Sunday, October 16, 2011

Out Walking: "For Every Walk is a Sort of Crusade"

Last Tuesday, I participated in a learning walk with 40 high school students and three other teachers.  The walk began and ended in Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan (NYC). 

Here is a map of the walk that I made at the site, MapMyWalk.
Map route of Learning Walk taken in Washington Heights (NYC).

Why Learning Walks?
It is a bit difficult to properly explain why simply walking, sauntering--needs to be a key method to occasion learning.  At a time when busy busy busy and faster faster faster seems to be the mode of work, slowing down to make enough empty space in which to learn may seem frivolous, unnecessary. I want to suggest it may be the most necessary action we make.  For so long we have mistakenly privileged being well educated with knowing explicit knowledge. The very way we structure secondary schools as content based courses and increasingly are restructuring elementary schools into dedicated periods to study "subjects" reinforces the notion of explicit knowledge being prized. 

Now to be sure, I am not suggesting that knowing explicit information is not important.  But I do want to stress that it is hopelessly incomplete and inside the 'school' day there needs to be large blocks of time for tacit learning.  Learning walks privilege the opportunity for both explicit and tacit knowing. For example, during the Washington Heights walk, students had the choice of using flip cameras and/or their own phones to document what they were noticing.  For example, towards the end of the walk, we were heading up Broadway and at 178th Street we met a man selling flavored ices.  He pushed a handmade cart in which he had a dozen or so bottles of flavor each in its own spot on the perimeter of the cart.  In the center of the cart was a block of ice he had covered. The students were fascinated and as the majority of them spoke Spanish, they were able to order their ices and talk with the man as his primary language seemed to be Spanish. I am uncertain as to how many, if any, of the students had previously seen ices made from an actual block of ice and a bit of muscle, but it was certainly a different experience than one might have ordering a slushy at a fast food place.  Many of the students documented the encounter.

During the next few weeks, most of the students will also take learning walks across the Brooklyn Bridge and through the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.  They previously took a learning walk through lower Manhattan via the Staten Island Ferry. On that trip we happened past Liberty Park and students were able to talk with protesters and police.  What students make of these experiences is impossible to know.  Yet, what is known is that these experiences will inform their knowing and may well become codified and shared in classes and in via their expressions.

Henry David Thoreau knew the value of walking.  In his seminal text, Walking, he wrote:
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who
understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks--who had a
genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING, which word is beautifully derived
"from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and
asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre," to the Holy
Land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer," a
Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their
walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they
who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some,
however, would derive the word from sans terre without land or a home,
which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular
home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of
successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be
the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is
no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while
sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the
first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is
a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth
and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.

I think both definitions work well. One outcome sought via the learning walks is to help students (and ourselves) experience a world that may be less than familiar and in doing so be at home everywhere.  The second is to create the occasion where experiential ways of knowing happen and allow for a different type of community to emerge.  In this manner, the learning walk is a type of crusade: a joining together.

Here are a few images I made during the walk. 

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