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Our Work

Mark Barela for The Taos News
Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Teachers across the country are marking National Environmental Education Week, April 14-20, hoping to boost the knowledge of K-12 students about nature and the importance of stewardship. Here at Vista Grande High School in Taos, that is something we practice year-round.

We’ve found that some of the very best learning actually occurs outside of the four walls of a classroom. We focus on creating “learning expeditions” that incorporate skill building, challenge, character development, and a service ethic into an academic curriculum.

Not only do students get out and study their natural environment, they see how they can apply these experiences to other lessons, as well.

Happily, in the Land of Enchantment, there are incredible places for these expeditions, right in our backyard. Six years ago, when the school opened, we began our wilderness program by taking a group of ninth-and tenth-graders on a six-day backpacking trip in the nearby Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area — a place of outstanding natural beauty and abundant wildlife.

Four crews of staff and students hiked some of the area’s most amazing places — Italianos Canyon, Long Canyon, San Cristobal Canyon, and Columbine Canyon. Along the way, we focused on learning wilderness skills like packing, camping, cooking, safety, and navigation.

While the scenery was spectacular, it was no “walk in the park.” Students were tested, facing physical challenge by starting at a 9000-foot elevation and climbing another 3000-plus feet in vertical elevation while carrying a pack weighing up to a third of their body weight.

They faced mental challenges as well. For many, this was their first backpacking experience away from their families. To succeed as a crew, students had to learn to work together as a team — to communicate, support, and bond together as a cohesive unit.

These lessons will be remembered long after they return home and to the classroom. The beautiful area also prompted discussions on environmental ethics and the students’ role as future stewards of the land so that their children, too, could have the same experiences in this wild place.

Junior and senior students at Vista Grand must participate in a “leadership strand” to help with character development and incorporating an ethic of service to others.

Some choose to become members of the Student Wilderness Ambassador Team (SWAT). Here, they learn the skills to become leaders — lessons that will serve them well throughout their lives. SWAT team members help lead backpacking trips for freshmen and sophomores into the Columbine Hondo, practicing the leadership skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.

They share their knowledge of wilderness survival skills, form bonds with their classmates, and develop a leadership style that suits their personality. Experienced senior members of the SWAT team are given more responsibility and opportunity to develop as student leaders on these trips.

Over the years, I’ve seen the positive effects of these backpacking trips. At first, the students miss their families, music, soft beds, and bathrooms.

After a strenuous climb to a high camp and then having a day to rest, relax, play games, and enjoy their surroundings, their attitude changes and they begin to appreciate things previously taken for granted. The peace, quiet, and beauty of the wilderness nourishes the soul and connects us with nature.

Working with classmates as a team creates experiences and memories that are taken back to school and shared for years to come. And the trip’s end, students realize that they are capable of accomplishing more than they thought possible and the sense of pride they feel carries into other challenges they may face in their lives, including academic challenges.

Columbine Hondo deserves wilderness protection for many reasons — because it is the headwaters for our water supply, because it is habitat for a variety of animal species, and because of its natural beauty. But it is equally important to preserve this area so future generations of students have a place to go to connect with nature and the calming and healing effect it has on us all.

It is a place where they can learn, challenge themselves, become leaders and grow as people.

Students who have experienced the Columbine Hondo unanimously agree that it is a special place that should stay forever as it is today.