A Blue Heron stalked through the shallows of the Colorado River and I watched her for a moment before the wind struck my cheeks, cold and biting, and prompted me to tuck in closer to the crackling fire. I returned to my journal and followed the flow of thought that wanted to wrap itself like a blanket around me. I was thinking about how I believe in the warmth of starlight when a Canyon Wren’s cascading voice echoed through the sandstone canyons and I looked up from my journal to glance around the circle of students sitting with me. A few of them looked out across the swirling and lethargic red water of the river, their eyes far away and pensive. Others kept their heads bent and their pens moved busily across their journal pages lost deep in the labyrinth of their thoughts. Welcome to our English classroom.
In preparation for the trip we listened to, and read a few pieces from the NPR series, “For This I Believe.” While still at school students made a list of thirty things they believed in. Then, out on the trip they chose one idea that resonated with them and began, through guided prompts, to unpack their idea and reflect on it. We had classes sitting underneath the Looking Glass arch and others huddled around our fire in the evenings. Those sessions focused on elements of narrative writing and how to tell a wall crafted story. We had been talking about those things in fits and spurts at school but the trip gave us the opportunity to put what we had been learning into practice, in a truly creative and unrestricted form.
I chose not to grade the assignment, mostly because I wanted to push the students to engage with the material for intrinsic reasons and to forget about any constraints I might put on them or their grade. It was beautiful to watch them shift their energy from an attitude of, “This is school and we must do this,” to instead, engaging thoughtfully and sincerely with the writing.
It was a real treat for me to be out mountain biking and hear the students behind me discussing, through their labored breathing, the ideas they were exploring in their individual pieces or catch snippets of conversation from up high on the sandstone walls while we climbed in Wall Street.
The Link School is unique in the way it marries these different and seemingly disparate worlds we all live in – the academic and the adventurous (or perhaps in this case the metaphysical and the physical world). I love the opportunities the students have to explore the natural world and in so doing, to also deepen their understanding of their own complex and beautiful characters, including the ways they engage academically with the world.
On the final morning of the trip we woke earlier than usual, bundled up, filled water bottles with hot drinks, and walked in silence up to Corona arch just a mile and a half above our camp. The quiet morning opened the desert world around us in a way it never would have, had we been traveling noisily through that sacred and intimate landscape. Ravens cartwheeled overhead, their rackous calls bouncing through the canyons, sleepy lizards stayed motionless underneath twisted sage brush that had been warped by the wind, their glassy eyes tracking our movements. There was a silence over the land that even our normally rambunctious students didn’t feel tempted to break, it felt sacred and ancient. When we arrived at the arch, the sun rose and filled the little grotto we had chosen to sit in with soft toffee light. The stone was still cool and gritty underneath us as we settled into a seated circle. I gently encouraged the students to share and then settled back to watch the unfolding world wake around us. Courageously the students began to speak one-by-one, their strong and varied voices drifting through the canyon. To share such a personal piece of writing, requires a willingness to be vulnerable, and it speaks volumes to the love and compassion our community shares, that almost all the students read from their essays.
It was a special moment for me to participate in both as a teacher but also as a person who deeply loves and cares for these students. I think it is safe to say that experiences like these are not just special moments they are truly Link School moments.
– Jess Lewis