Understimulation in the Woods

We talk a lot these days about overstimulation. Mostly we talk about this in the context of the ever-present screens in our lives: the notifications, the messenger apps, SnapChat (which despite what my students think, I do vaguely know how to use), the constant barrage of news and pictures and the necessary responses.

I know sometimes living in a city (if you call Boulder a city) gets overwhelming to me. There are always people, lights, things to do; something is going on. This is less true than say, downtown Denver, but it’s still a lot more than somewhere like Steamboat.

But for me, being a teacher is also wildly overstimulating. There are usually over twenty-five people in the room with me, and they’re all looking at me. I’m making a million decisions, evaluating their emotional and cognitive abilities, trying to listen to the goofball behind me while helping the student in front of me, while tuning out the twelve other conversations happening in the room, watching for the phones to sneak out, and oh yeah, somewhere in there, I’m trying to remember the subtle beautiful nuances of a complex and intertwined story that is biology and convey that to other human beings.

My mom once sent me a Facebook post that said, “Teaching seems to require the sort of skills that would be required to pilot a bus full of live chickens backwards, with no breaks, down a rocky road through the Andes, while providing colorful and informative commentary on the scenery.” The quote is by Franklin Habit and while I find it hilarious, I also find it almost painfully accurate.

Yeah. Teaching.

But one of the things I’ve been working on this year is going outside more. And I’ve realized something about going outside.

It’s incredibly, beautifully, wonderfully, understimulating.

There are fewer people. Even better, they usually don’t want to talk to me as much as I don’t want to talk to them. There aren’t a million conversations, and usually there’s no music. There aren’t the overpowering smells of the crazy processed artificial snacks my kids bring to class, and I don’t have to think. I just have to move my legs, whether I’m on foot or on my bike.

When I go outside, I have time to focus on the feeling of the sun on my face, listen to the wind in the needles of the pine trees, the smell of warm ponderosa bark as I lean against a tree. I love hearing the rush of blood behind my eardrums and feeling my pulse against my fingers, my throat, my cheeks.

When I get the glorious opportunity to go backpacking, it’s even better. Time stretches out so all I care about is when to eat and when to crawl in my warm sleeping bag. I absolutely love staring out over whatever scenery I’ve gotten myself back into.

This past weekend I wasn’t backpacking, but I got to go for a nine mile mountain bike ride in Golden Gate state park. The aspens were golden and rustled in the wind, when I could hear them over the rattling of my derailleur. The trail was rocky in places and hero dirt in others, and I was grinning like a crazy person the whole way. My brother Jeff and Jonathan came with me, and we spent as much time leaning on our handlebars appreciating the beauty around us as we did pedaling.

I love flying through a grove of aspens and watching the leaves swirl around my brother’s back tire. I love weaving through pines and climbing up around switchbacks and just generally being out in the forests. After being out there for five hours, coming back into a city seems colorful and noisy and fast-paced. It’s good to slow down.

To be fair, this particular definition of slowing down includes spiking my heart rate through the roof trying to keep up with two boys who are way stronger than I am. By the end of the ride my legs were tired and I was flailing around some corners. Jeff laughed very hard at my stupid clipless moment. (I have pedals that my shoes clip into, and if I don’t manage to unclip my foot before I stop, I fall over. Just…slow motion fall over.) But that’s also it’s own kind of fun.

Your homework this week: Go outside! Take a moment and see what you notice, and if your mind slows down a little bit.

Hej då,

Jamie

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Trying the Thing I Can’t Do

Hello everyone! I’ll start by apologizing for my absence last week. We’ll just call it my by-week for the year and move on. School got me a little busy at the beginning of the year!

This is the first week of September and everyone I know is out saying goodbye to summer. I’m writing to you this week from Wyoming, where I’ve been camping and biking and scrambling up lots of rocks. I’m camping in a place called Happy Jack, which is just east of Laramie. At the moment I’m sitting next to a reservoir contemplating the first streaks on my shins, courtesy of a very technical bike ride I went on this afternoon.

Jonathan, who went to school at the University  of Wyoming, spent many weekends up here and delighted in showing me all his favorite spots. The trails here are dry and a little sandy, and there are lots of sandstone obstacles. Normally the trails I ride in Steamboat are smooth and flowy and altogether very different than this!

At first I was nervous about getting up and over some of these rocks, or dropping off them. But I have a tendency to follow the person in front of me off of things that I wouldn’t normally ride by myself, and I found myself riding over all sorts of things that were initially scary but actually totally within my skill range. Jonathan is a much better rider than I am, and he’s also very good at letting me know when he thinks I might want to look at before I ride them. I learned a lot about what my bike was capable today, and I only fell over once!

Off of the trail we were riding were several “play areas” which were quite a bit more technical than the trail. They were short loops that linked back into the trail, so riders could choose to try them or not. Jonathan and I rode the first and second play area, and it was really fun! There were lots of things I couldn’t ride, but there were lots of things I thought I couldn’t ride that I did, and I learned from watching the other riders in the area. As my mom says, there is no hill so steep I cannot push my bike up  (or down) it.

