Overcoming Adversity

Think back to that first moment when you first found out you could ride a bike. Your dad had let go of holding up the seat and you had balanced yourself enough so you could just let the wheels guide you to where you wanted to go. The wind whistled through your hair, and you grinned so big because you realized at that moment your whole life changed. You were no longer required to stay home. There was a whole neighborhood for you to explore, and all you had to do was hop on that bike so you could see every nook and cranny of it. For the first time in your life, you truly understood the meaning of the word, freedom.

But this sense of freedom did not come easily. A lot of heartbreak occurred along the way to you learning how to take that chance and become a proficient bike rider. You had to overcome the embarrassment of riding around the neighborhood with training wheels bolted on to your back tire, allowing your already bike-riding friends the opportunity to point and laugh at you. The arguments you had with your dad were equally frustrating as he would yell at you about the need to pedal and you would claim that you were pedaling, but deep down in your heart you knew you had too many other things on your mind to worry about his suggestion. The bruises and scrapes you collected during the process was a constant reminder of every time you failed. But the great thing was you never gave up. You persisted because you knew that the reward would be worth the struggle, and now you can no longer understand what it meant being unable to ride a bike. We forget about the process of what it took to get us where we are with our bike-riding ability today.

We eventually take for granted these important milestones in our life, and more importantly, as we get older, we rarely look for other opportunities that allow us to grow. We grow complacent in our daily routine, and sink into those comfortable moments. I find myself falling into this sinkhole from time to time, and it is when I start to see a danger of my life no longer being relevant. It is part of the reason that I love the fact that the school I work for, Korea International School, has a strong experiential education program.

I have been a big part of this program for the last three years as I have taken an active role in designing the trip that the sophomore class takes to Boramwon camp in the mountains a little southeast from Seoul. It has taken a couple of years to tweak the program to get it exactly where we want it, but it has now reached the level that the students will get a lot out of the experience. It centers around the hero’s journey, and just like that journey, the students are required to take their fears and worries on a series of trials and challenges that will allow them to overcome those things they struggle with. They have to take on low ropes, and high ropes challenges, biking, archery, rafting, hiking, and many other little adventures designed specifically to take them out of their comfort level.

It is a transformative experience. These kids come into the trip timid and shy, not knowing what to expect. But after each little challenge, they gain a little more confidence in themselves, and gain the willingness to try new, and scary things. In a world that is constantly changing, where we do not know what tomorrow will look like or what challenges will be presented to the human race, this kind of mentality is a really important to instill in students. Plus they have a great time in the process.

The challenge of experiential education is not only something for the students. Each trip challenges me as well. There is a certain amount of risk that is involved when you take inexperienced students out into the wilderness to test their wills and their athleticism. You can get the students lost on a mountain, or they may slip off of that bike and hurt themselves, but each of those setbacks are more important for the development of these kids than if they were able to breeze through each of the challenges. If they get lost on the mountain, they have to come together and think about the best course of action to get themselves safely down. As long as they keep their calm and think things through logically, they will be able to make it back to safety. When they come back to school and look at the next essay they have to write for their English classroom, it won’t look so daunting because they have already overcome something worse than that.

And if you think back to those days when you were first learning how to ride a bike, when you fell off, you quickly got back on. If you did not, then you would never have learned how to ride that bike, and enjoy the freedom that was gained from going through those troubled times learning how to ride. The reward was worth the pain that they suffered along the way.

When you learn how to ride that bike, or climb to the top of that mountain, you gain the greatest thing you can ever get in this lifetime, a story to tell, a memory to cherish, an accomplishment that no one can ever take away. These are the things that can never be learned in a classroom. They can only be obtained through the trial that was experienced. This is the importance of an experiential education program, and it is the reason that I can always be happy to be a part of this moment with my students, every year.

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The Danger of Complacency

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I am now a month into my second year of teaching in an international setting. It has been easier this year to make the transition into the teaching grove. By this time last year, I was still wandering the streets of Seoul with my eyes opened wide believing that I was on some magical vacation that would never end. It wasn’t until later that I realized that this foreign environment was now my home and I needed to figure out how to work within its confines. I struggled with this during my first year, and it felt as if I was starting my teaching profession all over again.

But then the second year came around. I touched down in Incheon Airport knowing exactly what I needed to do to get through customs. The bus to my neighborhood was now routine. I snickered and felt for the new teachers who wore the wide-eyed look that I wore the previous year. There was nothing that this country could throw at me that I couldn’t expect and handle. I was now a part of the team and I felt a sense of acceptance that I had not previously felt. The experiential education trip I was in charge of was going smoothly as the team the school had given me took on the challenge, leaving me to pick up some of the loose ends to make sure all the little details were accounted for. I could lace my fingers behind my head and lay in the tall grass without a care in the world. The trip would take care of itself, and there wasn’t much I needed to worry myself over.

