This is my view from work today.
It’s incredible, awe-inspiring, and beautiful. Hartley Outdoor Education Center sits on 300 acres of hardwood forest. It includes a pond, wetlands, historic coal mine, several original log cabins, and the Fowler one-room school house. It is an educational staple in the Great Lakes Bay area in Michigan. The three day, two night trip our fourth graders take every year is one of the most memorable experiences of their lives. I don’t remember much about my own time in elementary school, but 28 years later I still remember every detail about Hartley. I am fortunate that I am able to return every year with our fourth graders. Hartley is so much more than just a nature center. It is an experience. It is an opportunity to truly get to know the students in your building in a way only an overnight trip can provide. Hartley is the trip that turns your class into your family.
It starts with teamwork and collaboration. The Confidence Course is one of four sessions that the students complete during their time at Hartley. The students have to work together to complete a maze while blindfolded, build a log cabin with timbers, cross a moat on a rope swing, and find a way over a ten foot wall. Regardless of how athletic or smart you are, these tasks cannot be completed without teamwork. It never fails. The students always struggle at first. They struggle to listen to each other. They struggle to take turns. They struggle to get past the first obstacle. Just when they seem to be at their breaking point, they come together. The listen to each other. They divide the tasks and share responsibilities. They complete obstacle after obstacle TOGETHER. You can almost see them becoming more kind and more empathetic right before your eyes. Although the tasks are hard, they make success even that much sweeter.
One of my favorite things to do at Hartley is watch the students during free time after the confidence course. They are not in their “normal” friend groups. Everyone is talking to everyone. Everyone is playing with everyone. The relationship between the students has changed. They are not classmates anymore. They are family. They forget about who is a rock star in math and who is the best soccer player. It doesn’t matter who has the coolest clothes or the biggest house. These people are your friends because they helped you across the moat, they encouraged you to swing when you were too scared to let your tiptoes leave the plank, and they believed in you and supported you. These new qualities are so much more important than any of the previous status symbols.
Another session at Hartley is the outdoor survival course. This course is built around the book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Hatchet is one of my personal all time favorite books. I read it when I did my student teaching in 4th grade, and it was the book that turned me into an avid reader. The students, just like Brian in the book, have to learn to survive in the outdoors. They build a shelter, start a fire, and devise strategies for finding food.
Students spend almost the entire three days at Hartley outdoors. They learn to appreciate nature and embrace its beauty. Hartley is more than just an outdoor experience for students. It is the first step towards independence for most students.
For many students, Hartley is the first experience away from home without family. It’s the first time they are responsible for cleaning tables, serving food, and scrubbing the bathroom floor. They gain a new appreciation for keeping the floor clean as they are responsible for vacuuming. Hartley challenges students to be brave. It challenges them to be problem-solvers, collaborators, and good teammates. It scaffolds them toward independence.
Hartley is an exhausting three day trip. The fresh air tires you out and with 90 students in the dorms, you get very little sleep. However, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I am so thankful I am able to attend this educational experience every year with my students. This year in particular is truly special for me. As I look out the window one more time, I see my son’s group approaching. They are back from their trip to the confidence course. I get a little teary eyed typing this because I know his time in elementary school is rapidly coming to an end. He is not the scared kindergartener that grabbed my hand walking to the door. He’s the young man that helped his team navigate through a maze while blindfolded. He’s having the time of his life. Thank you, Hartley Outdoor Education Center, for providing him and countless other students memories that will last a lifetime.