For Night Hike
By: Grace Werner
The mainstream outdoor industry, as it exists today, is a blanket of whiteness that ignores sacred stories, crucial histories, and traditional knowledge of black and brown people (Brown, 2019). This truth is something I was only partially aware of in my time as an Instructor at Widjiwagan. If there is anything my graduate studies in the field of education have taught me, it is clarity around the many mistakes I have made as an educator. Still, reflection, correction, and reparation is the only way I know to move forward, and thus I’m so excited to analyze the mistakes I made as an instructor and as an employee of an outdoor education organization.
The focus of my “Effective Practices” analysis is on a lack of awareness regarding emotional safety of all students, and particularly black and brown students, on a night hike. In this blog post, I will identify elements of the night hike lesson that could be changed for a more emotionally safe experience for students. Specifically, I will look at the timing of the lesson positioned early in the week/unit, the set-up of community standards/emotional-safety- agreements, and the (lack of) awareness or acknowledgement the instructor is able to bring into their teaching and work community. By analyzing what a night hike looked like as I taught it 3 years ago, I am hoping I can clarify specific changes that may make the overall experience more beneficial for all students.
I believe that when educators are aware of their positionality, greater safety is maintained. As a white, cis-gender, non-disabled, middle class woman who speaks English as her first language; my positionality holds immense privilege. Specifically as a white outdoor educator, if I do not acknowledge and actively combat the harmful practices ingrained in environmental education, I am not only a part of a history of erasure but also a participant in the perpetuation of racism and injustice. My critical analysis of the night hike is a limited understanding of the industry’s shortcomings, due to my privileged positionality and inherent biases. It is my intention to use this reflection to process my own learning and recognize the changes I hope YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, as well as many organizations like Widji, must make.
Widji’s administration, board of advisors, staff, and summer-participants are predominately white, upper-middle class, non-disabled, and speak English as their first language. From my perspective and collective experiences in the participant, guide, and instructor roles; there is not nearly enough organizational effort given to interrupt or change this cycle of creating a white-centric space. This is extremely important to recognize because of the following participant caveat- Widji’s fall/winter/spring program serves a population of youth who’s demographics much more accurately represent the demographics of MN and much more proportionally include (but are not limited to)- African American, Mexican, Native American, Somali, Ethiopian, Hmong, Salvadoran, Indian, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese, students. This detail is important to acknowledge moving forward in my analysis of the “Night Hike” lesson. Schools (both public & private) from across the state of MN, bring entire classes of students to outdoor school at Widji for a week-long sleep away experience. But how is Widji (or the many outdoor ed schools like Widji) able to create a space that mitigates the undertones of colonization, nationalism, and white supremacy culture imbedded and maintained through the industry, organization, and a predominately white as well as affluent staff (Brown, 2019).
Lesson Analysis & Effective Practices:
One of the more important elements to know about Night Hike at Widjiwagan is that it happens on the first night students arrive at camp. Generally, after a long day of travel, busses arrive in Ely, MN around 3-4pm. Students tour camp, unpack quickly in their cabins, eat dinner, and meet their study-groups as well as their instructor. These groups will stay the same for the entire week. Day 1, for students and instructors alike, is exhausting and overwhelming. It is a day filled with nervousness, discomfort, excitement, and newness. This is the night students are asked to bundle up, dig deep for some energy, and place an unreasonable amount of trust in their instructors and peers to brave the dark, cold for a hike in the woods.
