Todd Wright finds a classroom in the wild
I recently traded the comfort of a school desk, a conventional classroom and long-winded professors for the cockpit of a whitewater kayak, the roiling water of the Lamoille River and the company and credo of Todd Wright. It was all in the spirit of education, of course. And adventure.
Wright is the director of Wilderness Programs at St. Michael’s College. Neither a crunchy environmentalist nor strictly a scholar, this brawny outdoors guru is passionate about both his job and theories of learning. But, as I discovered, it’s students that get him really jazzed.
For 13 years Wright has been making outdoor addicts out of the St. Mike’s student body. I wouldn’t liken him to a drug dealer, but as he describes it, his approach isn’t far off: “‘Here’s some whitewater kayaking. What do you think? You like it? Come on, keep coming back,’” Wright says. “The next thing you know, I’ve hooked another one.”
A self-described outdoor junkie myself, I was interested in whatever he was pushing. So I signed on for a single day of whitewater-kayak instruction as one of Wright’s prized pupils — though he doesn’t use that word because it “connotes a separation of power,” he tells me. I quickly learned that the first day of whitewater class wasn’t the meet-and-greet, syllabus-review kind I’d grown accustomed to in other courses. Wright upended my preconceptions about education and, as it turned out, me.
Early in the lesson, in an attempt to ferry across a tongue of current, I rolled my boat. I pulled off my spray skirt and emerged waterlogged and floundering to hear Wright’s voice: “Grab your paddle and your boat with that hand and hold on to mine with the other. Now kick!” he charged, tugging me across the current toward an eddy where I could drain the kayak on a rock. I had just “wet-exited” my boat.
Standing on the boulder and pouring gallons of water back into the Lamoille, I realized that if I wanted to keep the kayak’s hull in the water and out of the air, I’d have to do more than absorb what Wright was telling me. He was going to make me learn to do it, or swim.
So, instead of lecturing me in flat water all day, practicing strokes and spins, and crippling my memory with an overdose of information, Wright — an avid reader of learning theory — simply shared a few principles about white water and my kayak’s center of gravity. Once I felt comfy in the water, shifting my weight from edge to edge to stay balanced, we put it all in context.
“The assessment is right there: If you’re on your edge, you’re fine. If you’re off your edge, the assessment is you’re upside down. There are no B edges; it was either success or upside down,” said Wright. In his mind, the “upside down” option is only a problem if you don’t learn from it. “People get really wrapped up in failure, and the reality is that, unless you look at the failures, you can’t see where the success comes from,” he told me. It was an adage I was sure he’d shared with Anna DiSanto, the 19-year-old sophomore from Dover, Mass., who accompanied us on the river.
An aspiring whitewater instructor herself, DiSanto taught me to wet-exit my kayak and not underestimate the river. “Todd makes it look so easy,” she kept saying.
After several botched ferrying attempts, I was able to cross the current at the correct angle, on the right edge, and even stay in my kayak. I was successful, but by no means an expert — another four-letter word in Wright’s vocabulary.
Evoking the idea of “expertise,” he insisted, jeopardizes an otherwise productive learning environment by figuratively capping one’s education and separating the learner from the learned.
“I don’t have all the answers,” Wright said. “People always ask me about boating, and I say I’m an advanced intermediate. I’m never an ‘expert,’ because there’s a lot of stuff I still need to learn. Good teachers are just advanced intermediate learners,” he added.
Drying off later in St. Michael’s Alliot Hall, 37-year-old Wright, a New Jersey native, admitted that he hasn’t always got his kicks from teaching and education. It took a tour in the Army for him to identify a learning style he could respond to; the experience also rekindled his innate love of the outdoors.
“People instructing in the military had to teach to a really broad audience,” he said. “They had an uncanny ability to identify an individual’s needs and provide appropriate teaching to get that person up to speed.” Wright enlisted for adventure and an alternative to college, he recalled, but ended up learning a lot about teaching and learning: “That was the first time I watched folks transfer complex information, based on the person receiving the info, in a fashion where they were able to take it, own it and utilize it. And that was need-to-know information.”
That context of immediate application made learning easy for Wright. While stationed in Germany, he spent his free time developing new skills, such as rock climbing, which took him above a mountain tree line for the first time.
“It was a very different place up there, and a very different feeling,” Wright recalled. “Human-powered endeavors — that’s what I really dig. I got there under my own power, and I knew that those types of experiences would be pretty critical to my future. It was one of those things I never wanted to lose touch with.”
And he didn’t. Wright returned from the military and became a part-time climbing and ice-climbing instructor while enrolled at SMC. By the time he graduated in 1996, St. Mike’s was exploring nonvarsity activities to offer students. The college passed a proposal that included noncompetitive lifetime sports in the curriculum. It also supplied a job to Wright, who has since compiled an impressive litany of wilderness credentials and certifications. Hired to direct the program, he was able to marry his love of the outdoors with education — and get paid for it.
“I’ve never had a proper job,” Wright joked, tugging on his pointy soul patch. “What I do for work, other people do on the weekends for fun.”
But river romping and climbing aren’t the only things on his mind. From our conversations in his truck and on the river, it’s clear that the taste for education that ripened in the Army continues to propel him at St. Mike’s.
It’s even evident from Wright’s emails, where he incorporates a John Dewey quote in his signature: “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and if the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, learning naturally results.” That passage turned out to be the mantra for our entire whitewater lesson — even if it does include the word “pupil.”
Wright also has an aversion to such common educational nomenclature as “teacher” and “instructor.” He prefers “coach.”
“I’m not there for the paddling or climbing; I’m there for the individual who I’m coaching,” he explained to me. “I’ll climb easy terrain all day and just develop someone, and then there’s that moment when the lightbulb goes on. It’s kind of an honor to be present for that moment when someone figures it all out.”
“I’m all about obscuring the lines,” he went on. “‘Coach’ connotes that we are in a process, moving incrementally towards a goal, where ‘instructor’ is linear; it’s giving information. If you’re coaching, you’re engaged in a process with someone, and if it’s done right, it can be a pretty intimate process.”
My whitewater lesson didn’t make Wright and me best buds, but the intimacy he described is certainly evident between him and his certified student instructors, most of whom have logged more than 100 hours of training and field experience. He’s been known to offer his students his garage for summer storage, or to treat them when they forgot to bring money on a kayaking trip. That’s what happened early last month to DiSanto. In addition to buying all her meals, Wright also towed her ashore when she struggled with the afternoon waves off the coast of Maine.
“Todd is always looking out for you and wants to help in any way he can,” said DiSanto. “He has a lot of fun with his job, but he also takes it seriously” — as he did when DiSanto taught me the wet-exit. It was a short lesson, but a crucial one for my safety. And Wright, who evaluated her delivery and instruction, was certainly tuned in.
“I’ve climbed a bunch of mountains, I’ve done a bunch of rock routes, and I’ve paddled a bunch of rivers that everybody else has,” Wright said. “But the instructors we graduate — they are my barometers as to whether I’m doing a quality job. I gauge my success by their caliber and competency.”
I made plenty of wet-exits on the river that day, thanks to DiSanto’s crash course, and I even ran a few rapids, courtesy of Wright’s coaching. But since there are no letter grades for whitewater kayaking, the only assessment I could give myself is that I did the best I could — on edge and in a skirt.