Lessons in the Tallgrass

A teacher guides high-school students into the wilderness and learns a few valuable lessons herself.


By Ann Heyse


In an hour, I’ll be in charge of 23 teenagers. Technically, I am already in charge of them, but they are all soundly sleeping in their tents, so I am stealing a moment for myself. The sun has just climbed over the hill behind me and warms my back; meadowlarks sing and, best of all, I am watching the slow amble of a buffalo on a distant ridge.

Now, moments later, I watch as these young adventurers begin to stumble out of their tents; I watch as they take in the morning’s beauty. The wind is rippling the tall grass all across the prairie hills; blue sky is wispy with cirrus clouds. It’s not long before I hear conversations and laughter. We have not showered in three days. For some, these were the first nights they ever required flashlights. Girls, used to suburban conveniences, tie up their dirty hair and cheerfully greet me as we gather around a camp stove for juice and cereal. We are far from the comforts of home, but already we have begun to feel settled in this wild environment and with each other. We are in class, but this feels nothing like school. After breakfast, we will spend an hour with readings and journals and discussion before a lengthy hike in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. Tonight, we will move to greener hills and sleep beneath tall pines. For nine more days after this, we will hike, bike, and kayak in the open air. Each day, we’ll investigate themes of brokenness and restoration as we discuss the works of writers as diverse as Black Elk, Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, John O’Sullivan, and Wim Rietkerk. At the end, we will return home to St. Louis, grateful for our days spent in the wild.

For most of my adult life, I have been a teacher. I have wanted to do it well, so I attend conferences, read books, try new teaching strategies, worry about the kids who tune out. Always I am asking myself how to better motivate, challenge, and inspire my students. Strangely, the best answers to these questions have come, like a gift unexpected, from an unconventional place: summer school in our national parks.

The drive is long, and yes, I miss my family when I am gone. Granted, it’s a lot of days to be supervising students without a break, and unlike school, we don’t send them home at the end of the day. Instead, after supper, we watch stars together, stoke the fire, tell our stories and appreciate theirs. We are the adults, so we set the curfews, make the rules, tell them the next day’s schedule, but somehow here, I am more their friend and less their teacher. Perhaps it is because this night sky has overwhelmed all of us; who cannot be amazed? As our conversation lulls, coyotes howl in the distance. Which one of us is not grateful to be listening? During the lesson tomorrow, I will be their teacher, but I will also be a student learning as much as they do while together we question, ponder, and wonder.

The Gift of Time
Here, in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland just outside Badlands National Park, nature gives us the gift of time. No bells push us through a tightly scheduled day. No after-school sports practices, no private lessons, no outside demands: we have nowhere else to be, and this makes us focus, makes us slow down. Sarah can look—really look—at the pastel yellow cactus flower as she avoids its thorns. Sean can ask a question about an earlier discussion that has nagged him since the morning. Erin, who has left her best friends at home, can braid a classmate’s hair and begin to form a new friendship. This is a pace of life unfamiliar to them. Normally, at home, they’d try to fill this space by playing video games, shopping, or checking Facebook. Here they seem more human with each other: Instead of using their earbuds to retreat into their own private listening libraries, they sing songs out loud. Instead of composing text messages, they speak their thoughts face to face. In this they learn again the value of intonations, body language, smiles—features that have begun to wane in their new world of digital communication. As the week progresses, I hear their conversations lengthening. When Jeremy became my student two years ago, he rarely spoke in class. But here I notice in particular his chattiness around the campfire, and comment.

“Yeah. I don’t talk this much at home,” he admits.

“Is more talking a good thing?” I ask him.

He nods. He makes sheepish eye contact with me, and then smiles.

The Gift of Fear
This wide-open land also gives us, strangely, the gift of fear. My students spend their “normal” lives in climate-controlled buildings. Here, the sun beats down on us, and we must constantly remind them to drink enough water; there is real danger if they do not. On our walk today, numerous rattlesnake holes near our path make me wonder what it would take for a startled snake to emerge. The tightrope-narrow ridges we walk on the erosive Badlands heights are precarious. Buffalo can charge. This immeasurable space with sky in every direction makes us feel small and a bit helpless. We are not safe here, and the magnitude of this dire realization reminds me of my place in the universe.

One evening, rainclouds gather, and the sky looks ominous. Michael, a big football player (and a first-time camper) approaches the teachers. He is used to showing his brawn, but he is clearly uncomfortable. He has found a cell-phone signal and has called home. His mother, 900 miles away, is monitoring our weather on the Internet, and warns him of a bad storm that is looming.

“Can I sleep in the van tonight?” he asks.

We are reluctant to say yes; we avoid answering, saying only vaguely that we’ll consider it if necessary.

Rain pelts us for an hour between 2 and 3 A.M. Thunder is horrifically loud; lightning is shockingly bright. None of the teachers are sleeping. Worried about their safety, I have been listening in case someone needs help. I hear no crying or yelling. There is nervousness, but no one seems in particular trouble. A few, apparently, have even slept through the storm.

In the morning, I wonder in particular about Michael, as the vans have remained locked and empty all night. He is exhilarated, happy.

“Like winning a game,” he says to me when I hint at last night’s anxiety. “We conquered.” The pride in his voice is unmistakable.
Nature daunts them with its power, but it also gifts them with self-confidence and humble gratitude. Although it is a weighty lesson, is it such a bad thing if these kids have recognized, in small part, their fragility?

One Final Gift
Finally, this wilderness classroom reminds me that good education is always about teaching kids and rarely about teaching subject matter. I could fill their minds with facts for them to regurgitate on a standardized test, but does this make them ready for the adult world? I want to send out creative and confident thinkers with the ability to solve problems. I want students who know their own mind because they have been asked to reflect and reason and decide rather than memorize. Here, we read, but there is no quiz. Here, they write, but I am not checking for comma splices. Here, we discuss, but they are not taking notes for the essay they will write next week. Gradually, on this trip, I see them make the transition from teacher-driven thinking to intrinsically motivated thinking. Now they discuss topics because they are genuinely engaged, involved, and curious. What more could a teacher want than a student who loves to learn?

As dark sets in on our last night, a whippoorwill begins its repetitious call. Twelve days ago, Amber had not known such a bird existed; now she knows it well enough to moan about the relentless, repetitive chorus we will likely hear far into the night. Ben points out not only that the moon is rising over a ridge, but that it is waxing gibbous towards full. By the light of a headlamp, Dierdre is reading a journal entry to Collin, and they laugh. Ashley announces that she’s not ready to go home. Tonight there is no bedtime; we have told them they can stay at the fire all night if they wish, as they can sleep in the cars on the long drive back tomorrow.

I head to my sleeping bag, weary but content, and 23 kind voices wish me “goodnight.”

Ann Heyse teaches English at Westminster Christian Academy, a college preparatory school in St. Louis, Missouri. This summer marks her eighth trip into the national parks with students from the school.

This article appears in the Spring 2011 issue.

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