Of course, you know that this isn’t that kind of story. Nobody wants to read about a man without any problems. There has to be a monster lurking around the corner the man doesn’t know about that will bring about his demise. My monster has a name and it called itself Complacency. This idea that you are in control of your destiny just because you have done something before could be the most dangerous idea that you can allow to possess you. First of all, you are never in control of your destiny. There is always somebody, somewhere that will create a problem for you that will delay the path you have laid out for yourself. Secondly, without any struggle you never grow as a person. It was this look for a struggle that caused me to give up my comfy home in the United States so I could grow as an individual and a teacher, and here I was in my second year already believing that I had everything under control.

I should have paid attention to the music industry’s warning about artists’ second albums. Critics always warn listeners about this album for any band or musician that exploded onto the scene after a successful first showing. They even have a name for it, the Sophomore Slump. These musicians who were so hungry for fame and finally got the chance to taste it, now had to create a follow up that lived up to what they had just done. They don’t know this though. After producing such a masterpiece, they believe they can do no wrong. They are invincible. They are creative. They are popular. Of course, all the drugs they are doing does not help them see what is really going on. What they eventually come up with does not come close to the fresh and original album they had just created. It falls flat because it is just a reproduction of what they had just produced earlier, and it is all because they became comfortable in the role that they were in, and chose not to challenge themselves to take a chance and move out of their comfort zone. They became victims of that beast, Complacency. Their devoted fans moved on because they felt the passion missing and no longer believed in the magic the band had produced on their first album.

This was the trap that I found myself falling victim to. The group I was working with had taken over so many aspects of the trip that I could rest and reap all the rewards when everything worked out beautifully. We had just been on this same trip four months earlier, and it was so fresh in our minds that we could not possibly think of what would go wrong. If television has taught me anything, it is when somebody starts to think this way, something inevitably will go wrong.

A series of logistical nightmares presented themselves to me two nights before the trip started. I soon found out that this was not going to be the same trip we were on last time. When we were at Boramwon last April, we had the whole facility to ourselves. This was not the case this time around. We were sharing the place with two other schools. I did not know all of the students we had taken with us because it was early in the school year, and I did not have the time to get to know them. Add into this mix a bunch of students running around from the other schools and I don’t know who I can discipline if I find them doing something out of line, and who I can’t.

This was just the first of our problems. Boramwon then threw another ruffle into the mix. Our perfect schedule did not work with them because they did not have enough guides to cover our events as well as the other schools who were also going to be at the place. I had to rearrange things quickly, and found out that there was this huge spot left over where we had no activities planned for the students. I had to come up with a couple of new things that fit in with our overall theme of ensemble on this trip. Luckily, I had a member on my team who was a P.E. teacher and he was able to come up with a bunch of activities that could fit into this empty time slot.

I thought even though we had a couple of minor bumps that things would be smoother from here on out, but that was not the case. The night before we left, I was told we had lost five of the dorm rooms we were going to use in order to house our students. I needed to quickly rearrange all of our dorms to make sure we could comfortably fit everybody into a room. Once again, another one of my group stepped up and made arrangements to make this work. There was nothing else this place could throw in my way to make things fall apart.

This is when mother nature took charge. There happened to be a typhoon hitting the shore of Japan the same time we would be having our outdoor adventure. Now I know where I was taking my students to was miles away from this force, but we were close enough that there was a steady rainfall coming down during the whole bus ride out to the facility. We were not going to be able to do all the activities we were hoping to do. The hike would be a little dangerous, and the mountain biking would be a muddy mess with the challenging courses maybe a little too challenging with the weather. In fact, as soon as we arrived at the camp, we huddled the kids in the lobby of the dry dorms and I went to talk to the director of the camp to work out plans to keep the students safe and get the keys to the rooms.

This is where a new wrinkle in the story comes along. We quickly changed our plans, and things looked like they would work out, but the place was holding our keys hostage. Apparently, just like United Airlines, they had overbooked. They needed somebody to give up some of their rooms, and we were the obvious choice. They wanted us to relinquish four more rooms on top of the five we had already given up. In order to make this happen, we were really going to have to pack these kids into the room, and at first, we were adamantly opposed to the idea. But then again, we couldn’t get into the rooms if they wouldn’t give up the keys. We had to work out a deal or put everybody back on the bus and take them back to the school. They had us more than we had them, and the only thing we could threaten them with was that we wouldn’t be booking any more business with them. With the struggle we had booking this place the first time around, this was not really a threat that they would consider. We eventually gave into their demands, and tried to make the most out of the experience we had designed for the students.

