Academic Vigor from 30 Feet Up

Dana Hall 7th graders at TreeTop AdventuresIn September, the Middle School went to a ropes course for its retreat. As a teacher new to Dana Hall, it was an illuminating opportunity to observe students in a different learning environment. I saw girls bonding, taking risks, and supporting one another. The experience was energizing, setting the stage for a dynamic school year.

However, the retreat also created a second, more personal, opportunity for me: to observe myself as a learner. I am afraid of heights. I was looking forward to the retreat because it felt as though it might be a safe way to explore and confront my fears. The yellow trail I tackled first was easy. The green trail I did next was more challenging. However, since I had to focus just to climb through each obstacle, I hardly noticed the height.

At that point, I considered taking the rest of the day off. I had faced my fears and lived. But then I saw a blue trail calling to me—and I started my way up. The first two obstacles were not very difficult, simply higher. But as I approached the third obstacle, I could see something was wrong. The student and teacher ahead of me were not moving. They were calling down to a staff member below, asking for help. The third obstacle was a tightrope, with only a short rope attached to a pulley to hold onto. Honestly, if I had known this obstacle lay ahead, I never would have started up the blue trail. And if there had been a graceful way to get down, I would have taken it.

After some coaching, the student suddenly decided she was ready, stepping confidently out into the void. It was like watching Wonder Woman crossing no man’s land on a World War I battlefield. My eyes popped out and I held my breath until she reached the other side. Then, the teacher went and it was my turn. I am still not sure what came over me in that moment, but as I stepped onto the tightrope, my body was calm. I was not shaking or sweating. I just did it. While I detected a little fear, I noted it and let it go, as if meditating. And then I was on the other side, too.

Whenever I think back on this experience, two observations and a question spring to mind. I just did something I never thought I could do—and I was not scared. What else can I do that I do not think I can do? For me, this is the essence of academic vigor: taking risks and realizing we are more powerful than we imagine. Which leads the educator in me to pose two follow-up questions: How was my experience designed? What would our school be like if overcoming the impossible were a daily experience for our students?

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About David Ng

David Ng is the Middle School Mathematics Teacher, Upper School Computer Science Teacher, and STEM Coordinator at Dana Hall School. He joined the school in 2019.

3 Replies to “Academic Vigor from 30 Feet Up”

  1. David – the image of the student in front of you as Wonder Woman is powerful, as are your reflections. Thank you for sharing, and for modeling vulnerability and bravery!

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