October 7, 2015

From Camp to School And Back Again

The story of Greenwood College

The evidence is in. A backcountry classroom, using all that the Canadian landscape has to offer, helps stave off childhood obesity, improves cognitive skills and offers hands-on learning. In educational parlance, we know character education and outdoor education go hand in hand: Across the country, values like independence, interdependence and sensible risk-taking-all important for success in school and in life-are being instilled in students via ropes courses, mountain tracks and rushing whitewater.

The majority of independent schools now incorporate some sort of outdoor programming into school life. Trips ranging from two or three nights to a week or more away from home offer fresh air, outdoor skills and community-building exercises. Many schools also grant course credit for these programs, an attractive option for those students with a particular skill and aptitude for outdoor life.

Less obvious-and more challenging-is the potential for outdoor education to be more than this. Can-and should-outdoor education be a way to deliver core curriculum to all of the students in a school, and not just to those with the skills, means or interest in taking part? More than just a chance for interested students to experience the Canadian wilderness, can it deliver both academics and personal growth as key, measurable components of the curriculum for all students?

Therein begins the story of Greenwood.

John “Chief” Latimer had long dreamt of expanding the impact of the character-building experience that is summer camp. Between John and his son David, the leadership of Kilcoo Camp (a residential boys’ camp in Minden, Ontario) has remained in the Latimer family since 1955. Generations of former campers consistently reported how their experiences at camp shaped their lives, imprinting life lessons that outlived the usefulness of much of what they learned in school. Their enthusiasm fuelled a long-time dream of John’s-a former school principal-to open a new school. Fortunately, for future Greenwood students, the parents of two of those campers were Richard Wernham and Julia West.

As philanthropists, Richard and Julia had begun to explore how schools can support learning styles through the Richard Wernham and Julia West Centre for Learning at Upper Canada College. In their professional lives, the two saw how many of their most successful colleagues were not academic superstars or “traditional” learners, but could relate well to people, overcome obstacles and tackle complex problems in new and different ways. In their personal lives, their sons’ experiences at camp showed them how stepping outside one’s comfort zone can be a powerful catalyst for personal growth. Their relationship with the Latimers flourished, and the seed for Greenwood was planted.

The school would take an integrated approach to learning styles and commit to the importance of building character, developing perseverance, leadership and good citizenship in equal measure to the academic requirements for post-secondary education. An integrated outdoor, experiential learning program would be a key vehicle for nurturing and graduating confident, responsible, community-minded citizens of good character.

Having canoed and hiked through some of Canada’s most remote wilderness areas and worked with young people as teacher, camp director, and administrator, my challenge, as Greenwood’s founding principal, was to create a progressive outdoor education program for all students that was intricately linked to the school’s curriculum. The program would expose students to the topography and cultural landscape of Canada while offering opportunities for both skill and character development. The Grade 7 and 8 program would take a highly integrated academic approach, and the senior school program needed to meet all the requirements of the Ontario Secondary School Diploma.

Now in its fifth year of operation, Greenwood College School is home to 350 girls and boys in Grades 7 through 12 and 75 faculty and staff. As a key strategy in the character component of the curriculum, outdoor education affects virtually every aspect of school life, from the layout of the campus to the economic and scheduling realities of having the entire student body away for weeks at a time. The award-winning design of our urban campus (including a renovation and addition to an existing three-storey commercial structure in midtown Toronto) gives the school a camp-like feel and includes a “lodge” at the heart of the building, with a stone fireplace and indoor climbing wall.

Why is outdoor education so important to what we do? Particularly for a city day school, it offers a common set of experiences by which one can measure personal growth, leadership, confidence, independence and risk taking. With all of your classmates around you in canoes, a torrential downpour can be a great equalizer-a powerful antidote against entitlement. A shared history and common language is created in a room of students who together have tackled whitewater or a long and difficult portage.

Greenwood’s program is intensive: For Grades 7, 8 and 9, all students go to Kilcoo in the Haliburton Highlands for the first two weeks of September. Not only does this give faculty a creative way to start the academic year, but it offers a great chance for community building.

Students, many of them new to the school, work together to define and take ownership of standards of conduct with respect to leadership, environmentalism and social interactions, based on the core values of the school. These standards are posted on the walls of the camp dining hall, and later brought back to the school and posted in the classrooms.

This long period of initial connection creates strong bonds between and among faculty and students; our faculty say that under normal classroom conditions, it would take them at least until December to get to know students as well as they do in their first two weeks at Greenwood. And the results speak for themselves: Greenwood has an exceptionally strong sense of community. An external survey conducted by The Strategic Counsel determined that Greenwood students reported far lower rates of verbal and online bullying and harassment than those reported by students in other institutions.

Our program is progressive: Each year, students confront new, increasingly challenging experiences that demand more of them in terms of their independence, skills development, planning and leadership. The program takes up about three weeks of each year for all students.

