For the last two months or so, I have been a regular volunteer in two classrooms at Downtown High School in Potrero Hill here in SF. I originally got connected through 826 Valencia, who I have talked about in my previous posts, but after the writing project through 826 was done, I stayed on, helping with in-class tutoring 1-2 times per week. All of my 826 Valencia projects have been extremely influential and meaningful, but this has probably been the greatest fit for me thusfar, hence the extended volunteer stint beyond 826. It’s part of a broader program at two high schools in SF called WALC (Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative) which combines environmental science with English, art, social studies, and history. A true merge of my interests! I have chaperoned field trips, edited scripts to digital stories, edited 5-paragraph essays about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Seattlite (actually, Spokane-ite) Sherman Alexie, and have learned so much the students.
I recently wrote this reflection about my experience in the classrooms, mainly for myself, but I sent it to one of the teachers and she wrote me back asking if she could use it as an introduction to their annual anthology! I was flattered but glad that my impressions will be shared with a broader audience. I have transcribed it below so that you can see, too, what a great program this is. Visit the WALC hyperlink above for more information about the program. Enjoy!
I have only been exposed to the innovation and true collaboration of the Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative (WALC) for the past couple months, but have surely felt welcomed into this large and loving learning community. I have come away from the weeks I have spent in the WALC classrooms astounded by the depth and transparent honesty of the students and the welcoming competence of the teachers. I graduated last year from Seattle University and had an underlying, seemingly impossible goal of finding an outlet that would connect my greatest passions of environmental science, writing, and the arts. Lo and behold, something like this exists! And not only does it exist, but it flourishes in the WALC program here in San Francisco.
I originally came to WALC as a volunteer through 826 Valencia, a writing project here in San Francisco, but sincerely feel that my purpose as a writing tutor has been (positively!) shadowed by the lessons that the students have taught me through their work. Through the process of helping the students write and edit their digital stories, I have been blown away at the depth, the honesty, the maturity, and the strength echoed through the students’ words. Writing is such a powerful way to connect us to ourselves, to our families, our cultures, and to the land that so concretely surrounds and supports us. Through words we can share our stories with each other, reveal our deepest vulnerabilities, and try to capture the beauty that surrounds us each day.
Students, thank you for sharing your stories, your personal struggles, and your deepest fears. Thank you for grappling with language and metaphor. Thank you for reminding me that connecting to one’s family history is such a powerful way to delve deeply into one’s own self. Thank you for reminding me that everyone has a cultural identity and everyone has a story to share. Thank you for reminding me that there is so much wisdom and constancy in learning from the natural world.
WALC is innovative in its project-based, interdisciplinary curriculum. Its purpose and structure mirrors the structure to the world around us—just as ecosystems in nature are both disparate and inexplicably symbiotic, so are ideas. Through WALC, we can begin to see how subjects as diverse as environmental science, English, art, and history can be combined into a powerful whole. We can begin to see how learning about ancient peoples and their relationship to the land can teach us about our own past. And through this reflection, we can come to understand each other and ourselves in a different light.
One of the first exposures that I had to WALC was to chaperone a field trip in April to an Ohlone Indian Village at Chitactac Adams County Park south of San Jose. We learned about Ohlone history and traditions, imagining the past in its actual location. In envisioning where Ohlone collected and prepared food, washed clothes, and socialized, we compared our lives to those in the past. However, it was only because of remnants that have been left behind and preserved for thousands of years that we were even able to examine this ancient village. And that got me thinking: “How do humans leave their mark in different societies? What legacies will we leave behind today?” In this society we can do it in so many ways—through sculpture, through painting, through song, through raps, through poetry, through stories, through journals, through photography…the list goes on and on. As an echo to the Ohlone legacy, WALC students are well on their way to leaving a positive mark on this world.
In speaking to a student about her WALC experience, she expressed gratitude for being given an opportunity at Downtown High School that her previous high school didn’t give her—the opportunity to express herself, to be supported by her teachers, to learn, and to be encouraged to succeed. Yes, the WALC program surely takes advantage of modern technology to capture adventures on camera, record experiences in an online blog, and share lessons through digital stories, but it balances its modern identity with reflections and studies about the past and the natural. The curriculum also breaks down walls (literally) and expands the classroom beyond a building with chairs, tables, books and computers. WALC allows students to learn from the natural world and imagine themselves in the past while at the same time breaking down walls within themselves to unleash each students’ inner creativity.
WALC’s underlying expectation is that their students have something to teach all of us—this allows them to take their education into their own hands, learning from each other’s ideas, words, and pieces of art. Ideas, words, and art are powerful; WALC students truly show how meaningful expressing their original thoughts and stories can be. Just as Ohlone culture has spanned centuries, I hope that these students’ words, creativity, and musings upon their own histories and upon the wonders of the natural world are able to live on, inspiring other students in the future.