All of our area schools are wonderful, that we know for sure. The interesting thing is that while uniformly excellent, each is unique, with traditions and experiences all its own. At Monroe, one of these defining experiences is the trip to Camp Edwards in Wisconsin that the fifth graders take each December.
Known affectionately as Outdoor Ed, it is a highlight of the year for many and most will cite the event as their favorite Monroe memory as they move on to middle school and perhaps even into adulthood. It has been a long-standing tradition at Monroe. For example, Monroe art teacher, Angie Goldenm attended this year as part of the teaching team. She previously attended in her days as a Monroe student.
For 50 of those trips, give or take a couple, fifth grade math and homeroom teacher Steve Kohut has shepherded the students through two days and two nights packed with science, stargazing, skits, and a bit of poetry. “I’ve taught for 33 years, plus the student
teaching I did at Monroe. The first seven years were at a school in Lombard and the rest have been here. We break the class into two trips, but I haven’t been on every single trip, so we’re estimating 50 trips,” he says. He is one of the distinguished educators who will retire from CCSD 181 at the end of the school year.
Sitting with Kohut just days after he returned from his final trip to camp, we learned what it takes to keep a tradition like this alive. “The teachers are committed to maintaining the academics and social aspects of this program,” he says.
Which is why when the fifth grade team has been asked over the years to explain to school boards and new administrators why it’s important to keep heading off to camp, rather than simply doing some teambuilding exercises on school grounds, he’s likened it to a retreat or a vacation. “There’s something about going away and removing yourselves from daily life. It’s a time to focus on something else, learn something in a different way and take a break from the spin of life at home.”
So powerfully does Kohut believe in the power of the trip that he confides, “I wish I could have done it as a kid. It would have made a difference in my life.”
To support the idea of being removed from daily life, electronics are not allowed. Kohut says that from Walkmans to cell phones, the response to leaving these forbidden devices behind has remained consistent, even as technology becomes more advanced and ingrained in everyone’s life. At first, there are a lot of variations on the question of why they can’t be packed, but once at camp, the kids are just too busy to miss the electronics they feared they couldn’t survive without.
Campers receive journals just after the bus passes Six Flags Great America and have a first look at a schedule that includes Kids vs. Wild, Shutterbugs, and Path to Verse.
“We keep some of the names a little bit cryptic,” he says. “Just so there is an element of discovery.”
And discover they do. Each group of students finds themselves in their element, out in the elements. “When kids love what they’re doing, you don’t have to ask if they’re having fun,” he says.
Sometimes they’ll tell you though. Steve cites a moment on the final night of the last trip in December. “We were walking back to the lodge and stopped to look at the stars—which you can see much for clearly at camp than you can in Hinsdale and one of the boys said, ‘This is incredible. I’ve never seen so many stars. I’ll never forget this.’
That means a lot to me. When you hear that it makes it all worth it.”
Asked about a takeaway, not just from the final trips this year, but about his tenure with Outdoor Ed, Mr. Kohut is eloquent. “It’s powerful for the teachers to see some kids outside of the classroom. Every year there is at least one kid who shines. It’s a gift to the teachers to see the funny, thoughtful or caring sides of the students that you don’t get to see in the classroom,” he says, adding, “The lens is widened to see the whole person.”