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Laurentian Program gives eight grade students outdoor, group skills

A student group from last year's Laurentian trip takes a break from a winter hike. Every year Perham eight grade teachers takes a group of students up to Virginia, Minn. to gain outdoor and group skills.

In an age of Nintendo Wii and Facebook, you might not think that four days in the wilderness - in winter, no less - would be appealing to eighth grade students.

For 10 years, though, Perham English, science, math and geography teachers take their eighth grade students on a trip to Virginia, Minn. in the first weekend of December to do just that.

The group travels to participate in the Laurentian Journey program. The program is offered by the Laurentian Environmental Center that uses "nature as the context of learning," according to the program's website.

According to Hans Hanson, the Perham eighth grade math teacher who has worked with the program all 10 years, the program teaches students to work together, to respect each other and team building and group dynamic skills.

Eighth grade is the ideal time to take students on such a trip, Hanson said, because it's when students of that age need to learn to work together and learn their personal strengths or weaknesses.

Students are not required to attend, Hanson said, but they are strongly encouraged to.

Students are broken up into two groups. The first group travels to Virginia the first weekend of December, and the second group follows the next weekend.

"We go in December because we want there to be snow on the ground," Hanson said. "It makes the experience more dynamic."

Students are accompanied by parent or community chaperones.

The most recent trips returned on Dec. 3 and Dec. 9.

Originally, the school had a one-day winter survival guide, Hanson said, that took place at the school and was required for students to participate in.

"Then we discovered the Laurentian program," Hanson said, "and we thought that learning these survival skills up in the wilderness might be a better experience that learning them in the school parking lot."

After going through the superintendent and the curriculum board, Hanson said, it was decided that the school would not fund the annual trip. Instead, it would be funded by the students themselves along with the support of community organizations.

Hanson said that they have been able to keep the cost of the trip at $100 per student, despite the rising cost of the program.

"There are a large number of organizations and personal donors who donate money," Hanson said. "We go out and present to organizations who find this a real positive experience for the kids, and they agree to donate money. We've never had a kid not go because of money. If they can't afford it, we have people who donate money for that to happen."

Hanson said that every year some students choose not to attend because of sports or personal reasons. Those who don't attend go through the original winter survival curriculum.

Only seven students did not attend the most recent trips.

The program is important, Hanson said, because of the group dynamic lessons and team-building skills it teaches.

The website describes the program as "an intensive and engaging outdoor experience designed to challenge each participant to recognize individual abilities, to appreciate his/her importance in team activities, to understand his/her role in society, and to learn decision-making processes."

"What they learn really comes back to the classroom," Hanson said. "We definitely notice a change in some kids."

The program can have a large impact on students who "may not succeed in the walls of the school," Hanson said, but find that they have the skills to succeed in the wilderness.

"They see other kids start to look at them differently than in the classroom," he said.

Chris Happel, who was one of the parent chaperones on last year's trip, said that the program "really stresses getting people out of their normal clique of friends. It's an opportunity to see people they wouldn't normally associate with."

Students are required to make journal entries every day about how they feel they are interacting with their group and other personal issues.

On the second day of the program, students go on a trek in the woods, which stresses map and compass reading skills. On the third day, students learn about specific survival skills, and practice those skills at night.

Happel said that he felt his son, who is high-functioning autistic, was challenged by the experience, but that "he did an astounding job in a situation that was obviously unfamiliar for him. After he got back you could feel he had more confidence in how he expressed himself."

Hanson said that nearly all students have a positive experience participating in the program.

"I've had students from 10 years ago ask me if we're still doing the program," he said.

"The school doesn't have many field trips anymore, for financial reasons," he said, "but it's nice when you do something that kids remember and that they can build off of. For two weeks, it's all they've been talking about."