Most commonly students will be presented with pre-hike curriculum. As an instructor, I often outlined the anatomy of the human-eye and how it interacts with light. I would draw a diagram on the white board and have students label the cornea, pupil, iris, rods, cones, and a chemical called rhodopsin. We would experiment with our own vision-quality by turning off the lights in the classroom and waiting for our eyes to adjust. I would then ask students to extinguish all phones, flashlights, or head-lamps for the entire walk, as a way to test our own night vision. Looking back, this measure feels entirely unnecessary and insensitive. The point (I think) was to encourage students to step briefly outside their comfort zone in order to practice their recently acquired knowledge of night vision. The night hike generally proceeded into discussions on stars, light-pollution, nocturnal animals, and sometimes even active-listening activities. There is so much incredible science-related and non-science-related content that is relevant to a night hike, and yet I can’t let go of the fact that it is placing students in what could be an incredibly scary, triggering, and uncomfortable situation on their first night at camp. Finally, if students are deeply uncomfortable, they will not be in a mental space that allows learning to take place.
Moving the night hike to the final evening at Widji is a practice that I think could significantly improve student-emotional-safety. When someone feels emotionally safe, I believe they feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable and voice their needs. This requires trust and respect in relationships. A closing night hike would allow students the necessary time to build trust and supportive relationships with potentially unfamiliar peers and a new instructor. It would also allow time for establishing, as well as practicing, community safety standards, communication skills, and group agreements. Added time to learn about students- their individual needs and passions as well as group needs and interests- is crucial to a successful week at outdoor camp. Assuming youth will or should be stoked on being outside is rooted in many characteristics of white supremacy. Individuals have varying and sometimes emotionally-loaded feelings of spending time outside. It can bring up memories of vulnerability, insecurity, fear, or even pain. The outdoors is not a safe place for everyone. More specifically, the outdoors has been historically dominated by white men and their exclusive ideas of recreation and stewardship. In my opinion, acknowledgment of the night hike or any other camp experience as potentially scary is a great place to start in naming a dynamic for students. This acknowledgment lets students know that feelings or desires in regards to participation may vary from student to student, and that is ok. I firmly believe that students should not be forced to venture into the darkness without a light, or even to hike at all in the dark if they do not feel safe. Ideally, if presented as an option at the beginning of the week, and slowly worked towards as a team, students may genuinely not want to miss the experience.
The second important teaching practice I believe relevant to night hike is the knowledge that a student’s comfort level is often rooted in their family’s history or upbringing. In “What Does Culture Have To Do With Teaching Science”, Madden (2013) writes, “For educators to engage families, becoming aware of student prior knowledge and beliefs is essential in making science culturally responsive” (p.67). It is the job of instructors to learn about the communities where they work and implement the many incredible narratives and ways of learning present there. Specifically, as a white outdoor educator, making space for adults whose positionality not only differs from my own, but also may better represent student identity, is crucial. In my time instructing at Widji’s fall/winter/spring program, I largely relied on the standard curriculum presented to me in staff training. Still, there was a lot of flexibility given to instructors at Widji, and I wish I would have used that freedom to make space for BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) voices. Madden (2013) discusses gathering stories from parents, community specialists, or even the library as an excellent option for instructors to include a variety of voices, perspectives, and cultural beliefs that may be held by students. For night hike specifically, this could include family or traditional knowledge on any of the topics typically covered such as stars, nocturnal adaptations, light pollution, etc. Another option Madden (2013) presents , if the resources are available, is to invite parents, teachers, or community members into the curriculum building as another way to stray from content reflecting a single story. This could happen through electronic data collection, zoom sharing, or in-person visits.
In outdoor education, the space my body takes up is welcomed and approved by white supremacy, so I must use that privilege to dismantle a system that is centered around whiteness. Night hike at Widjiwagan displays the extensive redesign outdoor curriculum and educational systems must incorporate, rather than relying on assumptions, stereotypes, typical curriculum, and more.
Brown, S., & *, N. (n.d.). Advice for white environmentalists and nature educators. Retrieved March 09, 2021, from https://clearingmagazine.org/archives/15272
Brown, S., & *, N. (n.d.). Reclaiming spaces. Retrieved March 09, 2021, from https://clearingmagazine.org/archives/15269
Madden, L., & Joshi, A. (2013). What does culture have to do with teaching science? Science and Children, 051(01). doi:10.2505/4/sc13_051_01_66