I recently spent a weekend at a camp on what will remain an unnamed lake about a 90 minute drive north of New York City. It was a beautiful setting composed of rustic cabins set on a tranquil lake. Turtles and geese skimmed the surface of the water and fireflies punctuated the night sky. However my time there was anything but tranquil. Why? Because the group I was with dared to dip our toes in the lake water. Immediately a camp employee appeared as if out of a mist and warned us that there was no swimming He further informed us that the next time he saw us enter the water the cops would be called and we would be “out of there.” Now be aware that we were not swimming we were ankle-deep at the edge of the water. The hackles of the ranger were further riled when we dared to ask why swimming was not allowed. We were brusquely told “that’s the rule” and shooed away. From that moment on my group was watched and repeatedly stopped and questioned by the “powers that be”. My favorite was when one of the rangers came down from a second story patio as I and another member of my party were taking a stroll. He hurried up to us and asked about the stainless steel cup my companion was carrying commenting that he “just wanted to make sure we weren’t carrying a beer can.” These “I just want to make sure” comments were inserted at several of the drive by inspections of our cabin as well. We nicknamed these camp rangers the camp nazis. The next day our group hiked for several hours where we discovered another more secluded lake .Here we swam and dove to our hearts content…ranger free at no detriment to the environment or ourselves. We actually got to touch and experience the nature that had been dangling out of range the day before. On the final day we went kayaking on the first lake. Once again we were informed that there is no swimming (I guess these kayaks are guaranteed not to tip over). OK so we did not dare to try any maneuvers that would lead to any suspicions of swimming. But the camp nazis were not satisfied. We were the recipients of one last chastisement as we prepared to leave. With a pointed finger wag they accused us of …illegal picnicking! Actually we were rearranging some items that had gotten wet and organizing snacks for the return drive….and had dared to taste a tortilla chip! We shook our heads and gratefully headed out of the back country.
So what does this cautionary tale have to do with education? My first thought…am I a camp nazi in my classroom? Do I enforce protocols for the sake of the protocol even when it makes no sense or I have no reason for the enforcement or implementation of a rule or a procedure. How do I respond to the uncomfortable questions of my students? Am I an authoritarian? Am I unable to explain the purpose of a rule to the students? Am I robbing my students of an opportunity to explore the wilderness of learning and therefore stifling their love of learning?
If knowledge represents the nature my group sought to relish, I fear for many students the camp we stayed in is a metaphor for too many of the schools they attend. If I expand this metaphor some who run the schools are the rangers we encountered …busily enforcing rules that served no one’s interest (except the campground’s ability to reduce law suits).
We need to remember there is no risk free learning just as any encounter with nature holds risks. Our role as teachers is not to keep kids intellectually safe…but to guide them to explore new regions and ideas in their mind’s landscape. Our role is not to enforce mindless rules, but to nourish students as they develop the skills needed to weigh evidence, consider various perspectives.