Friday, July 25, 2008

Intercultural communication in the woods

When I first came to teach in the city, I had to learn a new way to talk to children. Born and raised in a community of middle-class, white people, I spoke to children the way I had learned to in my culture. "Do you want to sit down now?" means "Sit down." (I know, it doesn't sound like it means "sit down," but most people raised by this culture know that's what it means.) "Is that how you clean up your dishes?" means "Clean up your dishes properly."

As outlined by Lisa Delpit in her life-altering (for me) piece "The Silenced Dialogue," working-class parents give their children more directives than do middle- and upper-class parents. They are more likely to say, very clearly, what needs to be done. (Delpit gives, as an example, the following line from a friend of hers: "'Boy, get your rusty behind in that bathtub.'") To those of us raised by parents and teachers who phrase directions as questions, these straightforward statements, which leave no question about who is in charge or what needs to be done, can seem jarring. We are used to the adults in charge pretending not to be in charge, or at least veiling the fact that they are the bosses. (Delpit contends that this reluctance to appear like an authority is "an attempt to reduce the implication of overt power in order to establish a more egalitarian and non-authoritarian classroom atmosphere." She furthermore suggests that "to act as if power does not exist is to ensure that the power status quo remains the same.")

Just as those used to indirect instructions can be discomfited by what seem like harsh words, children who are accustomed to being told clearly what to do may not know that a direction phrased as a question is indeed a direction. "Would you like to be quiet now?," when taken at face value, sounds like someone is offering you a choice. If you choose not to be quiet, a teacher unaware of this cultural divide may well label you as a disobedient child. And a working-class child taught by a teacher who couches orders in sweet, questioning tones may wonder why this teacher is such a pushover and isn't really in charge.

I highly recommend that, if you are unfamiliar with Delpit's article, you read it. There is a lot there, much more than I can cover in this blog. It is one of two or three pieces that have most affected the way I speak to children over the years, and I think about, and talk about, her ideas often. The first time Delpit's message came home to me, loud and clear, was when I was working as an AmeriCorps volunteer in a school and was sent to read with a boy who had arrived here from Nigeria the day before. "Can you read this sentence for me?" I would ask him. "Yes," he would reply, in the sweetest, most willing voice, and then he would sit in silence. "Okay, read it then!" I would be forced to say. Over and over again we went through this process. "Can you write that down?" I would say. "Yes," he would answer serenly, smiling, making no move to pick up the pencil. "Write it!" I would order, and he would. He probably wondered who was this simple-minded lady who kept asking if he could do things.

I have worked very hard over the past seven years to cultivate a clearer way of giving directions to children. When I need a child to sit down, I say, "Sit down, please," or "Sit down!," or "I am going to count from 3 to zero and you need to be sitting down when I get to zero," depending on the circumstances. I never say, "It's time to sit down now," or "Would you like to sit down?" unless I really want to know their feelings about sitting down. In my classroom, students generally know what they are supposed to do, and they generally do it. As a white, upper-middle-class teacher in an urban school, this seems like the thing to do, both in terms of acknowledging my own power, learning to communicate according to the norms of the culture of my students, and being an effective teacher.

So this little white girl who teaches in the city goes to Vermont to take primarily white, upper-middle-class, suburban youth on a wilderness trip. And guess what? She can't remember how to talk to them in their language! Isn't this the height of irony? I am so used to giving directions in no uncertain terms that the kids thought I was mad at them, or mean, or something like that. I mean, how fascinating is it that the kids literally referred to me "yelling" at them when I used a neutral tone? Do people only ever speak to them with warm, friendly, sweet voices, no matter the context? I have worked so hard on my neutral tone -- it is one of my most prized possessions! But now I must learn to temper it.

[An example of my neutral tone that they thought was mean: "It is not okay to use the word 'retarded' as an insult." Pretty straight-forward, no? Apparently not.]

I am unwilling to go back to asking questions when I mean to give a direction. I don't really believe in talking to kids in what now seems to me a duplicitous manner. But it was fascinating (and unnerving) to me that for these kids, my language was so very unexpected. Is it because I am white? A woman? And they think I will talk to them the way most people in their lives talk to them? In the end, I know I have to figure this out, become "bilingual" in white suburbia talk and urban working-class talk. I'm sure I will be able to find a way to continue to be clear in my instructions and expectations, but with more friendliness in my tone, or humor, or something that will keep me from seeming forbidding.

