We Must All Row the Boat We Find Ourselves In

A Guest Blog Post by Northeast High School Teacher Andrew Adams

January 30, 2023

I got bit hard by the hiking bug after I was fortunate enough to accompany ten Freshman from Northeast High School on a 5-day Outward Bound Expedition in the Spring of 2018.

It was here that I first became familiar with the transformative and healing power of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Anyone who has spent time along one of its many ridgelines can attest to the 98 year old white blazed trail’s healing ways. The experience given to me on the trail by Outward Bound has affected my world view and pedagogical approach in ways that are immeasurable.

The story of the AT is one that is intertwined with Outward Bound’s mission of discovery through challenge, and the organization would make the AT’s founder Benton MacKaye very proud.  Outward Bound has become a steward for mental health, self actualization, and for safely & responsibly exploring and preserving our natural world.

By the Spring of 2021 I was spending a lot of time in the woods of Wissahickon Park. I was going through a family tragedy, and the world I was living in was reeling from a worldwide pandemic, racial and political strife, a disparaging education online education system and what felt like an era of uncertainty.  Then we were asked to return to the classroom and teach like the before times – as if nothing had changed.

In the early days of returning back to the classroom, I’d pass by the Philadelphia Outward Bound School’s Wigard Avenue location and think about how the experience in 2018 affected my students.  I went back and I read what I wrote to my students after my first outing with OB:

“As we began our expedition by trekking up that hill with 30+ lbs on our backs, we quickly realized that each one of us had our own strengths & limitations. We soon saw that in order to overcome our limitations, we’d have to have compassion for each other and we would have to give aid to one another. We had to form a team and become altruistic.

I hope it made you think about how we can work to make the world a better place, as we learned that we get a lot further by building each other up than tearing each other down.

Imagine how better off the world would be if everyone experienced what we experienced on that trail. We became a tribe. You each spent time gathering water, setting up shelter, and cooking for one another on a single camp stove, all while navigating 20 miles of rugged terrain in the driving rain.”

The letter to my students didn’t mention how impressed I was that the students who had little interest in their science class could spout out the difference between a shagbark hickory and a pignut hickory, or how a student who was afraid of heights climbed 5 stories on the face of glacier deposit.  Those were addressed by the accompanying pictures and memories forged through Outward Bound’s unique programming.

As we must row the boat we find ourselves in, I began to reevaluate what I was offering my students as a public servant. I began to try to align what I had experienced on the Appalachian Trail with Outward Bound with what the School District of Philadelphia was asking of me. In coordination with my colleagues at NEHS, we began to mold a small learning community called Natural Resource Management.  It was founded on a lot of the same principles both the AT and Outward Bound pride themselves on.

Our program is focused on conservation, protection and responsible human interactions within a range of natural resources including the air, forests, soil, water, fish, plants and wildlife.  In the spirit of self discovery and challenge we began to build rowboats, earn drone licenses to see our world from a different perspective, to raise and release trout, repair riparian areas, and to grow our own food hydroponically. Essentially, we are a nod to Benton MacKaye and a torch bearer for Outward Bound.

Recently I was given the opportunity to return to the Appalachian Trail on a 5-day expedition, this time with students who I’ve mentored in the Natural Resource Management program.  It was magical to see Outward Bound strip all outside baggage away from the students to start everyone fresh, to instill in the students the confidence and competence to reshape their post pandemic world, and to inspire this teacher to keep finding ways to make education and the experiences it provides to students relevant.

The trail is a classroom, Outward Bound its teacher, and the students are its hikers. I am forever thankful to everyone at the Philadelphia Outward Bound School who has allowed our program to continue to flourish through inspiration and its unique thoughtful programming.