What makes a leader a leader?

An interview with Elaine Blanck, by Kimball Cartwright, Director of Development

Elaine Blanck, CG Outdoor Leadership Teacher

“Ever wonder why Fortune 100 corporations send their executives on survival trips into the woods?” Elaine Blanck asked me as she talked about her new Common Ground class and tried for an example she thought I could relate to in my polished dress shoes, button up shirt and blue blazer. “Leadership flourishes in the woods!” Elaine offered, “First of all, the outdoors is a great place to think through the question ‘Am I a leader?'”

One important new class coming out of this summer’s curriculum design institute through Common Ground’s Teach Our Cities initiative, is the elective “Outdoor Leadership.” The class brings 15 students outdoors for an entire semester for project-based learning and to reflect on leadership. Elaine Blanck worked in that institute with a team of students and community partners, and schools from around the Northeast U.S. to create a class that uses Common Ground’s place, a farm in a forest, as a central organizing tool for learning about leadership.

An excerpt from the class listing shared with students: “Together we will spend ALL our class time outside, building our relationships with the land of West Rock State Park and all the life that lives there. We will learn skills like fire building and camping, challenging us to understand ourselves as leaders, (not only of a team) but leaders of our Global Community.”

“Students reflect on the big question of ‘Am I a leader’ while actually leading activities and solving outdoor problems, which is of course essential to the ‘stickiness’ of the lessons learned about leadership,” continued Elaine. Reflection plus engagement of mind and

CG Outdoor Leadership students in the classroom

body in an activity cements learning. “What starts as a simple ‘walk in the woods’ turns into a series of reflections on planning, goal setting, team-building, and problem solving,” Elaine added, mentioning “especially the first time the team gets lost on a hike.”

Elaine explained further that “the first unit roots students in our place, developing scientific observation and ecological understanding knowledge and skills, where the second unit dives more into leadership topics through a combination of self-reflection and team-based learning.”

“The final piece integrates the skills and practices they’ve learned in a final project, and I kind of like to think of the arc of the class as first, rooting, second, sprouting, and third, fruiting,” Elaine said, adding “because I love agricultural analogies!”

The class builds in a fundamental building block of Common Ground High School – to challenge students to develop themselves as people and as part of a broader human community at the same time. When I walked out (as in outside) to the class earlier this week, they were all focused on popcorn. Students divided into multiple small groups and each group had a task, with the wrinkle that they all had to use the same resource – a bag of popcorn – but at carefully prescribed times only. What followed were reflections on the implications for the people who get to the resource first vs. last, and reflections on how different teams chose to use the resource once they had it. Students needed no prompting to compare issues of resource management from the exercise to modern day issues in the world and in their own neighborhoods.

The Outdoor Leadership class is a seed component of a larger Common Ground High School effort called “Leveraging the Wider Learning Ecosystem.” The vision is to grow these seeds into an integrated, responsive, student-centered, community-rooted model of urban public secondary education.  Stay tuned for more blog posts about other ways we are seeding the growth of this vision!


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