Take It Outside

By Jennifer Pricola — November 01, 2000 2 min read
An outdoor education course teaches students how to survive in the wild—and in life.

At Brewer High School, near Bangor, Maine, physical education instructor Mark Savage and health teacher Cindy Porter-McLaughlin help gym-o-phobic students escape PE. The catch? Students trade calisthenics for canoeing, winter camping, and other wilderness adventures.

Savage and Porter-McLaughlin, both in their early 40s, oversee “Outdoor Education,” a yearlong course that counts toward the school’s two-year physical education requirement. Each of the 10 classes meets every other day for 45 minutes, plus after school and on some weekends, for outdoor activities and community service such as teaching rope skills to elementary school kids. Grades depend on a number of factors—effort, participation, a research project, and a portfolio that includes photos, journal entries, and letters.

Savage created the program in 1990 after participating in an outdoor leadership course at the University of Maine. “The class did so much for me personally,” the teacher says. “It helped my self-esteem tremedously and really changed my whole life at the time. If it could do that for me as an adult, I thought, What could it do for teenagers?”

Within a few years, more students wanted to take the course than Savage could handle, and Porter-McLaughlin, who had helped out on previous trips, volunteered to head new sections in addition to her health classes. For three years, she taught in the outdoor ed program for free before the school found the money to pay her. The course still exceeds Brewer’s budget—the school only provides $2,500 for the $15,000 program—but local businesses help out and kids pitch in as well, paying for meals on weekend trips and organizing fund-raisers. Savage says this gives students and teachers a stake in the program. “There is a real sense of ownership,” he explains.

The teachers say the class helps many teens with poor social skills, drug-related problems, or other troubles. But it attracts all types, partly because it offers students the chance to serve as teacher assistants. Instructors choose TA’s for each class based on their leadership skills, ability to motivate others, and desire to teach what they know. TA duties range from developing curriculum and evaluating fellow students to leading cooking and clean-up groups on camping trips. Says Savage, “One of the things I’m most proud of is that it’s a student-run, student-organized, student-driven program. Cindy and I facilitate.”

During the wilderness activities, students occasionally open up to the two teachers about academic or social trouble. “There are a lot of personal moments involved,” says Porter-McLaughlin. Not surprisingly, the instructors end up teaching students as much about surviving life as they do about surviving in the wild. “Sometimes we’ve saved kids from failing a class,” says Porter- McLaughlin. “I’ve told students, ‘You need to set an example. You can’t fail a class. That’s not what this is all about.’ ”