Outdoor School, Malaysia-Style : Day One
For those of you who didn’t grow up in Portland: Outdoor School is a week-long trip to camp that sixth graders in Portland Public Schools, and some of the private schools, do in conjunction with our local science museum. Outdoor School features all kinds of natural science – botany walks, squid dissections, star-gazing nights, outdoor geology labs, and local ecology lessons – as well as your typical camp adventures such as canoeing, hiking, Capture the Flag, scavenger hunts, campfire sing-a-longs and cabin competitions.
Sixth grade was a really, really long time ago. Eons. Heck, it was in a different millennium. Despite the plethora of years that have passed since that time, however, I can still recall with vivid clarity my Outdoor School experience – everything from my cabin’s name (Alder) to the terribly handsome boys’ counselor on whom several of us 11-year-old girls developed instant crushes ( his camp name was “Spirit,” and yes, I remember his real name, too). I remember the feel of the beads on my wood slice nametag; the thrill of being chosen for the tree-planting ceremony; a dinner-table conversation about weather balloons (and the overly-processed, overly-sweet peach cobbler that was served as desert that night), as well as all of the lyrics to Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow,” my favourite of our sing-a-longs.
So when my boss asked me a couple of months ago to help plan a science trip for my students, I was pretty excited about it. It was a chance for me to recreate some of the things I loved best about camp, which is basically an utterly foreign concept here, for my students. It was also a delightful opportunity to do a completely off-book lesson arc for my P6 class in preparation for the trip.
The destination my boss chose for the trip is a place called Ipoh in Perak, Malaysia – by bus, about 2 hours south of Penang which is a very short, 40-minute plane ride across the Malacca Straight from Medan. Ipoh is nestled in the middle of a gorgeous karst landscape, surrounded by limestone hills and peppered with caves, rivers, and mining pools (I’ll talk about those at some point). It’s also, obviously, in Malaysia, so the wildlife can be pretty exotic to this American – I can safely say that Ipoh was the first place I ever saw “Monitor Lizard X-ing” signs.
The rough plan we laid out in December was to stay at a resort that offered cabin-style accommodation as well as some outdoor activities, and to visit some of the limestone caves and cave temples. The plan evolved over the course of the following two months into a behemoth of a trip that included visits to the Perak Turf Club horse-racing track and equestrian centre, Ipoh International School, Yayasan Sultan Idris Shah Foundation for the Physically Disabled, Gua Tempurung Cave, and the Lost World of Tambun Theme Park.
This was, suffice it to say, a little outside the scope of my idea of Outdoor School.
Since I knew absolutely nothing about the geography of Ipoh, coordinating the actual events mostly fell outside my purview. Instead, I found myself more or less in charge of things like cabin arrangements, group assignments, and activity direction; most importantly, I took the opportunity to do a 4-week, from-scratch geology unit with P6 to prepare them for the cave and landscape. Those of you who know me well (and anyone who’s ever gone camping or hiking with me) know that geology is an intellectual pet of mine, so it was with much glee that I took P6 on rock walks and taught them about tectonic plates using wafer cookies. Y7 did a unit on solutions and mixtures, and we spent some class hours devoted to playing with calcium carbonate and vinegar to illustrate methods of limestone dissolution and formation.
Class preparation was all very well and good, but I have to admit: the travel plans gave me ulcers. We flew on AirAsia (China buddies – all together now, groooooaaaaaaan) from Medan to Penang and rented a (really nice) coach to drive us to all of our activities. Travelling 135 km with 16 students on a bus is one thing; travelling internationally with them by air is a whole other bunch of bananas. I have an entirely new appreciation for the teachers and parents who took my classes on our various and sundry educational excursions, such as accompanying 56 eleven-year-olds to Japan for two weeks. Holy cow. I was constantly counting and re-counting heads the entire four days. For all my paranoia, though, we never lost anyone – or any luggage, though there was a fun moment when one of the boys left his backpack at security and nearly walked onto the plane without it – and having the students wear uniforms to the airport was a stroke of real genius.
So, we arrived in one piece at Clearwater Sanctuary Resort. Okay. My Outdoor School cabin had, as I recall, no electricity, and padding on the bunks that could only generously be called “mattresses” if you used a lot of imagination. The Clearwater chalets, on the other hand, had hotel-style accommodation with hot showers (blessed hot showers!) and, you know, television sets. Not exactly roughing it. There were two single beds and a day bed, and two extra mattresses. My cabin of 4 girls quickly came up with a rotating bed schedule, which I thought was pretty cute since they included me (I was fully prepared to sleep on the floor all 3 nights but it turned out all of the girls wanted a chance to do so) as well as establishing a shower schedule based on seniority. We arrived at around 3:30 pm and were instructed to report to the activities area at 4 to commence with the bicycling, kayaking, bird-watching, and other fun things.
Alas, it is the tropics, and it is the rainy season. Thunder started rolling in before we’d even made it to the bicycle shop; my boss met us on the way to tell us that the Clearwater staff had called off all outdoor activities. They did, however, have covered tennis courts and a badminton hall, as well as a whole lot of board games, so we managed to amuse ourselves quite well until dinner. Leading by example, I dusted off my unused-for-a-decade tennis skills and got the boys going on that, then proceeded over to the badminton hall and played a couple of sets, first with my boss and then with some of my students. After a couple of really, horrendously loud thunderclaps that caused some of the girls to squeal, I taught them how to count between the lightning and the thunder and figure out how far away the storm was – teachable moments!
So the first night was, in some ways, a let-down; the kids were really looking forward to kayaking and bicycling, and inclement weather is never very fun. We made the most of it, though, and settled in, and in my cabin a deck of cards saved the evening as I taught them how to play B.S., which became a total monster over the course of the week. In a good way.
Tomorrow I’ll post about Day 2: the Turf Club, vet hospital and horse surgery, IIS, and Yayasan. Stay tuned!