There is also, of course, the problem of learning to talk to teenagers, and the fact that teenagers are different from first-graders. I think I have to work on that too, on being careful to treat them more like young adults. (I don't think I did a bad job of this, but I have ingrained habits from the little kids that I'm sure come through sometimes.) The key is probably the same as with young children: having clear expectations, letting them know I trust them to make good choices, building relationships. Adolescence is just something of a new frontier for me, and one I'm not quite sure yet that I want to master.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

One thing I learned about teenagers

... is that the speed with which they accomplish something is directly proportional to their level of investment or motivation in the task. After watching them "hike" at a pace so slow I had to take a step and then pause, shifting my weight from one foot to the other before taking the next step, I wrongly assumed that this was the speed at which they were capable of inching up an incline with a great deal of weight on their backs. Imagine my surprise when, at other times during the same trip (sometimes even on the same day), they moved up similar slopes so quickly that I had to nearly jog to keep up!

Now, perhaps this is not as unique to teenagers as I think it is. I imagine we all accomplish tasks at varying paces according to our motivation. I guess I have observed a similar phenomenon among first graders but, in general, first graders are often excited about many things, while a pivotal creed of adolescence seems to be that one should rarely display enthusiasm for those things suggested or mandated by adults. It is pretty easy, on the other hand, to find ways to make almost anything exciting to small children. (It has been suggested that the way I inspire my students to action, sometimes through dramatic and/or emotionally-charged means, is a form of manipulation, but I prefer to think of it as creative influence.)

So I learned the importance of finding motivation for our group of 8 to get things done, whether it was a 7-mile backpack over 4 peaks, a particularly long paddle, the straining of the dishwater, or the cooking of a meal. Internal motivation (what good teachers strive for -- we want children to learn, and to do the right thing, because they want to, not because they will earn a reward), as with first graders, was not always enough to keep this group moving. And the differences in their speeds -- their ability, as a group, to move either as if their feet were stuck in molasses or as if they were being pushed by a small, motorized vehicle -- were particularly dramatic, making the necessity for the right motivation even more essential. Sometimes the promise of good views, or a swim in a waterfall, were enough. Often the reminder that the farther we got today, the less distance we would have to cover tomorrow, had great power, especially when partnered with a promise that they could sleep in past 6:30 the next morning. S'mores, or other desserts such as no-bake cookies or brownies, could move mountains. I used M&Ms with some success on a particularly hard day.

To be fair, though, this group of 8 teens, between the ages of 13 and 15, worked very hard. We had some tough days, tough for the instructors, let alone for kids unaccustomed to carrying forty percent of their bodyweight on their backs and the accompanying rigors of life in the backcountry. Not knowing where you will sleep tonight, even as the afternoon begins to wane, even as you are already exhausted from hours upon hours of paddling, would cause despair, frustration, and certainly a great deal of crankiness among even the most stalwart of souls. And as a group, they often impressed me the most when the going was the toughest. (And frustrated me the most during the most mundane of tasks, such as tidying our camp or getting moving in the morning.)

It was after a particularly grueling day of paddling, followed by a three-mile portage that had to be done by first carrying packs, then hiking back, then carrying canoes (turning 3 miles into 9), that they all amazed me with their perseverance and humor in the face of adversity. As we stood in the pouring rain eating dry bagels with peanut butter for dinner, our raingear adhering to our skin with sweat, they willingly participated in a physical, mental, and spiritual check-in before heading for shelter. (The simple act of willing participation in such a check-in is, in and of itself, no small feat.) And despite the exhaustion and frustrations of the day, when I feared they might revolt because their wilderness trip was starting to look more like boot camp than summer camp, they shared insights that were reflective, humorous, and as optimistic as the situation warranted.

Our student Jake, one of the strongest of the group, said that he was wishing he felt connected to nature and glad to be in the wilderness right now, but that mostly he was feeling wet and tired. "I feel like I can keep going and do more," he confided, "but then I try and I keep getting tired out. My muscles are tiring more and more quickly and I just can't do more." Angelique, the quietest and, seemingly, least physically able of the group, said that despite the hard day, she felt happy because she loved the rain. And Chad, darling Chad, who kept all of us in stitches throughout the trip with the way he could make a play on words that brought tears to your eyes, mused, "Physically, I'm kind of tired, and mentally I'm kind of tired, but spiritually I'm feeling pretty good right now. When you do stuff that's hard like this, you learn a lot about yourself, you know." Finally, Kris, our tough girl from Boston who was on the trip against her will, spoke up and observed that we, as a group, never lost our sense of humor, even when things were really bad. "And I figure," she said, "if you don't have your sense of humor, you don't have anything." This last should probably be added as one of the most important rules of wilderness survival.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Return to the front country

Driving home yesterday from my Great Experiment with 8 teenagers in the wilds of Maine, I went through various stages of recovery / adjustment as I re-entered the front country. The first stage was a profound thankfulness for the quiet. In my prior experiences, time in the backcountry has been full of peaceful moments of appreciation, contemplation, and hushed joy, usually sprinkled amongst feelings of discomfort, exhaustion, and struggle. It took a little over a week for me to notice that this time around, there was little quiet in the woods. I think I first realized it when, hiking last in a long line, I allowed myself to fall far enough behind the group that I could just barely see the last hiker ahead of me. As I walked apart from the others, I felt how different it was to be alone in the woods, and how novel it was on this trip. My instants of solitude were few and far between over the past two weeks, and I found that my moments of pleasure in the outdoors decreased accordingly. So, finally alone in my car yesterday, I enjoyed the quiet as I felt responsibility for young lives slip off my shoulders.

