Summer Institute: A Bird’s-Eye View

By Ben Spencer, Teacher and Academic Director ()

This summer, the Muir Wood Learning Center offers Summer Institute, a curriculum that contains a course on world geography and the World Cup, a course on the hero’s journey, and cross training, which encompasses the physical activity students do on a weekly basis. World Geography & the World Cup and The Hero’s Journey are connected and build on similar concepts and themes, given that the thread running through both courses involves teaching students how to view the world and their interactions in it from a metacognitive standpoint. World geography is viewed through the lens of a major, globally important soccer tournament.  The concept of The Hero’s Journey is explored as students complete a variety of activities designed to encourage self-reflection. Through these activities, students examine their own lives using the model Joseph Campbell developed to explore the myths created by human civilizations throughout history.

The World Cup unit has involved a myriad of projects so far. During the first week, we watched six ESPN documentaries on the history of the World Cup and read a number of articles discussing the politics that lie behind the competition and its history. In subsequent weeks, we turned an entire corner of the classroom into the World Cup Hub, which contains a wall chart that illustrates the progress of each country through the competition, a map of Brazil with information about each of the stadiums and host cities, and data tables that explore the economics, politics, religion, and culture of each competing country. In order to connect the geography standards we are using to study the World Cup to students’ lives, each activity about world geography is paired with another that encourages self-reflection on an individual level.

The unit has been incredibly successful. Perhaps the most fascinating thing is how invested students have become in studying other countries and cultures around the globe. It is important in treatment and in early recovery to focus on one’s own needs and well-being, but broadening your perspective and considering what peoples’ lives are like in other parts of the world is equally important in the long run. To see students become interested in geography, politics, and history is inspiring, and it stands as proof of the critical thinking young people are capable of if they free themselves from the complications of addiction. What is equally impressive is that most of our clients are still in their first month of recovery. If their minds are taking off in as dramatic a fashion as this after a few weeks in recovery, what will they be capable of after two months of sobriety? Or six months? Or a year?

But given that working the 12-Step program day by day is vital, and given that it is also important to encourage young people in recovery to think in terms of making progress rather than being perfect, we’ve used the gravity of reality to pull ourselves down from global orbit. Studying the world and its mind-boggling magnitude can be overwhelming, but when students examine how they fit into the big picture, some very interesting opportunities for growth and self-reflection open up.

This week, students will begin studying the hero’s journey, a conceptual model developed by Joseph Campbell that is often used to study mythology. Rather than studying only the myths of other cultures or even our own, students will be creating their own hero’s journey narrative: their big picture understanding of their lives and their futures. Utilizing the concepts we’ve studied in our unit on world geography—map making, data compilation, research, and making predictions about the future based on gathering evidence from the past and present—students will examine their lives and create a narrative map (which can take the form of a physical map or any other creative representation of the narrative that students propose) that illustrates their perception of their past and present and of the goals they’ve established to create a clear cut path to their future.

I’m excited to see what happens. Students taking part in the Summer Institute curriculum have exceeded my expectations—technically, if these students weren’t in treatment, they wouldn’t be attending school for four hours a day in the summer. But studying academic concepts in the context of a major current event makes the concepts tangible. The same goes for studying the hero’s journey as it relates to the inner workings of our own lives. What better time to study those concepts than a summer spent in treatment while reflecting on life in terms of the past, present, and future? The quality of the work students have produced is impressive, and rather than taking credit for designing an awesome and engaging summer curriculum that students have no choice but to appreciate, I credit the recovery my students have pursued and the people at Muir Wood who directly address these issues. I also attribute my students’ success in the classroom to their humility, their willingness to give something a chance, and their open-mindedness when it comes to identifying and engaging in opportunities for growth. Adolescents can really the blow the socks off you if given the right opportunities. Being freed from the oppressing shackles of addiction is one such opportunity, and the services provided by Muir Wood, in conjunction with the amazing willingness of our residents and their families to jump headlong into this work, is what allows the liberation to occur.

Each morning, students rush into class to learn about the latest outcomes of the games in the World Cup. They listen attentively as I describe the activities for the day. They engage enthusiastically for multiple hours each morning as we study the world and our place in it. And to think that this all happens during the summer, when they weren’t expecting to be in school for four hours each day, is somewhat miraculous. But, as I stated above, the magic happening in the classroom has to do with the amazing students who occupy it for four hours each day. My hope is that they’ll recognize the growth they’ve undergone in recovery, because—speaking from personal experience—the growth found in recovery and the accompanying miracles only multiply with time. Perhaps one day our residents will teach other students about these big picture concepts with the same enthusiasm they exhibit each day when learning about them.

In recovery, the sky is the limit. The key for students is when they get up to the sky to remember what they learned about humility and about viewing the world and their lives with a big picture bird’s-eye perspective.