The thing I loved about this was that I was in a no-pressure situation. I was riding with someone I trust a lot, and we had no schedule. Our only goal was to have a good time (and to limit any blood loss). This allowed me to try new things that I otherwise would have been afraid of trying. I also very much enjoyed the fact that the obstacles on the trail were far enough apart that I still felt like I could ride my bike successfully.

There are lots of potential applications of all of this to other parts of my life, particularly my classroom. But for this weekend, I promised myself Saturday and Sunday would be school-free days. It’s part of the balance I’m working on.

Your homework this week is to create a situation where you feel safe trying something you don’t think you can do.

I hope you’re all having a wonderful Labor Day weekend!

Hej då,
Jamie

Summer!

Hello, and happy, happy June! I can now say that school is over; finals are graded, my classroom is cleaned out, and I’m sitting in Steamboat after several awesome days of adventuring. I’m already planning and dreaming about what I want to do differently next year, but I’ve been doing it while playing in the mountains.

I’m going to make one thing really clear first. I do not know a single teacher that takes the summer “off.” Not one. I have 100% flexibility in where and how I choose to work, and that’s a glorious thing. I definitely don’t work 40 hours a week on school in the summer. I choose to go to professional developments and such, and I’m not complaining whatsoever! I love the summer work I do. But when people ask me if I became a teacher because I get summers off, I have to work really hard to remember that they likely don’t understand what it means to be a teacher and I should try to explain it.

Whew. Now that I’ve got that off my chest…

I have been playing outside nearly every day so far this summer, and I am a very, very happy human being. Graduation for Longmont was actually last Saturday, and I worked really hard to make sure everything was done by the end of the day on Saturday. Then, the mountain time began!

I started hiked on Sunday by going to Mallory Cave in Chautauqua Park. I didn’t climb the rock up to the cave itself because the bats were having their bat babies (batlings?), but it was a beautiful climb. Along the way I saw a four-year-old girl explaining erosion to her patient mother, a brother and a sister exclaiming over ants marching in a line, and two twenty-somethings reading about the bats on the informational sign below the cave. Science education for the win!

On Monday I hiked in Chautauqua again, this time towards Saddle Rock. There’s a large rock ridge up there I like to get on top of, and Paige (who teaches math at Longmont with me) was willing to scramble up with me! We bailed pretty quickly when we saw dark clouds rolling in, and sure enough it started pouring just as I dropped her off at her apartment.

On Tuesday I spent all day repotting my plants from my classroom, doing yoga, and packing to go to Steamboat. Wednesday was similarly mellow, consisting of me driving and spending a significant chunk of time digging through the new textbook I’m working with for piloting next year. (It’s BSCS’s fifth edition of A Human Approach, if anyone has anything I should know about it!) Mom and I sat at the dining room table together, nerding about naturalism and pedagogy and everything in between. On Thursday I played around on my yoga mat, worked through more of the textbook, devoured a really good novel called The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, and knitted on the front porch swing.

But the mellow time ended quickly when Friday came around. Mom and I got up early and hiked up the road on Emerald Mountain to the quarry. This was followed by an afternoon bike ride up very different trails to the same quarry (out Bluff’s, up Lupin all the way to the quarry, then down Blair Witch, down Larry’s, and down the lower section of NPR, if you’re a Steamboatian or curious). Getting up there twice in one day was a good way to make my legs a little tired.

But I wasn’t done yet. Yesterday I put my bike on the back of a car and drove to the Lower Bear trailhead, which is nearly all the way to the Strawberry Park Hot Springs. It’s not a super long ride, only three miles, but I had forgotten how steep it is! It gives great views back towards town and the ski area, so it’s totally worth it.

And this morning I hiked up Fish Creek canyon to the second set of waterfalls. I’ve never figured out quite how far it is – the trail continues past the second falls to Long Lake – but it’s rather steep and absolutely beautiful. The trail was dry but the water was really high. I love watching the falls when there’s that much water pouring over them.

I promptly returned and fell asleep on the couch for an hour. Hooray for summer!

There are many things I love about summer. I love the long hours of sunlight. I love how I don’t feel rushed or under pressure to get stuff done. I love that I can come up to Steamboat and hang out with my family. And I really, really love being outside. I love watching the trees bud out, identifying wild flowers, hearing the wind through the pines, the way the woods smell, the feel of my hiking boots, the way I can roll through switchbacks on my bike, all of it. I love all of it.

I’m currently a little bit sunburned, a little bit bug-bitten, a lot sore, and wondering how I can get outside more during the school year. I’m thinking this is pretty critical for my sanity right about now.

Your homework: Where is your favorite place to get outside? What’s your favorite method of getting there?

Hej då,

Jamie