Art Abelmann: Outdoor classroom
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Five certified rafting guides, four teachers, one administrator, one community member and a videographer, together with 29 high school students, joined together on a windy afternoon along the shores of the Colorado River in a remote spot called Potash, Utah.
The group was readying themselves to embark on a five-day raft trip through Cataract Canyon ending on Lake Powell. Few really knew what the next five days would bring.
“Why?” one might ask. “What about school?” you might say. Well, for Aspen High School students, this is ExEd and these five days were the classroom chosen for their experiential education opportunity.
ExEd is a cornerstone of the Aspen High School experience. This year, 31 different courses were offered and nearly 500 students took advantage of the program. Courses ranged from learning to fly-fish here in the valley to doing community service in an urban community in Harlem; from cycling on the coast of California to studying digital photography in Sante Fe; from participating in a yoga retreat to roaring through class-five rapids on the Colorado River. Whatever the course, students benefited from the unique offerings made possible thanks to the ExEd program.
Proudly, AHS offered scholarship support to nearly 20 percent of the students who participated. (On a side note, thanks to all for the community support that makes this all possible.) As courses embark on 24/7 expedition-like travels, ExEd cannot be shared without taking the time and giving the necessary accolades to the 50 faculty members who make these course offerings possible.
It is rare to find a public school where the entire faculty buys into a program that requires so much energy, effort and enthusiasm. Few public school teachers enter the field with the idea of traveling with students or being on for 24 hours on back-to-back days. Usually these commitments are left to those educators who choose the private boarding school path. Not so for Aspen High School. Our students are benefited with a very committed and hard working group of faculty – not only daily, but most notably during the week in April known as ExEd.
So, back to the rapids and an outdoor classroom. Cataract Canyon offered team building along with skill building in many different areas. From visiting Indian ruins, wall paintings, grain storage areas and cliff dwellings, to learning about fossils, geology and the history of a region, to contemplating development and its impact on the environment, many topics are raised while hiking, cooking, camping, working together and of course rafting. With class-four and five rapids comes risk … also excitement, fear, invigoration and a sense of accomplishment. Learning the responsibility that comes with being a guide, students recognize the opportunity shared and find tremendous inner personal growth in a very short period of time.
For me, traveling with high schoolers is always a highlight. Watching relationships grow, camaraderie develop, self confidence take hold – not to mention the learning and memories one is building while not even aware of how much it is happening – is truly exciting for any educator.
ExEd is one of the cornerstones of what our teachers and students do at AHS. Thanks to them and to all who make each student experiential education opportunity a reality.
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I, and so many people, are exhausted by the fear-mongering over the future of Aspen. You can’t open a newspaper in a Colorado ski town without reading headlines about labor shortages and overcrowding.