The Grade 7 and 8 program is held entirely at residential camp, beginning with two weeks at Kilcoo Camp in September, where students learn basic skills such as canoeing, sailing and high ropes, and a third week later in the year. Grade 9 students venture farther afield, taking a three-day fall canoe trip in addition to their time at camp.

In Grade 10, students plan and participate in two trips: a nine-day fall canoe trip in northern Ontario, and a second trip such as sea kayaking on Georgian Bay or dogsledding in northern Ontario. Grade 11 students embark upon a nine-day excursion, either sea kayaking or mountaineering, on the west coast of Canada.

By Grade 12, students are expected to demonstrate their leadership skills. As counsellors, they help to plan and deliver the September camp program for students in Grades 7 and 8. They then spend time throughout the year planning a challenging culminating experience (such as a canoe trip or international travel), which they undertake after the completion of their academic program in mid-June.

Finally, the program must be curricular. While at camp, faculty must deliver pre-set hours of instruction-taking full advantage of the outdoors and the chance to team-teach. For example, to fulfill geography requirements, students learn about Global Positioning Systems; an astronomer from the local conservation area helps students to navigate the night sky for the Grade 9 science requirements. Grade 9 English requirements are met mainly through reflective writing assignments, each completed in a journal that becomes a student’s record of personal growth for his or her career at Greenwood.

Students’ participation in the program over Grades 9 and 10 earns them one full credit in the Grade 11 Leadership and Peer Support course. Because the course shares some common overall expectations with the Grade 10 Career Studies and Civics courses (half-credit each), the three courses are integrated and delivered by the same teacher. Grade 9 students earn a half-credit in Grade 11 Leadership and Peer Support, plus a half-credit in Civics. Grade 10 students earn the other half of their Leadership and Peer Support credit, plus a half-credit in Career Studies. The Grade 11 and 12 components of the program do not include course credit; however, it is here that the delivery of the “softer” components of the Greenwood curriculum is most keenly felt.

Greenwood employs a Student Character Evaluation (see page 67), a rubric used to measure student development and offer a continuum upon which a student’s personal growth can be assessed over his or her years at Greenwood. Each outdoor experience chips away at the forces of adolescent insecurity, instilling a sense of accomplishment, an enhanced ability to tackle new challenges and learn from mistakes, and the value of teamwork.

In terms of student recruitment, embracing life at Greenwood means embracing outdoor education. As such, the school tends to attract students with an interest in the outdoors. However, the reluctant student is often the one who stands to benefit most from the program. While skill in the outdoors is not a prerequisite for admission, a willingness to participate is: A student’s ultimate success at (and enrolment in) Greenwood requires that outdoor education be both valued and embraced by the student and his or her parents.

Similarly, all faculty must be open to outdoor education as a means of teaching both the hard and soft components of the curriculum. Teachers are comfortable with non-traditional ways of presenting the curriculum and submit a sequencing outline that incorporates the relevant hours spent off-campus. They must also commit to character development as a component of their ongoing evaluations of students. Finally, while employed by a day school, faculty must be able to cope in a residential environment, and must commit to being away from home for up to three weeks of the year.

To ease time pressures on faculty and to ensure students are sufficiently challenged in a safe environment, the school uses third-party suppliers for some of the more challenging components of the program. A comprehensive due diligence process includes assessing the providers’ experience with independent school students, reviewing liability insurance policies and incident histories, evaluating instructor qualifications and meeting face-to-face with our outdoor education coordinator. Our suppliers must have a similar philosophy to the school’s in terms of the value of outdoor leadership, and must agree to participate in the Student Character Evaluation process.

Now that Greenwood is in its fifth year, the words “intensive, progressive and curricular” must be joined by “responsive.” In the fall of 2006, we created a Principal’s Advisory Committee to review the existing program and evaluate the effect of some recent changes to both the timing and funding structure. The Committee’s recommendations include the reinstatement of our winter camp program that had been cancelled last year. Recent parent and student surveys conducted by Lookout Management Inc. confirm that outdoor education is at the heart of what we do: 77 per cent of parents see a strong connection between participation in OE and social/emotional development, and 83 per cent of parents agree it is a key component of their child’s experience at Greenwood.

As educators, our success is constantly being measured: literacy tests, provincial tests and exit exams. But no test measures the integrity of our graduates, although the word “character” appears in many of our mission statements. That quality will become evident by how each student lives according to his or her values, whether in the boardroom or around the breakfast table. In considering the role of outdoor education, a school is subject to no less a standard of integrity and no different a level of responsibility: to be thoughtful in our choice, deliberate in our structure and accountable in our measurement of the value of these experiences for our students.

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About David Thompson

David Thompson is an avid canoeist who regularly leads expeditions through the Yukon and Northwest Territories. He is the founding principal of Greenwood College School in Toronto, Ontario.

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