At the same time, I was sorry to return to the world of oppressive heat, cars, and being connected to everyone all the time via the internet and the phone. When I return from extended stints in the backcountry, I always postpone the inevitable moment when I will turn my phone on again and reconnect. In the woods and mountains, I am self-sufficient in a way I am not at home. I don't get lonely, ever. I don't worry about things more complicated than finding a place to sleep, knowing where I am, keeping dry, and eating. These are simple things to worry about, and, at the same time, they are more important than other anxieties that crowd the mind when my basic needs are guaranteed. Having only the basics to worry about is like spring-cleaning for the soul, and I am regretful for my "entry into a more harsh environment," as Morgan Hite of NOLS calls it.

I was also sad to leave behind my life of carrying my home on my back (or in my canoe). As Sister Anna (one of my co-instructors) put it, we spent two weeks making each place we arrived at into our home. We did this by going through a series of routines that were basically unchanged each day: arrive into camp, set up shelter, get water, unpack all gear, weatherproof everything, create a "kitchen," begin dinner, find a tree for bear bags. Then eat dinner, brush teeth, build a fire, hang bear bags, crawl into the tent, organize my things for the night, sleep deeply. In the morning, wake up, pack up my sleeping bag, collapse the tent, put water on to boil, take down the bear bags, have breakfast, get more water, divide group gear, repack, start walking. I savor this routine and the comfort it brings, and the way my home really does become a place I bring with me instead of a specific location I have to get to. I become deeply attached to my tent and to my sleeping bag, the tiny space that is just mine and that I remake each day. I am sad to put it away for the bigger places I call home in the city.

Finally, though, I turned on my phone and checked back in. And it felt great. Hearing the news of the neighborhood and of my family, making plans for cookouts, brunches, and walks with friends from near and far, sharing my stories -- it helped put the highs and lows of my trip back into perspective, it reminded me of how big and how small the world is, and it felt like home just as much as the woods had.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The best and the worst

The best thing about returning from 2 weeks in the wilderness: no longer having to carefully coordinate trips to the bathroom with a) the availability of natural toilet paper substitutes, b) soft earth for digging a hole, and c) a significant amount of time. The luxury of just being able to sit on a toilet when the need arises, to use toilet paper, to flush, and to wash your hands with soap and water... wow.

The worst thing about returning from 2 weeks in the wilderness: the inconvenience of having to find a private place to pee every time I need to go. Why can't I just pee behind the nearest bush? I hate the fact that it is socially unacceptable to pee wherever I happen to be standing. This is a hard reality to re-accept.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Overheard in the dressing room

I was in the dressing room at a well-known outdoor retailer. (I don't endorse said retailer. Instead I endorse, in a completely non-biased way, another well-known outdoor retailer.)

From the adjacent dressing room came the following exclamations.

"Marco, no! Marco, stop! Marco, stay here! Marco! I mean it!"

No response from Marco, except the opening and closing of the dressing room door. He had clearly decided that silent opposition was more effective than conversation.

I also left my dressing room, and ran into Marco standing by a nearby display. He looked up at me and, without missing a beat, asked, "Are you a grown-up?" (I am less than five feet tall, so this question is somewhat warranted.)

"Yes," I answered. "Are you?"

He chose to ignore this silly question.

"You're small for a grown-up," he commented.

"Yes," I replied. "People come in all different sizes. Have you ever noticed that?"

Again, he ignored the crazy grown-up lady.

"How old are you, Marco?" I asked.

He looked up with surprise. "How did you know my name?"

"Well, I heard you and your dad in the dressing room. He was saying your name a lot," I answered, with only a little bit of a smile. "Are you 5?"

"I'm 4!" he said, again with surprise. "How did you know?"

"I'm a teacher, so I'm pretty good at figuring out how old kids are," I told him. Just then his dad came out of the dressing room. Presumably displeased to find his son chatting with a stranger, he whisked Marco away as best he could without a glance in my direction.

I met them again later in the checkout line. "Marco! Put that back! Marco! I mean it!" his dad was saying. I wished I could give his dad the gift of counting down from 3 to 0, along with one or two logical consequences, but I didn't have the feeling he would appreciate my contribution to his child-rearing. So I paid for my gear and left them alone to continue their father-son struggle, in which Marco clearly had the upper hand. It reminded me of a saying my mom has hanging in her office: "Arguing with a child is like mud-wrestling with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig loves it."