Sunday, July 31, 2011


Today I'm headed up north with my family for a camping trip.  I love the north shore of Minnesota - it almost feels like you've entered another world.  For one thing it's about 20 degrees cooler on average than the Twin Cities (especially important to me since we're having 100 degree weather!).  For another, the landscape is dramatic and imposing - almost frightening sometimes. 

Lake Superior is like a great, cold ocean (55 degrees is about as high as it gets) and the rock formations have created steep, craggy cliffs that give you vertigo in a heartbeat.  This is astonishing in Minnesota where most of the state is at sea level.   Okay, so I've said enough about what inspires me on the North Shore.  As I prepare to go camping it occurred to me, "Do any of my ELL families go camping?"   In all my years camping in Minnesota I've rarely seen families of color in the park.  Now, I don't go camping weekly during the summer so my experience is limited, and this is Minnesota, and other parts of the country have more diversity so maybe it's different.  But I know it is a growing concern for outdoor recreation leaders.

It is uncertain whether ethnic minority groups are being excluded from participating in
wilderness activities or whether they are simply choosing to participate in other forms of
recreation. If wilderness park managers are indeed excluding ethnic minorities – albeit without
intent and unknowingly – then the situation should be corrected. Parks are a public trust. Park
managers have the responsibility of meeting the public’s needs. They should not only
determine whether current recreation opportunities and park services meet visitor expectations,
but also mitigate the barriers that prevent participation among non-users. If ethnic minority
groups simply do not aspire to participate in wilderness recreation and choose other types of
leisure activities, park managers are still faced with a challenge. How will park managers and
wilderness lobby groups receive enough political support for future conservation initiatives if
ethnic minority groups are apathetic towards wilderness values?
  (Hung, 2003)

Hung's thesis, based on research and interviews in Canada, explores barriers and perceptions of minority citizens who have not made use of the parks.  My own informal experience with bilingual students and parents has supported some of his conclusions.  A Mexican mother responded to my question about camping saying, "Why would I want to do that?  That's how I grew up."    Many of my ELL students when discussing summer vacation basically spent a lot of time in and around their apartment buildings or playing video games.  Many of these students lack the resources to enjoy the outdoors the way many Americans take for granted.  They may not have bikes or funds to go to the pool or transportation to a local beach.  That said, it can also be difficult for families to take time off to take a week-long vacation and come up with the funds to support a family (even camping costs money especially when you factor in the cost of camping equipment). 

Minnesota State Parks have also recognized that many people may not have grown up camping and could use support with equipment and instruction and they've begun a program called, "I Can Camp." It provides training and equipment to those who would like to have a two-night stay and learn the basics of camping.  I think this is ingenious and I hope they have success with it.  At this point it looks like it is marketed and operated in English, but I hope they'll expand to other language groups.  I think of the benefits for many of our bilingual students, who may have grown up in a rural environment or a place with a lot of nature to explore, and are now in an urban setting with very little opportunity to really explore the natural recreation areas of a state.  I remember one fall when I took my ELL teens on a fieldtrip to an apple orchard.  They were so excited and all took off energetically into the orchard except for one boy who sat under a tree peacefully.  Worried that he may be sad or left out I went to check in with him.  He said, "Oh - I'm fine.  I just like it here so much.  It reminds me of my home and I just want to feel the sun on my face and smell the fresh air."   Such a seemingly little thing meant so much to him!  I want all ELL students to have the opportunity to fall in love with nature.

To be honest, it's not just ELL students - there is concern for youth everywhere.   In the book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" by Richard Louv, he describes the current state of detachment, "Indeed, a 2002 British study reported that eight-year-olds could identify Pokémon characters far more easily than they could name "otter, beetle, and oak tree."

So, as I go off to enjoy my time with family and the pure, sweet air of the north, I will ponder ways in which bilingual families might be supported to enjoy such beauty as well.  

Man's heart away from nature becomes hard.  ~Standing Bear 

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