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Challenge Course Goes Way Beyond Team-Building

Les Miner climbs a firmly anchored 25-foot high pole so he can stand atop a platform about the size of a dinner plate. Then he leaps off — and successfully taps a nearby dangling buoy.

Right after that, the 10th-grader is safely lowered to the ground so his ground-level classmates can attempt the same challenge.

It’s not exactly a leap of faith, but it sure feels that way when you’re body is zooming through the air, said Les.

“All through the climbing part I kept in mind you have to trust your teammates,” he said. “The pole shakes a little when you’re going up, but I decided I’m going for it.”

The “going for it” part of the high ropes challenge is connected to Kent ISD/Kent Career Tech Center’s Challenge Course program that students from all school districts in Kent County can choose to take part.

The high ropes course is probably the most dramatic example of what the Challenge Course entails, but in some ways is the least important in terms of the program’s goals, said Steve Norman who, along with Jean Roabe, are the Challenge Course facilitators. Students as a group can elect to forgo that aspect of the challenge, and that’s fine, he said.

First you scale the 25-high foot pole

Both Focused and Broad

Challenge Course goals include discovering what it means to successfully function as a team, fostering leadership and problem-solving skills and taking risks.

Participation means students decide what their group’s “contract” will include. Contracts hone the common values they as a “community” will abide by, which also is part of developing trust, experiencing a sense of community and honing leadership skills.

“When you develop community, you develop trust,” Norman said. “We all have challenges, we all have strengths. We combine those two and explore, what does leadership mean to them? How do you lead people? How does a leader empower others?'”

No two groups are the same, Norman added. Each has its own unique set of needs, and it’s up to the facilitator to encourage the students to discover what they are without dictating that to them.

“If I have a preconceived notion of what their needs are, I’ll miss it by a mile,” he said. “If they’re all talking at the same time, we need to ask ‘Why weren’t we very successful? What strategies can we use so it doesn’t happen again?'”

That is why Norman and Roabe are facilitators, said Roabe. A big-picture goal is for them to step back and watch the students blossom on their own.

“It should be that Steve and I hardly have to do any talking,” Roabe said.

Norman agreed.

“The students are working as if I didn’t exist,” he said.

That idea resonates with Lowell High School senior Katie Brim, a graphic arts student at the Tech Center.

“I love collaborating with other people and the big ideas that generates,” she said. “I like working with a team feel and getting a lot of stronger outcomes rather than working as an individual.”

The challenge course is not about a game, but facilitating an understanding of what the group needs to be successful, said Laura Robinson, an instructional coach for Kent ISD.

“If there is conflict, students need to decide how they are going to resolve that through a King Arthur’s round table, where there is no head and everyone is equal.”

With all the testing and pressure in the classroom, Robinson added, “you need that community approach to learning in the classroom. It’s really left in the group’s hands to continue with what they’ve learned.”

One District’s Experience

Forest Hills Middle School is using the Challenge Course to develop its “Ranger Up” program, which was conceived last school year. Ranger Up is a tagline for the philosophy that surrounds the school’s efforts to help students develop empathy and compassion, said counselor Jackie Roberts.

“Team-building is so integral in helping kids not only overcome their own challenges, but to be able to provide support to others,” Roberts said.

All seventh-graders last year went through the program’s basic ropes and obstacle course, adding difficulty as they met each challenge. Course facilitators at the Tech Center used analogies to explain to students how their physical challenges align with real-life challenges.

As eighth-graders this fall, about 50 students volunteered to take part in the advanced challenges, as a way to “train” for leadership roles in their school.

“That was all about developing resiliency and working through challenges, then being able to model it for their peers,” Roberts explained, adding that teachers went through the course themselves this summer.

“The teachers agree there’s value in this and that it’s needed, to be able to give (students) the social-emotional learning piece I think has been missing across the country,” she said.

Kent ISD schools interested in challenge course programs should contact liaison Steve Norman at stevenorman@kentisd.org


Kent Career Tech Center

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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