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That is the thing I learned from this trip that I could apply to every experience in life. Even if I have done something before, and believe that it should be easier the second time around, there is still an element of an uphill battle that I will have to deal with. This is the problem with being complacent about each of these challenges. When you lie down, the hill looks like a gentle plain, and perception does not change the rules of gravity. You need to pick yourself up to take on the challenge because you will be able to handle it a lot better standing up than lying down.

Granted, even though I came into this trip thinking that it would be really easy, and the unsuspected troubles surprised me, we were still able to put together a great trip. I really want to emphasize the word “we” because this was not a solo effort. There was a great group of people behind me that never lost sight of the ultimate prize. They also were ready for the challenges thrown our way, and I am glad that they were able to pick me up to make sure that I contributed my share to solving all of these problems. I learned as much from this recent experience that my students did, and it makes this experiential education trip one of the most memorable ones I have ever been on.

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My students got a lot out of the experience as well. The bus ride back to school was one of the quieter ones I have experienced. They were all worn out, and a lot of that was because we made sure that each moment was filled with adventure and excitement. Of course, there will be moments that they did not enjoy themselves, but when they look back at this weekend they will remember some of the fond ones, and they will realize how they have grown as an individual, just like I did.

The Challenge

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Books are important. Any educator will tell you that. You might even be able to dig that answer out of the more obstinate P.E. teacher with the help of healthy snacks and lot of hand signals. But those reluctant P.E. teachers would constantly complain that there is also value to their contribution to education that should not be ignored. Not every educator will feel the same when confronted with that idea. That pretentious English teacher with the curly mustache that he always needs to pet will be the first to tell you that anything you need to know can be found in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. And as much as I would like to agree with the opinion of that stuffy English teacher, I do have to give it to the P.E. teacher in this case. Some times you need to put the book down, and go out to experience life.

I have talked about this type of learning before, and I still believe strongly in the importance of it. The last school I worked in used experiential education to show at-risk students the value of putting their addictions to the side and seeing the world for what it has to offer. The strange thing is that this is the same thing that the Korean students I am teaching now need as well. The addictions are a little different though. One involves a bong; whereas, the other involves a book.

It is obvious to many people that there will be a pot problem in the high schools of Colorado, but nobody thinks that there could be a problem similar to it in South Korea. For many years, South Korea has been on the top of the list for the best educational system in the world. Sometimes it is number one, but sometimes it slips to number two behind Finland. Both countries have great educational systems, but they both take different approaches to education. Finland thinks that less is more, and South Korea doesn’t believe that it can ever get enough. Students are required to work exceptionally hard in school and when they get out for the day, it is traditional for them to go to hagwons, a kind of specialized tutoring center, where they are asked to study even more. Some of my students spend up to sixteen hours a day with their studies. They are constantly tired, and have a hard time keeping awake. From middle school until they graduate high school, these students spend their time in their books. It is their addiction.

Granted, a lot of this is due to their culture and history. Americans can take a lesson from the South Koreans about how to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get back on their feet. South Korea turned around their economy faster than any other nation in the world. They used to have one of the worst economies in the world, but now have the eleventh biggest one. The craziest thing about this is they accomplished this feat with very limited resources except their greatest one, hard-working people. This is where the notion of needing to work hard comes from and why the Koreans continue to push their children in this effort.

Now as a writer, I am always going to say that books are the greatest thing that has ever been, but like anything else there is a danger to them. Besides the obvious danger of introducing new ideas into the world, and pushing people’s thinking, there is another danger, getting addicted to them. The desire for learning is great, but when it comes at the expense of a person’s health, and takes away from them the chance to actually live their life, then education has gone too far. You can only get so much out of books. You get a lot more out of experience. A book will tell you how to do something. An adventure will require you to do it. That is where these trips come into play. We take our students out of their comfort zone, the safe world of stuffy books, and out into the world where they don’t know exactly what is going to happen.

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It is amazing to see these kids take to the challenges presented to them. They climb mountains, traverse rope bridges, ride on mountain bikes, and paddle on makeshift rafts. For many of these kids, they have never been able to experience this kind of life. Their existence was limited to the confines of the big city and their ideas of the world around them were only learned from books. Even though the intellectual challenges that they gain from this style of learning is great, they still never know how far they can take themselves and what mountains they can conquer until they are out scaling those stony cliffs.

