Students Discover Themselves in the Outdoors

story and photos by Doug McClure
HES third graders were given a tour of the StoryWalk on the Hardwick Trails by Dare To Be Me students Noah Friend (back, left, black mask), and Gavin Bell (back, right) on Tuesday. The HES third graders (left to right) are Noah Lowell, Ethan Hanson, Blair Demers, and Huntley Watson.

HARDWICK – Sometimes, things don’t go as you thought they would, but end up working out exactly as you’d hoped. That was the essential takeaway of Hazen Union World Languages and Martial Arts teacher Anja Pfeffer about how the first year of the Dare to be Me program has gone. The course was co-taught with the school’s Makerspace coordinator, Hilary Maynard. 

Last fall, Pfeffer came up with the pilot educational project dubbed Dare to be Me, which was designed around a different learning paradigm than the traditional classroom setting. The class focus was on intentional learning in the outdoors, exercise, and teaching students self-awareness. The Hardwick Trails became the classroom.

To a degree, the students became the teachers, with the common goal of finding out about themselves. Pfeffer and Maynard stepped back from class leadership, except when students needed help. Journaling was a part of the journey, as were, in the students’ own words, frank and very intense conversations about themselves.

One student on this journey is Megan Cane. Cane is in the second of two groups of Dare to be Me students. Cane said that “I’m less shy and quiet. If you’d asked me maybe a year ago if I wanted to do this interview, I’d say ‘I don’t want to be in the paper.’ It kind of brings me out a bit.”

Cane helped out with the class project of putting the StoryWalk on the Hardwick Trails, with signs featuring a story for young children to read as they walked. As Cane put it, it is a story about a “dinosaur wolf-dog” that doesn’t fit in at home and the journey he takes to find himself and friends that believe in him. 

As Pfeffer put it, “It’s about being unique. It’s about being your own self. It’s about facing adversity in life and staying grounded in who you are. It’s a ‘dare to be me’ story.” Finding that “kindness creates trust, and friendship brings strength. Not a strength in the number of friends, but within yourself. It’s life lessons, along with the overall focus on Uniqueness, Belonging, and Friendship.”

Neither Pfeffer nor Maynard had any hand in creating the story: Cane’s group imagined, wrote, and illustrated the story on their own. “They wrote this story,” said Pfeffer, “and then I read the story and I thought, this is like this course.”

Alexis Quisenberry of the Dare to be Me class answers a question from HES second-grader Atticus Metevier about the StoryWalk® the Dare to be Me students built on the Hardwick Trails. Also in the group are Elliana Drown, Mason King, and Kenley LeBlanc

Cane said they have become much more comfortable in their own skin over these months and describe themselves as “eccentric.” As they put it, “Now I can say these things and people will be like, ‘yes,’ even if it’s the weirdest thing, the most random thing. Now it’s easier to communicate just because I have people that understand [that] this whole group is just people here to understand each other, like a family.” They said that the closeness and earned trust of their classmates made it easier to decide “whether I want to bring this [part of me] into rest of the world, even if they don’t want it. Even if it’s only two or three people in the rest of the world that actually want to hear my philosophy.”

Pfeffer said that earnestness is part of the work the class has done. “[About] these conversations that we had out in the woods, I know when you’re hearing this [description] there’s a lot of goofiness behind it and lightheartedness. But we have existential questions that we discuss when we’re out on the rocks in the woods. And so, what seems like this lighthearted friendship is really deep. Megan is a perfect example. [The students] ask incredibly existential questions at a time in their lives when it really couldn’t be more important.”

Cane said, that “I feel like if I just asked someone, ‘why are we here?’, they’d be like, ‘Uhm, okay.’ If you just ask ‘were we worms at one point?’ that’s a little bit of an easier question for people to stomach. We’re all people, and it’s easier to stomach worm questions instead of questions about where we come from, because we don’t know the answer to any of these questions.”

Pfeffer said that she is very proud of the progress the students have made. “They have grown as groups, each of them in very different ways.” During the fall, she said she believed the two groups were on parallel paths as intended, but instead the groups diverged in approaches while maintaining the ultimate goal of the class.

“[Along the way] my thought was, oh, they’re not where I want them to be, because I had this image of what it should have been. And then I realized, we’re all on this journey, and that is a beautiful thing, I think. Each of the members in each of the groups is on a different journey, but in a similar direction now that they have had this time together. And who knows where that’s going to go?”