Student Learning SupportThoughts, Feelings

Educational Poetry

I had seized a moment, after the commotion of setting up camp, to recline on a flat place by the water’s edge and listen to the quiet. And two student Portagers, seemingly oblivious to my presence, came and took up their own perch very nearby. They started talking; I listened. Since they had chosen this place, among all the others on the campsite to have their chat, it didn’t feel like eavesdropping. They were free and un-self-conscious. The two had only met a few days earlier but sounded like old friends. It was a conversation not of the “seen any good movies lately” variety, but deep, genuine, and human. They asked each other about life, how each was feeling about the upcoming school year (“a little trepidatious” was one notable answer), and about dreams and aspirations, hopes and fears. They gave and received, listened and spoke with spirit and generosity; while the sun set and their bare feet dangled in the warm water of Rock Lake. The conversation ended only when one of them suggested they go help prepare the campfire for dinner.

I smiled through this whole encounter. It made me feel like everything that I, as an educator, have ever wanted for the students in my realm was encapsulated in that moment. That lake-side conversation, and the canoe trip that enabled it, was like educational poetry to me—apprehended not by the intellect, but by the gut.

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Still, I should try to explain why this trip was so good (it might make others want to come next year). ­­­­­So, I’ll trample the territory of poetry with an attempt to intellectualize the experience. Something will be lost in translation, but…

Perfect to me that Deena used the word liminal in her piece. In a previous chapter of my life, I studied and practiced anthropology and remember being pulled into the work of Victor Turner (and others) regarding this concept of liminality—the space between—and, in particular, its relationship to rites of passage and the development of this thing Turner calls communitas. Portage is quintessentially about this—liminality, communitas, passage.

Liminality—the space between—is precisely the metaphor upon which the Portage program is founded. A canoe trip (and the portages en route) captures in some mythically pure way the concept of journey: a beginning, an end—and the time in-between. It’s that time in-between, the liminal space, when important things happen. This is the very essence of rites of passage rituals, the notion that, through ritual, we can accelerate the process of growth and transformation by structurally mimicking the “journey.” Arnold van Gennep, who first coined the term “rite of passage,” made this concept famous and described it as having three stages. The first stage is characterized by separation, being pulled away from the familiar in some way. The second stage is the “in-between”—not here anymore, but not yet there. The third stage is re-integration, a coming back to the familiar but having been transformed, changed. The canoe trip, or wilderness experience, perfectly mimics this process.

Ok, the canoe trip is like a rite of passage—so what? Well, it’s the “in-between” phase that is so important. Victor Turner coined the term communitas to describe what happens to participants in a rite of passage ritual during that in-between phase. During this phase, he suggests, participants will be stripped of their usual identity, laid bare, and, in this way, the usual hierarchies or differences in status are removed. This evening out of social difference creates a space where relationships and human dynamics are informed fundamentally by equality and solidarity, the profound sense that all are united in a shared cause.

Portage 2014 How to Build a Fire

This is what I witnessed on Portage 2014 – communitas. Students were pulled from the familiar, most of them having never set foot in a canoe. This was a jarring beginning for them, a sudden yank from their usual realm. Once embarked in a canoe, a few hundred paddle strokes away from shore, there is a strong smell of inevitability—that there is no going back, that this is the group with whom you will live, dwell, eat, share, work, laugh, and commune for the duration. And, it becomes immediately clear that the success of the journey depends on the efforts of all. There are leaders, for sure, but also a strong sense of equality and solidarity, sharing and participation.

Something in the stars aligned on this trip and the sense of communitas was evident to me by that first night around the campsite, when I overheard the conversation by the lake, and watched as students came out of themselves, shared bits of their lives around the campfire, took risks on high rock jumps, found solace in home-made fishing rods, built fires together, shared wisdom, and did all the myriad things that get done on a campsite—together—without analysis or regret or defiance. To me, by the third day, the group had cohered into the essence of communitas.

So, was there a transformation? Had students discovered something profound about themselves, acquired a great new life-skill? I really can’t say. And I wouldn’t want to overstate this by dwelling on the “development” angle. It was just a three-day canoe trip, after all. I’m sure some of that is true and that students did feel a bit stronger, more confident, better able to cope with the upcoming transition to post-secondary life at Ryerson. And they will definitely have each other as friends on campus. Canoe trips do have that effect, for sure.

But, in a way, that misses the point. To me, it’s not about the development of skills or attitudes. It’s about having an experience. Period. There’s no curriculum on Portage. There are no learning outcomes. There is no prescription. What we do with Portage is simply offer this up for students: an experience of something new in a beautiful wilderness setting, unfamiliar, unplugged, un-complicated.

What they take from that experience does not belong to us; it’s theirs.

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  • Natalya Androsova

    Thanks for this post John. This sounds like poetry indeed. Loved your reflection on this amazing journey into liminality and its inevitable companions – uncertainty, beauty, and mystery.