All Conserve School students participate in Exploration Week, a six-day backpacking trip in one of three chosen locations: The Sylvania Wilderness, The North Country Trail as it passes through the Trap Hills and the Porcupine Mountains, or Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Each Conserve School student also takes a class called, Environmental Stewardship. The purpose of this class is to "guide student understanding of why and how they can be environmental stewards through exploring the intersection of environmental, social and economic systems." As part of this class, they are encouraged to develop skills in reflective writing through prompts in their E-portfolios.
During Exploration Week the assignment in Stewardship class was to choose goals to focus on throughout their respective backpacking experiences and journal about their expectations, journey and results. Each student is unique. And each student's perspective and experience on Exploration Week is individual, different and extraordinary. Nonetheless, several common themes emerged for multiple students.
Students expressed a desire to disconnect as well as a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to be away from the distraction of technology and social media.
"My goal for interacting with the environment while on Exploration Week is to leave my phone behind and really reflect while on trail. I would also like to create a daily practice of being more connected with the land around me and finding a deep respect for it." – Chloe, Cincinnati, OH.
"My intentions before this trip were to truly become more reflective about my days on trail and the ways I felt myself changing as a person, explorer, and steward. I also left behind my phone and camera in order to feel as present as possible, allowing me to feel all the beauty of the surrounding land and people I traveled with." – Evie, Washington DC.
"Living in a world primarily dominated by electronics and people to talk to less than a button away, makes it nearly impossible to just live with the quiet and think." – Justice, Milwaukee, WI.
"We were always surrounded by nature and away from distracting technology throughout the trip and by the end we felt like a part of the nature around us." – Alex, Westampton, NJ
Many students described aspirations of being fully in the present moment, both with their surroundings and each other, in addition to taking time for solitary reflection and silence. Students brought journals and a few art supplies with them to capture their experiences in a variety of meaningful ways. And learned about the delicate balance of capturing the moment and actually living in the moment.
"Often times, I find that painting or sketching something can force you to give your undivided attention to focusing on each excruciating detail. While taking photos can be useful, I often lose focus in the moment itself, instead focusing on capturing it for later. By painting or sketching each day, I can learn to live in the moment, while also learning to focus on the detail of each moment." – Henry, Portland, ME.
"Before I left for exploration week I set the goal of living in the moment as much as possible while canoeing in the Sylvania Wilderness. The first time I had a moment where I really felt present was when I was canoeing across Loon Lake on the first day." – Olivia, San Mateo, CA.
Others had goals of remaining not just resilient when challenged and physically uncomfortable with their heavy backpacks, uphill hikes or stinging nettle encounters, but to go beyond and actually be a source of positivity, kindness and encouragement for their fellow backpacking companions. The students were conquering mental and physical challenges daily and finding peace, beauty and the best versions of themselves in the process. In their moments of quiet reflection, interacting with nature and the environment, some students even discovered metaphors for navigating life and human interaction.
"I've found my own judgements are formed when I see something as one dimensional. The environment, nature and wild places are anything but one dimensional when I take time to interact with them they reveal their personalities. Because of this I can't make judgements about the environment or people if I wish to respect them and be comfortable with them. Looking forward I hope to not make judgments about people or places, no matter how hard that is for me" – Mitchel, Washburn, WI.
Ultimately students returned to "real life" having grown in both measurable and immeasurable ways. Gratitude, compassion, emotional maturity, self-confidence, independence, inspiration and new bonds with classmates and nature abound as Conserve School students bounce back into life on campus.
"I learned that being immersed in nature can bring out the best in people..."
– Zack, Madison, WI.
"Going on a week backpacking trip was out of my comfort zone both physically and mentally, but at the end of the trip I felt more strength and ease with being outdoors. I felt stronger in many ways, and I was proud of myself for everything that I accomplished on Exploration Week." – Clare, Washington DC.
If you would like to read some full-length Stewardship Exploration Week E-portfolios, that students have given us permission to publish, follow this link to the newest section of our website, Student Stories!