As part of developing the Global Service Learning program at Lakeside School, we took a group of middle school students to the Makah Indian Reservation in Neah Bay, Washington for a two week project. Because it was summer and many of the young people in the community were away visiting relatives, we mostly interacted and worked with tribal elders. We learned songs, stories and games, delved into the whaling controversy, helped transcribe language tapes, gathered medicinal plants, and prepared for their annual festival. Lovely connections arose between the students and their Makah teachers. During a reflection at the end of the trip, one of the boys looked up from his journal and said: “How come we don’t have elders? We just have old people!”
I have thought of that moment and the ensuing conversation about what the difference is, and how we can change our perception and treatment of “old people” to honor them as elders in our community for the wisdom, experience, and lessons they have to teach us. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I traveled to Victoria, B.C. for ISEEN’s Winter institute with the theme Walking With Elders. Throughout the four days of learning, networking and celebrating, 150 educators explored what it means to have elders, to be elders, to mentor and to seek mentorship. First Nations elders told stories, sang songs, and introduced themselves by way of the land that is their mother. We learned from the students and faculty at St. Michaels University School who shared their experiential programs — from film making to salmon studies to coffee roasting to serving food to converting an automobile engine to making cedar bracelets. We took risks, shared stories about our school programs, practiced reflection techniques, and enjoyed the beautiful environment in and around Victoria.
The theme really resonated with me, as I move into elderhood and become more comfortable with standing in my own truth, claiming the life experience I have, and offering to share it with others. It was also very meaningful to be around the First Nations elders who speak at a different cadence, allow for silence and the stretching of time, and share their commitment to teaching young people the old ways. At the same time, there were particular people there who mentored me by example and story, and I loved gobbling up their wisdom. Dave Mochel, who works with people to manage stress, led us in a series of mindfulness practices, reminding us it only takes 15 seconds to change the energy in a room, get everyone grounded and ready for the next activity. James Toole, long a leader in the Service Learning movement, demonstrated his work with young people around the world to harness their “Superpowers” to solve problems that gnaw at them. And Dan Garvey, a guru in Experiential Education through his work at Prescott College and Semester at Sea, regaled us in a small group session with “The World According to Garv” which I took to heart and share with you here:
1. APPRECIATE YOUR STUDENTS.
When we see them as co-creators of the learning, amazing things can happen.
2. ASSUME POSITIVE INTENT.
Understand that administrators are not your enemy, and you will have much better success if you see that they are on your side.
3. AVOID THE DRAMA.
4. PACE YOURSELF.
Decide what’s most important to you — People, Purpose, or Place, and make decisions accordingly to avoid burnout and/or resentment.
5. PLAN YOUR EXIT.
Know when it’s time to go, and recognize that “your competence is your tenure in life.”
It was a magical whirlwind of time among people who value experiential education and are committed to bringing it to students and schools. I felt equally inspired by people who were new to the work as by masters who have been living the pedagogy for decades. As we were challenged to bring one thing home we wanted more of in our life and commit to doing that thing, I chose singing and took the risk to lead a call and response chant I learned from one of my yoga teachers at the end of the institute: Lokaa Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu: May all beings everywhere be happy and free from suffering. It seemed a fitting way to end a magical time in a beautiful place, and I offer it to you now.