Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

“Spotters ready?”
“Ready.” trust-fall-photo.jpg
“Ready to fall.”
Those words now spoken left me in quite the unenviable position of having to decide do I back out and live with humiliation, or do I trust a group of 6th graders to catch me?
I had taken the plunge and was now falling backward into what seemed like a dark abyss. What would I find on the other side?

No, this was not a nightmare. This was all too real. I, a middle-aged adult, who should know better, was participating in a trust fall with my classes. Now, understand that heights are not my forte, which is why I’m a card-carrying member of the height challenged association. Yet here I was standing on a platform that is itself four feet above ground level. Add my five feet three inches of height and my eye level is the better part of nine feet above the ground. As many of my students would attest later, that eight to nine feet might as well have been 100.

I prepared myself for the fall, as I had reminded each student to do, and wondered what would happen if I were to back out. I felt as though once I was on the platform that was not an option. The interesting thing was that it wasn’t because I was worried what the kids would think of me, but rather that I would have let them down in some way. Little did I know that this exercise was starting to have an unforseen impact on me. I’m sure that my entire fall lasted only a few seconds at most, but those were some of the longest seconds I’ve experienced. During that time of being totally air born with my eyes closed, I would have to say that I felt suspended in time, totally in another world.

While my fear and hesitations were sensations I expected, I was truly amazed by the sensations I unexpectedly experienced once I was in the arms of my students. As with all the students that chose to fall, there was a sincere cheer of congratulations for the spotters (the people catching) and for me. Once in an upright position on terra firma, kids were giving me the high five, and telling me how proud they were of me for being “soooooo brave”! Every year I have plenty of students who appreciate what I do for them, but never have I seen this type of unanimous reaction. While each fall I participated in over two days was exhilirating, nothing will match the fall I took with my 3rd hour class, my first one.

All of my classes have spent the first part of the school year talking and learning about trust; how trust figures into everything that is done. They learned about trust within an orchestra and made comparisons between that and our classroom. I thought they had gained a lot of knowledge, and maybe they did. However, that knowledge was nothing compared to what was learned on the ropes course.

What I didn’t understand at the time was the activity itself was just the start of the pay off for having agreed to do trust falls with my students (until this year, this was a 7th grade activity). On the way down the hill to the building, all of the students, even those who had chosen not to fall, were buzzing with an excitement I can’t begin to describe. They were all talking with each other, on top of each other, with no regard as to whom they were speaking. Invisible walls that had existed between various students came tumbling down, and for a moment who was a “popular” and who was a “weirdo”, didn’t matter one iota. I was actually watching bonding take place; something I didn’t think you could actually see, but only feel. The most amazing thing for me was to witness 11 and 12 year olds, who can be incredibly mean to those who don’t meet their standards, being incredibly supportive of each other. Not only were congratulations being passed around, but also in a very non-middle school way, kids were empathizing with each other about their fears. In not one of my six classes did I hear a single put-down of a student. I wish the Guinness Book of Records had been with me, for I don’t believe that many middle schoolers have participated in any activity without something negative being said about someone. The change in general attitude was huge. Small “pip-squeek” kids who might normally be picked on became heroes as they successfully took the plunge. On the other hand, in a positive way, some of the big kids who enjoy reputations for picking on others were humbled when they found they didn’t have in them what it took to fall. Not one student thought less of another; instead new insight was discovered, about themselves and others. A new respect was developed; respect for those who were able to fall, and new respect for those who had the courage to say, “I can’t do it”. I think it is safe to say that we all have a new attitude about each other.

Were all classes equally successful? Well, yes and no. All the kids learned some amazing things, but not all classes performed the task well. One class had a huge problem working together as spotters. They were a bit too unfocused to successfully catch people. No one was dropped, but there was definitely no feeling of having a good safety net if you were the faller. I, myself, was very uneasy about falling into their hands. Guess what this class learned about themselves? There is now a concerted effort in that class to work on focusing, teamwork, and building trust.

I only wish that the parents and kids could do this activity together, as I think it would help the parents understand that it is okay to start letting go. The kids have what it takes to succeed, and now have the confidence to do that. Even those that didn’t fall have an understanding of themselves they didn’t have before. They know they are the ones in control of what they do, and if they want something to change or to happen in their world, they need to take charge of it. The students also know that trust, like other important things in life, doesn’t just happen; it can’t just be handed to you, it has to be earned.

Back in the classroom, I turned the kids’ energy to writing about the experience. It has been a true eye-opener for me to read these reflections, and to see just how big an impact those few seconds for each fall had on everyone. I have to admit, that I have never been overly fond of the ropes course, and have sometimes avoided it all together. Perhaps it was the activity I was assigned, or perhaps it was my lack of vision. Whatever the case, next year I will be at the head of the line signing up for my time. I guess the old axiom, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, will have to rewritten in my world.

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