A Rite of Passage: Lane School Challenge Day

It feels so good to be close enough to a tree to hug it! Image (c) Linda White, 2015 all rights reserved
It feels so good to be close enough to a tree to hug it! Image (c) Linda White, 2015 all rights reserved

By Linda White

Stage 2: Ascent to the wire - Image (c) Linda White, 2015, all rights reserved
Stage 2: Ascent to the wire – Image (c) Linda White, 2015, all rights reserved

“On Belay. . . Belay Off”, “Great Effort” “Way to Go”, “You Can Do It! and I Did It!” were a few of the frequent phrases heard drifting through the trees at the Lt. Job Lane School on Friday, June 12 as 180 Grade 5 students celebrated and demonstrated their hard work and accomplishments sometimes far above our heads.

Challenge Day, based on the Project Adventure (PA) curriculum, is a rite of passage for Grade 5 students, showcasing their willingness to go one step further than they think they can. Choosing between 15 different activities comprised of 11 high and 4 low physically challenging elements, each student selects three activity challenges that they will participate in on Challenge Day.  Lane Principal Rob Ackerman stated, “Challenge Day is a wonderful tradition that speaks to Lane and District objectives to develop and take pride in well-rounded student accomplishment in all academic subject areas.  There is also something special to be said about students being able to support each other both inside and outside the classroom and conquer goals and fears in all areas.”

Diane Bernstein (l) and Lori Alper with ___, coordinated the parent volunteers - Image (c) Linda White, 2015 all rights reserved
Diane Bernstein (l) and Lori Alper with Scott Smith, coordinated the BEST parent volunteers for Challenge Day – Image (c) Linda White, 2015 all rights reserved

Staging a Challenge Day takes a village.  For safety reasons, all belay responsibilities were handled by Lane teachers or adults who had received appropriate training.  Diane Bernstein and Lori Alper chaired the BEST parent committee responsible for coordinating the efforts of 80 parent volunteers who assisted in the challenge areas, taking photos, keeping students on schedule as they moved from element to element, offering encouragement and enjoying the experience.   Bernstein commented “This is an amazing community event.  Kids really challenge themselves and support one another.  It is exciting for them because some of the elements such as the Vertical Playpen are available to them for the first time today.  For parents, this is a great opportunity to see what is happening and what the kids have been working on all year.”

The lily pad challenge - one of the most difficult, and also most popular - Image (c) Linda White, 2015 all rights reserved
The lily pad challenge – one of the most difficult, and also most popular – Image (c) Linda White, 2015 all rights reserved

There were some parental gasps as they watched their child climb 40 feet above the ground and make their way across what appeared to be a very thin wire on an element called The Burma Bridge or bounce from disc to disc on one of the most challenging and  popular challenges, The Lily Pad.  “Are you afraid?” said Smith to a student who successfully navigated the Lily Pad and now needs to dismount by leaning backward, letting go of the guide wire and sinking 40 feet to the ground.  Student:  “Yup.”  Smith:  “Take a breath.  Enjoy the view.  Congratulations.  Come on down.”  Alper reflected, “Bedford students are very fortunate.  Many camps offer similar ropes programs but few public schools have a PA program or one as excellent as the one here.  We’re all appreciative of our School Department leadership for funding this initiative and to the Bedford Education Foundation (BEF) who also helped fund some of the elements. ”

Challenge Day also includes a bit of frivolity with an opportunity to cool off on such a humid day in the “holy water bucket” area.  Believe me, this is far from a religious activity.  Students wisely changed into bathing suits because no one stayed dry including the parent volunteers.  At the end of the day, students gathered to view a slide show of photos taken throughout the year as they worked on PA skills and the video of the 5th Grade Talent Show.  The gathering also provided time for students to have their Lane PA/Challenge Day tee shirts signed by friends and staff.

Superintendent Jon Sills and Scott Smith - Image (c) Linda White, 2015 all rights reserved
Superintendent Jon Sills and Scott Smith – Image (c) Linda White, 2015 all rights reserved

“This PA program and Challenge Day mean everything to me”, commented Scott Smith, Lane School Physical Education teacher and Project Adventure co-coordinator.  “For the students it is really a Challenge by Choice opportunity to pick a goal, push a little harder and go a little further than they initially thought possible.  This is a fantastic group of kids who wanted to do a bit more.  The result is huge and it positively impacts levels of student cooperation, team work, goal setting, leadership, confidence, kindness, pride and an ability to speak up responsibly and respectfully.”  Smith partners with fellow physical education teacher, Erin Post.  Together they work with Grade 3 and 4 students to introduce them to the PA approach and attitudes.  Grade 5 students focus throughout the year on applying these concepts to unique challenges.

Ilsa Gottlieb, former Lane Assistant Principal, physical education and health teacher and co-founder of Bedford Summer Adventures Camp, championed bringing the PA curriculum to Lane School in 1980.  In the early ‘70s, Gottlieb was among the first group of Massachusetts Educators whose districts embraced the then revolutionary curriculum of the Massachusetts based, non-profit with a national and internationally recognized reputation and its stated mission to “provide individuals with the tools necessary to challenge themselves to grow by overcoming perceived limitations. …  In 1971 Project Adventure emerged from the Outward Bound movement creating the modern challenge (‘ropes’) course and integrating innovative adventure learning methods…”

PA at Lane advanced well beyond being just a ropes course.  Gottlieb staged implementation of various segments of the program increasing the variety, intensity and number of challenges available to students.  She commented, “Project Adventure helps all kids believe that they can, if they give themselves permission to try.  It does this by presenting seemingly impossible problems for students to solve individually or as a group.  As a result, students regularly demonstrate the ability to work together, and become more accountable, and responsible to themselves and the group at large.  Project Adventure through its commitment to experiential learning provides a template for self-discovery while insisting that all participants effectively communicate, collaborate and concentrate.  Due to the risk taking nature of the program, students demonstrate and experience the positive impact that offering support and being supported makes. Students regularly confront their own strengths and weaknesses; and observe strengths and weaknesses in all their peers.  Everyone at some time over the course of the year is seen in a vulnerable state and in that moment needs everyone’s support.  Over the years, students and teachers have shared the positive powerful impact that the PA experience had on their live. Whether it was going off to college, or a job interview or standing up against a bully or the first day at Middle School, folks recounted remembering PA’s life lessons:  how to take things one step at a time, and keep the ‘butterflies in their stomach flying in formation.’ This is the program’s power.  For many years it was my privilege to guide Bedford’s 5th graders as they explored this curriculum.  Bedford is most fortunate that the current students have Scott Smith and Erin Post walking with them as they experience Project Adventure.”

Superintendent Jon Sills summed up the day, “The lesson of kids learning to push themselves beyond their comfort zone is so important.  Our teachers and the parent volunteers create a supportive and challenging environment in which the kids can truly soar.”

The euphoria of the day had some students turning cartwheels - Courtesy image
The euphoria of the day had one student turning cartwheels – Courtesy image
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