Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Off The Beaten Path

This past weekend, my wife and I were supposed to check out Joshua Tree National Park. Visiting Joshua Tree is on my California bucket list, and I was excited to finally take a weekend to explore the park's wonder and beauty. Per the usual, it was a relatively spontaneous trip, and I could not find a camping reservation within Joshua Tree. I did some crack research and found a campsite relatively near the park. We were set.

Or so I thought.

Driving to our campsite, we realized that it was far, like very far, from Joshua Tree. Mileage can be deceiving near the wilderness. Furthermore, we realized that the campsite added an extra hour and half drive for the couple joining us. I could go into all the reasons, and excuses, for my mistake, but what's the point? I screwed up. I screwed up bad.

I pulled to the side of the road, and my wife and I went into action. We pulled out our smartphones, did some frantic research, and made some calls. We found a tiny little campsite and hoped there would be room. We would probably have to scratch the Joshua Tree plan, but at least it would be a weekend away.

Flash forward to the all worked out. The new campsite was peaceful and undisturbed. There was a tiny lake and a number of fun hikes nearby. We retraced a No Reservations episode and wandered to the Salton Sea. In short, the weekend was a blast. It was nothing we had planned or expected, but everything we had hoped for.

The trip was random and serendipitous. It was a beautiful accident, a spontaneous discovery. My travel life is littered with stories like my recent camping trip. Some of my most fortunate moments are a direct result of a blubbering mistake. Seemingly random detours hold so much potential.

Now to make my segue (I just learned it was spelled that way). Students deserve to bask in the beauty of serendipity every once in awhile. In fact, students should regularly get the chance to make accidental discoveries, or be lured into the addicting realm of random exploration. Taking a break from scheduled routine is refreshing; diverging from the detailed plan is often reinvigorating. Time away from the beaten path gives children (and their teachers) a chance to play, to imagine, to explore, to relax. A journey into the unexpected gives students a new lens to think, to create, and to dream.

What does this look like in the classroom?

I remember when I was in sixth grade, we begged our teacher to let us have class outside on beautiful spring days. When our teacher relented, everything changed. The structure wasn't that different (we still read from the book and took notes), but it seemed different. We got to walk around, sit on the grass, and break the routine. Our attitudes shifted because we took a random trip outside.

Here are some suggestions to inspire serendipity and venture off the beaten path:

  • Go outside
  • Go off on a tangent
  • Give students a free period
  • Pull up the front page of CNN or Fox News
  • Learn something outside the curriculum
  • Ask the students what they want to learn (and do it)
  • Follow a fun hashtag
  • Change the class routine once a week
  • Have students start class by telling jokes to each other
  • Let students explain a new app they are using
  • Try 20% time or genius hour
  • Invite a guest speaker or friend
  • Have a class show and tell
  • Explain something you are passionate about
  • Have a mystery Skype
  • Play a board game

I understand young people need structure. It is essential for developing habits and effective patterns of behavior. I am not advocating for each and everyday to be a free for all. I do, however, think that much is gained by purposely deviating from the norm. There are many places to be discovered and sometimes you need to be lost to find them. There is something brilliant about serendipity. There is something magical traveling off the beaten path. I'm sure our students feel the same way. 

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