Students conquer elements, selves

Expeditionary Learning program takes kids outside comfort zone

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With blinding, wind-whipped snow buffeting their young faces, 21 Castle Rock sixth-graders snowshoed six miles up a mountain trail last month as part of their class curriculum.

Seven of those 21 opted to take their outdoor education a step further, sleeping under the stars in a shallow snow trough while temperatures dipped into the 20s.

The experiences were part of an annual four-day Winter Voyage, organized through Renaissance Elementary Magnet School’s Expeditionary Learning program. An extension of Outward Bound, it exposes students to challenging experiences with results that flow into all facets of their lives.

“Basically, we put them in situations outside their comfort zone but not to their panic zone,” teacher Lisa Johnson said. “They learn to value being between the two — in their growth zone. And they learn they can do a lot more than they thought they could.”

Not all who participated in the Feb. 11-14 trip on Cameron Pass near Fort Collins believed they’d finish the six-mile hike to Lake Agnes. Conditions were brutal, Johnson said.

“I was tired, cold, and scared,” wrote Jeannette in a class-required journal entry about the experience. “The hill was steep and the wind was blowing, hard. I couldn’t stop for a rest because my feet would get more pained and numb then they already were. The only choice I had was to keep going.

“Before this hike, I thought I wasn’t very good at pushing myself to accomplish goals. I know that I can accomplish anything if I just focus on that and work hard,” she concluded.

Classmate Colin wrote that he kept his head down, “hoping it would just end”

“My goal on this voyage was to … go from my nervous zone to a freakishly awesome zone. I went from slow huffy-puffy breathing Colin to fast-paced, awesome Colin.”

The students and adult supervisors that include trained backcountry guides stay in cabins that have wood-burning stoves but no electricity or indoor toilets. They learn how to build snow shelters, avalanche awareness, proper backcountry attire and equipment, and how to prevent and combat hypothermia.

“A lot of these things are just to be smart Colorado residents,” Johnson said. “As far as what they learned about themselves, that’s way more important to me.”

Those lessons were not only in self-reliance, but teamwork.

“We had kids who were struggling, and they were encouraging each other, really supporting each other,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe the camaraderie this builds.”

Johnson’s already used the experience her students had during those four days to guide them in more practical matters.

One of the students recently told her he was anxious about a test. She responded, “‘I’ve seen you make it up to Lake Agnes in a freezing, six-mile hike. I know you can get through this hour-long test.’ And he did.”

That newfound self-assurance is almost universal among children who participate in the program.

“I see their confidence just soar,” Johnson said. “It’s the most amazing thing.”