This specific group of students took it even farther. They not only learned what they could do for themselves, but they also learned how they could work with each other. There were many times on the hike where I saw students helping each other out to make sure that they all got down the path safely. They cheered their peers to as they took the challenges that the adventure course offered to them. But the area that I saw them work together the best was on the pond with the rafts. My students were broken up into different groups and sent out onto five rafts with about eight students on each one. The four teachers that were chaperoning the event were placed on a separate raft. It took us awhile to get on the pond; whereas, the students had a little bit of time to figure out how to maneuver the boats around and how to splash each other. Of course, by the time the teachers got on the pond, we were the targets of their new attacks. The way they organized the boats on the pond made it difficult for us to escape their attack. Even though I knew I was about to get soaking wet on a cool spring day, the moment made me really proud. I was able to see a good portion of the sophomore class come together to work against a common enemy. It showed that the learning that we wanted to take place was actually happening.

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For these students, these trips are traveling through a dark long tunnel which sometimes does not appear that it will ever end. But halfway through that dark tunnel they start to see a small pinprick of light far away. So they keep on traveling to see if they can reach that other end. As they get closer to that end, the light gets bigger and bigger until they get to the other end. When they emerge from that tunnel the feeling of joy is huge. They can’t help but smile. For the most part, this is the same way that many people would describe their high school experiences.

For the teachers, these trips are the moments that they can guide the students through these new experiences. They can watch their pupils learn new skills as they go through these challenges. In the process, they get closer to their students and each group is able to learn about the other because we get to see each other out of the classroom environment. It all translates well when everybody gets back to the school. The students have experienced something new that they could never have learned from books and they trust their teachers even more and are willing to do the work that is asked of them. The teachers get to apply what they teach to something bigger outside of the classroom, and create those lasting relationships with their students.

With all of these benefits, you begin to wonder why more schools don’t try to create programs like this. Some day they will come around to this kind of thinking and each school will become the powerhouse of education that they can be. Until then, they need to continue to walk down that dark tunnel making their way to the guiding light.

The Changing Seasons

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I have been really lucky in life. Not everybody gets the opportunity to grow up in one of the most beautiful places in the world, Colorado. But I was one of the few people that can say that I have been able to enjoy all my life the warm summers in the magnificent Rocky Mountains, the snowy winters landscapes, and the joy that you get to feel as you get to see life come back during the spring months.

Even though I enjoyed all of these moments year after year, there was one time of the year when Colorado could not claim the beauty that makes it so memorable, and that is in the fall. Yes, there is that short window of time during late September and early October where you can enjoy the golden splendor of the aspens changing, but this is a short window, and afterwards there is not much to see until the winter snows come. Everything just turns an ugly shade of brown, and trees are nothing more than bare sticks poking out of the ground. It is not the spectacular vision you get the rest of the year in Colorado. In fact, there were a few times when my in-laws came out to visit Christine and me during the Thanksgiving holiday, and I was embarrassed to say that this barren landscape was actually the place that I convinced their daughter to move to. I would always try to explain to them that Colorado does not look like this all year long, and I could see them shaking their heads in agreement, but their eyes told a different story.

While growing up, I had heard about these wonderful places where autumn existed. During my elementary school days, the teachers would have us cut up different kinds of leafs with colorful construction paper so we could decorate the room with them. They would try to tell us that in other parts of the world this is the what autumn looks like. I would hear about the pilgrimages people would take to New England so they could look at the foliage out there, and I would wish I could some day experience the same beauty, but after every passing November, I would forget about that wish as the first snows of winter would collect on the ground. It wasn’t until this fall that I was able to experience the gradual change in the weather and see the color explosion that comes with this season.

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Recently, I was able to make it out of Seoul to go on a research and development trip for an experiential education experience that the school I work for is planning for my 10th grade students. We headed out to a camp called Boramwon to see what it had to offer. There was an adventure course, mountain bikes, and archery, but the thing that impressed me the most was the four mile hike that I took through the craggy hills surrounding the camp. It was a beautiful hike that allowed many opportunities to see the countryside of South Korea. The most amazing thing was seeing all of the different colors of fall. For the first time of my life, I was able to see bright reds, yellows, and oranges as they blended together with the usual greens of the pine trees.  I was blown away by the spectacle, and I realized what it means to experience fall colors. If ever you plan to make a trip out to South Korea and you don’t want to spend your time in the confines of Seoul, autumn is the time to come. The weather is mild and pleasant. The air is crisp, rejuvenating you every time you take a deep breath. Most importantly, it is the most beautiful time of the year I have seen while living out in South Korea, and it has been by far, the best autumn I have ever experienced.