This is Our Classroom

It's 5 degrees outside, a warm day in November, and I am stuck inside teaching. The fluorescent lights are flickering at the back of this stuffy room and I look around to see some students, engrossed on their phones, mistakenly not taking advantage of this break to go get some fresh air. It’s a good group, diverse in their individual jobs, here because their job requires it. None of them have fallen asleep yet and I genuinely see their interest in our conversations – so I must be doing something right.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy each and every class. No two classes are the same. And people are genuinely interested in the conversations we can have around first aid. I have been trusted with the most gruesome and intimate details of their personal experiences in providing, or receiving, help in an emergency. My students have shed tears, worked through the anger and frustration of a bad experience, and revisited scars that still hurt years later. And through it all, they come back again seeking guidance on the methods we encourage and affirmation that their common sense is their greatest asset.

But the four walls of a classroom set up like an institution is much different than the settings anyone has found themselves dealing with an emergency in. There is no chaos. There is no bitter cold sucking the life out of the hurt and the helpers. There is no darkness. Here we discuss the signs/symptoms and suggested treatment. Here we use videos and textbooks. Here we make it sound so simple. And adults are generally terrible actors – so forget doing elaborate scenarios. Everyone just wants out as soon as possible.

There will be days where this is just the way it is. But how we deliver the content is a matter of opinion and creativity. I’ll be honest, some days and some classes, just don’t have the means to be anything but traditional.

But look around – every outdoor space has the potential to be a better classroom. Every urban park, sidewalk, conservation area, farm, or public use zone has the potential to be a classroom setting. Every grove of trees, riverside sand bar, boulder garden, creek bed, barren field, muddy ground, and snow bank has the learning we so desperately crave. Feel the heat from the sun, swat at the flies who annoy you, insulate yourself from the cold fresh snow, and shelter your gear from the rain storm that’s just moving in. This is our classroom!

In between the traditional classes, Back40 classes revitalize my joy in teaching. Finding new outdoor classroom spaces empowers me to connect with our community groups and like- minded educators. The feeling of remoteness and the beautiful landscape all around gives students, and myself, a sense of reality. The lack of chairs, tables, and projectors means we have nothing else to do but practice. Sometimes we have a fire going, other times we huddle together under a group made tarp shelter, sometimes we sit on improvised seats in the snow and sometimes we just take a moment to appreciate that “the outside” has more to teach us than the textbook.

Every chapter can be taught outside. The conversations in each chapter are not confined to a book and a desk. Genuine conversations have gone on while sitting on a tree stump. And all the while the external experience of being outside is driving deeper meaning to the topic or the lessons at hand. Cold fingers while bandaging/splinting means you learn to leave your gloves on, cumbersome or not. Wet knees while practicing CPR means you learn to get something to kneel on quickly. Cold shivering partner laying on the wet grass means you learn the importance of the log roll to get a blanket/tarp underneath. There comes the rain so you better get a tarp up over head. Oh you don’t have a tarp? Well, look around to improvise or suffer through.

First Aid has been done in the rain, in the wind, in the heat, and in the dark so it’s about time we started practicing in those conditions. The carpet of a classroom cannot compare to the bare cement, cold slush, muddy gravel, long grass, thick willow bushes, and relentless sand. In fact, a traditional classroom cannot compare to the staircase someone fell half way down, the highway accident with destroyed vehicles, the small confined hallway you are cramped in, and the bed you simply can’t leave someone on when attempting CPR.

The difference with training in more realistic settings is that you can quit at any time and there is no one really hurt/sick so there are no consequences from bad decisions, sloppy methods, or lack of compassion and common sense. But what we have seen in our untraditional classroom settings is that everyone learns far more than the book could teach them. The lessons are experiential and therefore have a far more lasting impact on your ability to manage through a real situation compared to a PowerPoint lesson. Links are made between the procedures we teach and the methods we suggest. Scenarios allow for a cumulative experience that incorporates many different topics in one short moment. The smiles, laughs, and rosy cheeks are proof enough that everyone has had a good time which is truly a gift when you are learning. And the debrief after distinguishes the lessons learned from the questions yet to be answered and reminds students of the direct correlation to the skill/chapter the scenario was based on. How thrilling to see students struggle through difficulty and find a new appreciation for their perseverance!

This is our classroom. Will you come out and play learn with us?