I once had the privilege to instruct a 15-day middle school course for Outward Bound in Colorado. Even though that trip was four years ago, I often recall hilarious moments I shared with my students, the growth I witnessed in them and the tremendous impression they made on me.
My co-Instructor on this course was Hannah Mader, a Lead Instructor and Course Director at Outward Bound in Colorado. With five seasons in the Rockies under her belt, and several years teaching at other programs around the country, Hannah has a wealth of experience working with middle school students. I have learned so much from working with her; she was an obvious choice for me to interview. She reminded me that Outward Bound’s scope of impact is limitless. Middle schoolers, get ready!
The summer season is packed with options for middle school students in Colorado and the Southwest, from 8 to 15-day courses. They can go backpacking in the high alpine of the Colorado Rockies or rafting in world-class whitewater rivers in Southern Utah. And in true Outward Bound fashion, these courses provide a multitude of opportunities to gain leadership skills, learn decision-making in a team and build confidence in a rugged wilderness setting.
Middle schoolers accomplish things they never thought they could, and have practice like never before to find their own voice. Keep reading to hear more about my conversation with Hannah on why Outward Bound is such a great opportunity for middle school students.
Why is middle school a good time to do an Outward Bound course?
Hannah: It’s likely a time when someone has a lot of questions about who they are, and peer pressure is a huge aspect of middle school, so it’s really hard to be exploratory when you are scared of being judged. If you take students out of that space and into a place where they’re with a new group of kids from across the country, they have a blank slate and are allowed to create something together.
What is one skill a middle school student will learn?
Hannah: Learning to be confident. I really believe that a lot of our confidence starts in our bodies. If you feel strong and competent in your body, then you are going to have a lot of emotional and mental confidence as well. If a young student can summit a peak with a backpack on or raft a river with their team, and look back at that experience later on and think, There were so many times that I doubted that I could do it, but my body is capable of it and I never ever believed it would be. I bet there is more in life that I can accomplish that I don’t think I can. That’s a very tangible, physical metaphor and experience that a student can always look back on.
What would you tell a middle schooler who is considering going on a course?
Hannah: Have you ever held yourself back from speaking in a group? Have you ever held yourself back from doing something you wanted to do, whether it’s from peer pressure or trying to conform? If you’ve ever had those moments (and I can definitely think of some from my middle school days), go on an Outward Bound course and learn how to express yourself in ways you never could before. And learn how to love that expression.
What are some specific challenges middle schoolers will face on a course?
Hannah: I think the hardest one is speaking up in a group setting. In middle school it’s easy for students to have the mindset that they have to do things how others do them. At Outward Bound there’s no concept of what you’re supposed to do—no one knows how to put on a heavy backpack or how to cook a certain meal—so everyone is learning these things together for the first time. When the realization hits that no one knows how to do these things, a student steps out on a limb and finds their voice. That’s where the transformation happens.
Outward Bound courses are designed to be challenging. Why is it important to do things that scare you?
Hannah: We have become really good at structuring our lives so that we don’t have to make a lot of mistakes and step outside of our bubbles. You’ll never learn about yourself if you don’t make mistakes, and our courses provide an opportunity to fail; it’s fundamentally what we teach. Whether it’s burning the beans on the bottom of the pot, or navigating the group in the wrong direction miles from camp, middle schoolers learn people still care about them and are with them through it all. It’s pretty empowering for young students in particular to experience that you can mess up and it doesn’t make you a bad person. If that becomes the basis of how you live your life, you’re going to go far!
How should someone prepare for their course?
Hannah: Write out a list of things that make you really uncomfortable. Focus on personal goals of how you want to change internally, anything that promotes a little self-reflection before you get there will prepare you well. You’ll get a lot of self-reflection through the lens of a physical wilderness experience on your course.
What makes the Rocky Mountains a good setting for a course?
Hannah: Colorado is a great setting because students get to experience some of the highest peaks in the contiguous United States. When you get to the top of these peaks and see it’s an endless amount of ridges and mountains in all directions, it’s such an awe-inspiring view. You get to go where not a lot of people have been. You get to learn about Colorado in a much more deep way than most people that come through here. In a deep and personal way, it becomes part of you.
Don’t forget to explore our upcoming middle school courses in the Rockies or Southwest. Your middle school student will find their voice, learn how to embrace mistakes, make new friends, have fun—and will be an experience they won’t ever forget!
About the Author
Eva Johnson has worked at the Colorado Outward Bound School as a Field Intern and Logistics Coordinator. She’s a Colorado native and if she’s not in Leadville working for Outward Bound, she’s probably adventuring in South America, surfing on the rugged Oregon coast or teaching kids to climb rocks.
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