the Graduate Program in Teaching and met in person on Friday mornings, I used to lead a session one a term called, “Introduction to Experiential Education.” One of the activities I facilitated in that session was to give all of the grad students a balloon and ask them to come up with some concept or lesson from their discipline they could teach with a balloon. I loved hearing their creative responses and seeing them grasp the potential of experiences (however small or large, analog or digital, active or stationary) they could create and offer to their students to attenuate learning and engagement.

I brought the down-suit because I could create both a learning experience and try it on at the same time. It turns out, that in the long run, the first reason will stick with me much longer. I’ll remember the power of experiential learning. I’ll find/create/set aside the time and energy to make experiences happen for all the students I teach, and through both of those, my work will have power, resonance, and meaning, just like my students.

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