Success and Failure

Our school is an Expeditionary Learning environment. I’ll leave it to you to google that if you’re curious, but in a nutshell our pedagogical model grew organically from Outward Bound and the philosophies of its founder Kurt Hahn.

One Design Principle we hold dear (there are 10) is called Success and Failure. This week my Crew kids tried the Human Knot challenge. Everyone stands in a circle and puts one hand in. Once each student had a firm grasp on somebody else’s arm they put their left hand in and had to grab a different boy’s hand with the other.

The challenge was to un-knot themselves without letting go. The first go round was a calamity…lots of shouting, lots of pushing and pulling, lots of kids falling down and taking the entire pile with them. On that day we debriefed after each failure and set goals to achieve success.

The next morning a terrific coastal storm was dumping copious rain on Baltimore. As a result
there were three fewer boys. We circled up and did mindfulness practice for five minutes, watching a candle flame and experiencing the sound of water on the roof. A drainage pipe which runs along the ceiling in my class room shook alarmingly from its cascade, but we sat silently and in the moment, even when other Crews came to the door because they’d been dismissed too early.

After mindfulness the boys discussed their plan from the previous afternoon’s debrief. They circled up and gave it another go. There was no shouting, no pushing, and no pulling. At different times different individuals chimed in with suggestions and ideas. After about seven minutes the boys unknotted themselves into two separate circles. They continued holding hands, standing and gaping at each other in amazement.

Mind you, many of these boys profess to loathe each other. It can be a challenge just to get them to sit together sometimes. They insult one another in fiendish ways. They play horrid pranks. And there they were, all smiles, one Crew, holding hands forever. A great moment.

Immediately they were excited to try it again Monday with the three absent Crew members.

I took photos of this process. Some of the Failure photos are hilarious, but I choose only to share the Success pictures.

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