My Class Climbed a 14,000-Foot Mountain: How to Empower Students and Provide New Pathways to Learning

Key Points

  • After reading The Adventure Gap, teacher Narissa Stahl Holmgreen was struck by the idea of creating a wilderness experience for her students.

  • She shares her class’ 14,000-foot mountain journey as a healing action after George Floyd’s murder.

George Washington High School
Narissa Stahl’s AVID Elective Class from George Washington High School

By: Narissa Stahl Holmgreen

In early 2020, I was in my 20th year as a P.E. teacher and six years into being an AVID elective teacher at George Washington High School in Denver. It was the most challenging year of my career as I grappled with how to support my students who were wrestling with extreme changes from the pandemic and identify ways to use their own voices to fight racial inequality.  Then I came across the book, The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors by James Mills, which argues that minority populations are much less likely to engage in recreation, adventure, and solace in wilderness spaces due to their lack of opportunities and resources.

After reading The Adventure Gap, I was struck by the idea of creating a wilderness experience for my students. In Colorado, we have more than 50 mountain peaks that exceed 14,000 feet, and I decided that my students and I would ascend one of these “fourteeners,” Mount Bierstadt. I hoped that climbing this mountain would help my students feel empowered by boosting my students’ sense of competency and helping them begin to imagine lives full of possibilities for themselves.

What I discovered from our adventure is this: when we educators work to break down the barriers that block students’ success, whether these obstacles are physical, mental, environmental, or systemic, we open up innovative new pathways for them to achieve growth and success.

How to Climb Mountains and Break Barriers

Before they can reach for new opportunities, however, students have to be willing to take a leap of faith. My kids didn’t know anything about mountain climbing but because they had developed a sense of trust and security with me — because we had built relational capacity — they could begin to believe that I wouldn’t steer them wrong.

My students also needed to develop opportunity knowledge. I worked on this by introducing The Adventure Gap to them and had them write about it in their dialectical journal, an instructional strategy that AVID encourages AVID Elective teachers to incorporate in their lessons. This type of writing provided a structure for my students to incorporate their personal responses to the text and their ideas about its themes into our class discussions. From these journals, I could tell they were beginning to see themselves in the book — they were beginning to own the opportunity.

Of course, having students develop opportunity knowledge had to mean more than telling them to dream big or reach for the stars. It meant helping my students get ready with the skills, strategies, and tools they needed to take advantage of the opportunity that was emerging in their lives. I told my students, “Don’t just dream of climbing a mountain. Let’s work on getting ready to climb that mountain and then go climb it together!”

Activating Possibilities for Students

Possibilities were different for each student, so I needed to meet them where they were. Together, we trained for the ascent by walking up and down the staircases at school. We practiced mindfulness exercises to deal with nerves and uncertainty. We reached out to generous businesses and members of the community to secure donations of hiking shoes, equipment, and supplies. We even wrangled the rides needed to get students from Denver to the base of Mount Bierstadt.

The hard work of mental, physical, and logistical preparation definitely paid off for my students. As one wrote, “I learned a lot about myself during [this process] and the biggest thing was that my mind was my biggest enemy. I constantly reminded myself that mind is greater than matter and this kept me going.” Another student said, “Climbing Mount Bierstadt felt unimaginable but after completing it, the sky feels like the limit. I cannot wait to make a genuine difference and see my impact.”

The personal growth and insights our students acquired as a result of this adventure were remarkable. One student wrote, “I learned that all of us go at different paces and some of us have more baggage attached to us.” Another student said, “Although this might seem like common knowledge, I learned that hikes are all about the journey up and not about how fast you finish.” And a third student wrote, “I used to think I wasn’t an outdoor person but I’ve learned that the feeling I get from outdoor environments is simply peace.”

The Role of Educators as Guides

We want to provide resources and opportunities so students can pursue their personal interests and possibilities. For me, climbing our mountain gave me the opportunity to support my students in their growth. I also saw them extend this model to others. As one noted, “I want to invite more people of color to hike with us. I want to be and find representation!”

The benefits of integrating a mountain climbing adventure into my curriculum are still being revealed. I’m planning more outdoor challenges for students, and many of them are also working towards further adventures, whether that’s climbing mountains or hiking, or whitewater rafting. But wherever these students go next, their ascent of Mount Bierstadt has not only served to push their physical limits — it has also helped them to break through their mental and emotional barriers. As one of my hikers said, “having the opportunity to climb Mt. Bierstadt has made me realize that I have many opportunities out there. I have to be willing to put forth the effort to reach them.”

For them, this wasn’t any ordinary hike. When students begin to believe, in the words of another one of my hikers, “I can do anything I want and push myself beyond my limits,” then I know that inner barriers are breaking down. Our adventure on Mount Bierstadt became a symbol for my students of all the opportunities that can be theirs. And in the future, it will become a powerful memory they can draw upon to help them aim for success in school, careers, and life.

Narissa Stahl Holmgreen is a P.E. teacher, AVID elective teacher, and co-coordinator of the AVID program at George Washington High School in Denver, Colorado.

This post is part of our New Pathways campaign sponsored by American Student Assistance® (ASA), Stand Together and the Walton Family Foundation.

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