Conceptualizing better ways to visit DC is a large part of why I run this blog, and hopefully it’s why some of you read it. I was struck by this, as a showed a group of Boy Scouts around Philly and DC this weekend. They were en-route to the 2010 Boy Scout Jamboree in Ft. A.P. Hill, Virginia, and I had the privilege of guiding them through Philly and DC before they went to the main event. We had a great time, and among other thing, I enjoyed sharing pointers with the young man who maintained their blog (focus on the part where he calls me awesome, not where he refers to me as Mike).
Now, on paper, this tour shouldn’t be a whole lot different from my standard school group tour. It’s a bus load of kids with a few chaperones seeing the same things (Arlington, Smithsonians, etc.). Sure, they’re all boys, but I have a fair number of all boy or all girl schools come through, so that shouldn’t make too much of a difference. And sure, I wondered about the age range, with Scouts ranging from 13-17. But even so, I didn’t think of this tour as being any different from my other school tours before I met them Saturday.
Wow, I was wrong. Despite the murderous, stinking, brutal, soul-diminishing, sweltering heat; this was one of the smoothest tours I’ve ever done, even with six buses. So what was different? I don’t think for a minute that your average Scout is any better behaved, any more responsible, or intrinsically a better person than my average student, but the overall effect of the tour was far more positive. How do they do it? And is there anything here that my non-Boy Scout groups can take away and learn from, without having to actually take their kids camping?
I’ll be spending this week examining some of the different ways my Boy Scout visitors did things that might make your average eighth grade field trip more enjoyable for all.
For today, let’s start with responsibility. I don’t know about you, but back in my high school, the student government was not a real leadership position, at least as I understand it. Once they won, the officers might be responsible for a few projects, putting together a dance or something like that, but would have no authority over me, a fellow student. The “Student Body President” wasn’t in charge of the student body, not even nominally.
A Boy Scout troop, on the other hand, elects a Senior Patrol Leader, who is responsible for getting the boys moving, keeping them organized, completing tasks, accounting for everybody, and all that leadership stuff. Obviously, responsible adults serve as Scoutmasters, but the nuts and bolts of getting everyone pointed in the right direction rests on the shoulders of a young man, chosen by his peers.
Back when I was a Boy Scout myself, I never thought much of this. The attraction to me was the opportunity to go camping. Lining up, counting everyone, getting my people there on time. etc. was just another task to do, like cleaning dishes and setting up the tent, borne for the greater good. But viewing it a decade or two later as an outsider, the differences in this system are noticeable and positive. As a guide, the kids themselves were reporting to me that they were ready to move on; I was not hunting them down to get counted. They policed themselves, courteously moving to the side, allowing others to pass, showing respect at war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery, and so on.
With real responsibility and authority, kids learn the hard way what a royal pain in the ass it is to get 41 people counted and on the bus. Nothing annoys me more than when students play around with the count, shouting out numbers and trying to sneak around me when I’m counting them up. This isn’t a game to me, and like all repetitive tasks, I just want it done so I can move on. Making sure I have my full bus before leaving is serious, not to mention that I’m almost always under a time crunch. But this was quashed, and quashed early, by the boys themselves this weekend. No longer was it their teacher or some strange guide performing a ritual they didn’t understand; it was now their mission, to be done as efficiently as possible. They corrected, quietly and firmly, any of the boys playing around.
It can be troubling to put some kids in charge of others. Visions of boys dancing around a pig’s head come to mind, and nothing I advocate here should be construed as lessening my ultimate responsibility of safely conducting a tour nor the chaperones heavy load of being responsible for other people’s children. In fact, part of what made the juvenile responsibility work is the supervision and coaching of the Scoutmasters. Allowing small failures, reviewing lessons learned, asking probing questions, and generally systematically tearing apart the whole canard that “leadership can’t be taught”. Done correctly, putting students in charge is probably more work for the teacher, at least in the beginning.
But the interaction between the boys was actually more positive when some were in charge of others. Roles were clearly defined, authority was delineated, and, most importantly, leaders were chosen by the boys themselves. Contrast that with what is sadly so often the norm of my school trips: cliquish groups whose behavior to each other can border on the vile. The uncertainty of status and the prevalence of dead time allows good kids to get in trouble. As Internet start-up guru (and my friend David’s personal hero) Paul Graham puts it:
That's what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.
By giving students real responsibility, we avoid (or at least diminish) that trap.
So may I suggest, school leaders, give your kids real responsibility. Have them pick a leader for the trip, coach him or her on what their responsibilities will be, and hold them accountable for it. Expect them to fall flat, resist the urge to just do it yourself, keep their feet to the fire. In the end, the kids might learn something more important than the height of the Washington Monument. Which no one really cares about, including me.