Day 9: A Detour, and a Meta-Detour

It seems like every article I read in the last six months related to our trip mentioned Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. If the article was discussing top attractions in national parks, the road was mentioned. If the article was about top scenic drives, the road was mentioned. If the article was about not-to-miss destinations, a review of a new RV, or even likely GOP presidential contenders, the road was mentioned. With this much pressure on us, we felt like we had to include Going-to-the-Sun Road on our trip. 

Going-to-the-Sun Road is a 50-mile stretch of two-lane road that cuts across Glacier National Park. It features incredible mountain views, waterfalls, and the chance to see multiple climate zones as you climb several thousand feet of elevation to Logan Pass and the Continental Divide before descending down the other side. There are plenty of hikes, visitors centers, boat and bus tours, and other things to do in the park, but Going-to-the-Sun Road is the quintessential experience, the thing to do if you only have time for one thing to do. So of course the road was closed when we got there.

The road is impassable through the winter and typically opens in early June. I knew we were cutting it a little close when we made our plans, but it looked like everything was going to be fine so I was pretty surprised to pull up to the park entrance in St. Mary and be told that the road was closed from there to Logan Pass. Weather wasn’t the culprit in this case (snowfall totals were below average this year), but road construction was running a little behind schedule and had delayed the opening of the road for about a week. Disappointed and a little thrown off, we went to the visitors center, where we talked with one of the rangers about alternatives.

Rather than heading west across the park on Going-to-the-Sun Road as we had planned, we headed south and went to different part of the park. In the Two Medicine area of the park, we took a short hike to a waterfall and spent some time looking at, and skipping stones on, a glacial lake. We then continued south, going around the bottom end of the park and seeing a couple of interesting spots along the way before ending up at the other side of the park at its west entrance. From there, we were able to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road up to Logan Pass, ultimately driving 30 of the road’s 50 miles before heading back down and out of the park. All in all, it ended up being a pretty good day.

A few days after our visit to Glacier National Park, it occurred to me that our detour was a good metaphor for thinking about what we teach and why we teach it. The metaphorical detour I’m thinking about isn’t the one that happens when a class doesn’t go as planned or current events take you off track for a day. I’m thinking about a much bigger detour and our response to it.

Suppose that you, the teacher, arrive at school for opening faculty meetings, and your department chair says to you, “I’m not sure if you knew this, but this year you won’t be able to teach _____.” The blank represents a specific set of content that you have taught for years, are comfortable with, and believe you know the value of for our class. For the English teacher, perhaps it’s The Great Gatsby. A history teacher might lose ancient Greece, a biology teacher might lose the nervous system, or a math teacher might lose exponential functions. In each case, the teacher is still expected to help students develop the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind necessary to move on the the next class, the next level, etc. 

If you were handed this unexpected detour, what would you do? Is there any content area so signigicant that it’s loss would mean the course should just be canceled? Assuming that’s not the case, what skills and habits of mind are being lost with this detour, and what might you do to overcome it? With this detour forced upon you, what might you encounter that you otherwise would have missed?

I’ve had some time to think about this, and I know how I would adapt if certain things were removed, but that’s not really the point. I’ll look to my colleagues this fall to challenge me by suggesting things I not be allowed to teach. Even if it’s only an academic exercise it will still be an enlightening one. With a little luck, I’ll discover something so good that I decide to go ahead an remove the topic from my class for the year. I’d also welcome suggestions in the comments, and I’d love to hear responses if anyone else tries this.


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