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My Digital Sabbatical and the Journey of ONEtober

Mission Principles: Pursuit of the Balance of Rigor & Joy

Science teacher Brooks Park shares insights on his summer journey along the Colorado Trail and how the challenges and benefits of the trip mirror the current middle school ONEtober experiment.

Last summer I had the opportunity to backpack the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango over the span of 32 days, 486 miles, and over eighty-nine thousand vertical feet. The trip was motivated by a desire for physical challenge and a prolonged wilderness experience, but I found that I enjoyed the “digital sabbatical” away from the distractions of modern technology almost as much as the immersion in nature. As the Pacific Ridge Middle School engages in “ONEtober” - a time of self-imposed focus on one task at a time - I thought I’d share a few insights from the trip and perhaps inspire more of our community to embrace this experiment. The long-distance hike is a good metaphor for taking on the challenge of ONEtober - it will be difficult, but true rewards are in store for those who commit to the journey.
There exists a saying among long distance backpackers that we tend to “pack our fears”. If we fear being cold, we bring too many clothing items. If we fear dehydration, we carry too much water or a second water filter. These extra items make for heavier packs and heavier packs inevitably lead to reduced mileage and/or reduced enjoyment of the journey. Swollen and blistered feet, sore shoulders and an aching back distract a hiker from enjoying the views, sounds, and experience of nature that is the primary goal of the trip. For a long distance “thru-hike” of several hundred miles or more, the extra weight may stand in the way of accomplishing the goal. As I hiked the first 104 miles from Denver to Breckenridge, I thought a lot about what items I could send home to save weight. I ended up sending home a carry bag for my hiking poles, a set of earbuds, three aluminum stakes, a water bag, and a first aid reference card.
If you are seriously considering a commitment to ONEtober, it might be helpful to take stock of what extra beliefs, habits or fears you are “packing” that may stand in your way. Thirty five miles into the Appalachian Trail, experienced thru-hikers at Mountains Crossing help new people with what is called a pack shakedown, ridding them of extra items that they don’t need and replacing heavy gear with lighter options. Our students should look to each other, parents, teachers, and coaches for a “shakedown” and support as they take on this challenge.
An easy thing to “unpack” for ONEtober is to turn off all the non-essential notifications on your phone. This takes less than five minutes and will save you hours of distraction a month. If this is hard for you to do, think about what fears, beliefs, or habits lie behind that resistance to let go of these minute to minute grabs for your attention. Are the fears justified? Are the beliefs aligned with your values and goals? Are the habits healthy ones?
Another common saying among long trail hikers is “Hike your own hike.” What works for one person may not be the right solution for another. While my hiker friends and I did debate the merits of a particular piece of gear, or hiking style, or nutrition, everybody learned from, respected, and supported each other’s right to choose the best path for themselves. Everyone was on a common path, but doing it their own way. Likewise, students should be encouraged to experiment with and discuss different strategies for focusing on one task at a time as well as their struggles and small victories along the way. We all can benefit from a diversity of approaches and an open and respectful dialog.  We are individuals, but we are not doing this alone.
Teens who are looking for acceptance, social connection and peer reinforcement may not be aware of the degree to which they are dependent on their phone or the root causes of that behavior. For some, it is an addiction fueled by the dopamine release in the brain when a text message arrives. For others, there may be a fear of missing out on the latest news that will be discussed at school the next day. Often this news consists of trivia or gossip. The cost of these distractions in terms of realizing our full potential may not be apparent until they are gone.  
I’ll never forget a ninth grader on the China trip who was an admitted social media addict. We had implemented the first year of a limited access phone policy and it met with a predictable amount of grumbling from the students. After a week with very limited phone use (less than an hour each day) this student remarked in the tour bus how much she enjoyed NOT having the phone in her life. It was an inspiring breakthrough for that student and one that was much more powerful since she had come to it on her own, with the help of some outside constraints in the form of a new policy.
As I finish drafting this blog (not listening to music or podcasts as I usually do), I am making a commitment to reducing my distractions while I work, cook dinner, or spend time with people in October. To focus on one thing at a time. Will I be able to accomplish this goal? What will stand in my way? How much help will I need from others? What new insights will I draw from this experience? These are the same questions I asked myself before my Colorado Trail hike, and that was a truly life-changing experience. ONEtober is an opportunity for students, parents, faculty and staff to work together toward a healthier relationship with the technology that we have come to accept as an integral part of our lives. What will I do with all the extra time I have as a result of being less distracted and more efficient?
Maybe I’ll take a walk and think about that…