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Learning at its Best

Real Education Is Transformative

Thanks to Jen Groves for the inspiration for this Blog for IDEC 2012 Week post. This is cross-posted at

I’ve never been much for taking on physical challenges, especially when there was risk involved. Skydiving, mountain climbing, and other extreme sports have zero appeal to me.

That’s why it was such a big deal for me to challenge myself in high school to participate in the annual ropes course experience with my Peer Counseling group. The after-school club (which centered more on counseling each other than peers outside the group) was based on mutual sharing and trust, so each spring all members spent a day doing team-building exercises at a local ropes course.

The on-the-ground exercises — like the classic “Human Knot,” where a tangled mess of people has to unwind itself without letting go of each other’s hands — were sometimes frustrating, but not a big deal. It was the high elements, which involved climbing high into the California Redwoods attached to harnesses and cables, that sent my blood pressure soaring.

There was one particular exercise that my best friend, Katie, and I dreaded every year: The Xylophone. We completed the exercise in partners. One partner began climbing the steel pegs on a 50-foot tree, while the other watched from the ground, coaching and encouraging her. The first partner climbed onto a high wooden platform and waited as the second partner ascended and joined her on the platform. That was the “easy” part. The hard part was walking together across a rope ladder suspended horizontally and attached to a tree another 50 feet away. The rest of the Peer Counseling members spotted us from the ground and cheered us on.

Katie and I, each wearing brightly colored helmets and harnesses, would stand together on the platform, staring out at the daunting task before us. I had a mild fear of heights, and Katie was always more ready to take that first step than I was. Standing shoulder to shoulder, we’d grab each other’s hands, look each other in the eye, and say, “Ready?”

Then we counted out loud together: “One, two, three, STEP.” Simultaneously, we each stepped forward and placed a foot onto the rope “rung” in front of us. Then we used each other’s support to find our balance again. The rungs got farther apart as we advanced, until we had to all but leap together to reach the last one. With each step, my breath and heartbeat quickened, and my muscles tensed.

When we finally reached the last rung of the suspended rope ladder, Katie and I stood together, still holding hands, surveying the tops of the Redwoods and breathing in our victory. “I love you,” we’d say to each other, side-hugging as best we could without falling. Then we’d drop hands and leap into the air, waiting for the yank of our harnesses as they caught us. Our teammates lowered us to the ground and rained hugs and high fives upon us.

Braving The Xylophone was a transformative experience for me, a high-achieving student used to working by herself and avoiding mistakes at all costs. Repeating the exercise every year for four years, I learned persistence, trust, and interdependence. I learned that even when I was terrified to act, I could do it if I wanted to achieve the goal badly enough. I learned that when I fell, I could pull myself up again with the help of someone I trusted, even if it seemed impossible at first.

Each time I conquered The Xylophone, I surprised myself by mustering courage in the face of an obstacle. I practiced relying on someone for my own success, and letting her rely on me. Up high in those California Redwoods, I learned more than I did in any classroom.


5 thoughts on “Real Education Is Transformative

  1. Wow, Melia. Thanks for sharing this story of conquering the heights of the Redwoods. I think these experiences reveal a lot of who we are as educators and learners. It’s important to acknowledge our own growth…and maybe some similar fears? Thanks again, Jen

    Posted by jengroves | November 4, 2011, 8:17 pm
  2. Melia, This is great. Thank you for sharing this so vividly. Now I know not to invite you on a sky diving adventure for my next birthday…

    Beautifully written and so evocative, about the way we learn through taking risks and not knowing.

    Love to you my brave friend.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 5, 2011, 1:25 pm
  3. Melia,

    I too love this story! Interesting to think about how important Katie was here for you (and vice versa, I’m sure). Do you think it’s possible for teachers to play out this kind of mutualistic role with students. Can we, as adults working with young people, hope to engender and provide the kind of trust, caring and vulnerability that helped to make this such a transformative experience for you both? Should this even be the goal? Can we strive to create environments or cultures of risk-taking and trust that can lead to such personal growth? Do we need to just hold space and get out of the way? Maybe it’s a different role that is needed from the teacher for each learner and within each encounter. I would like to be “Katie” for my students, but sometimes it seems the gulf between us is too wide.



    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 5, 2011, 6:07 pm
  4. I love this story! I love the fact that it speaks so loudly about real education without being preachy. It’s the type of experience I want my own kids to have.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | November 6, 2011, 9:21 am
  5. Thanks for the feedback, fellow adventurers and friends!

    Paul, good question. I think that as adults, sharing some of our vulnerabilities and mistakes with students is essential to sharing power with them. If I’d known that my teachers and parents had a lot of growth areas of their own, I would have felt that we were on a lifelong learning journey together. Instead, I awaited their instructions because I thought they knew much better than I did, and I expected that I’d be in their shoes one day. And guess what? When I became an adult myself and realized that adults don’t have it all figured out, I felt terribly unsafe in the world. It’s important that children feel cared for by adults, but it’s important for them to develop self-efficacy, too.

    Citizen Schools, an after-school program I worked a bit with in California, encourages their students to take “positive risks,” whether it means asking a question in front of the group or volunteering for a role that personally challenges them. I liked this frame a lot and still think about it today. Adults can help young people learn the difference between a risk that serves them and a risk that doesn’t, and they can talk through the outcomes.

    Posted by mjdicker | November 7, 2011, 5:04 pm

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