Art & Writing 2020

The awards for the Idaho students competing in the Scholastic Art And Writing Awards were just announced. More than half of the dual-credit English students who submitted pieces for this competition received awards. This is a highly competitive national contest, which has grown substantially over the past 8 years I’ve had students submit work. This year’s collection of poems and essays our students submitted was the finest I’ve seen. These students will be recognized at an awards ceremony at Boise State University’s Special Events Center on Saturday, February 22nd at 7:00 p.m. Recipients of awards are as follows:

  • Brielle Cisco: Honorable Mention (3rd place, poem, “Tension”)
  • Lauren DeVries:  Silver Key Award (2nd place; personal essay, “Story about Stories”) Honorable Mention (poem, “Lady of Velvet and Sand”)
  • Emma Hollon: Silver Key (personal essay, “Beauty and Art”)
  • Carly Jordan: Honorable Mention (personal essay, “Yuki”)
  • Nathan Kindall: Honorable Mention (personal essay, “Passion for Life”)
  • Jarret Mink: Honorable Mention (personal essay, “A Game of Control and Life Lessons”) Honorable Mention (poem, “After Christmas”)
  • Brendan Wood: Honorable Mention (personal essay, “Stress Relieving Passions”)
Left to right: Lauren, Jarret, Brielle, Carly, Emma, Brendan, Nathan

I’m proud of all of my students. I’m lucky to have small classes where we can work much more one-on-one than in bigger schools, and I believe that all of my high school students (grades 9 through 12) work hard to become better writers. For two of the students who received awards, this is my sixth straight year as their English teacher, and it’s especially gratifying to see them recognized for the first time for their good writing; even more gratifying, to me, is the fact that they’ve put up with me for that long!

These students have consented to let me present their award-winning work below. Enjoy.

Carly Jordan, “Yuki” (personal essay, Honorable Mention):

Respect, trust, grit, tenacity. It takes all four to create the bond. I am confident that she trusts me as I take her out. She is alert, I am focused. We are in tune with one another, as if we could read each other’s minds. Her movement is fluid. Her muscles ripple underneath her gorgeous, shimmering coat. Her hair, black as the midnight sky, groomed perfectly, not a strand out of place. We begin, we step with perfect rhythm, her head even with my shoulder. She has put all her confidence in me, and mine’s in her. There is no stopping us, there is no defeating us. We have already won. Our movements are crisp, sharp, and professional. Not a single step goes out of place. I turn and face her, and I stare deep into her chocolate eyes. I ask her to back up. She stares at me, relaxed and unnerved. Even though she cannot see behind her, she has faith that I will not betray her, that I will not guide her into danger. Our breathing is synchronized. Our bond is beyond words, and it continues to grow.  Our pattern is completed. As we exit, I wonder if she knows how proud I am of her. She did everything I asked but more, never once asking, “Are you sure?” I look at her and smile. I put my hand on her elegant neck, doing my best to express my pride and gratitude to her. She gave her all. Resting her head on my shoulder, she lets out a heavy sigh of satisfaction. I rest my head gently on her cheek and can feel her warmth resonating through me. Then I feel her love and trust. She doesn’t need to speak for me to hear her whisper, “We did our best. I trusted you with my whole heart.” I smile. In that moment, I knew where my heart belonged. 

Her name is Yuki, or formally, No Guns or Diamonds. At a young two years, she has shown tremendous maturity for a filly her age, taking in the sights and sounds of a busy horse show without so much as a nicker from missing her friends back at the trailer. Her coat is a rich chocolate color that glows. Her mane, tail, and legs are deep black. Most people would look at her and see another brown horse, but she has a presence about her that one just can’t help but stop and admire her. Of course, I always show her off as my pride and joy. My obsession for her grows more with every passing second. 

Everyone has something they are passionate about, even if it isn’t as visible as others’. There is something that grabs ahold of our hearts gives us a reason to wake up every day. Having a passion for something makes you want to look deeper. To try harder. To invest everything you are into improving your art. As I look further within my own self, I see the better person I have become. Yuki’s and my relationship was not always good. She was a difficult horse to work with. With all her greatness came a great deal of attitude. Yuki likes getting what she wants. She will test your patience every step of the way. When you think about relationships, you think of being able to converse with people and find some kind of common ground to build that relationship on. A relationship between a horse and a human can be difficult to establish without the proper knowledge. Spoken words become irrelevant. Undeniably, working to create that bond with a horse can be dangerous.

The connection between a horse and a human is nothing like that of ordinary house pets. For example, dogs show their love to a human in ways like licking their face, seeking their companionship, or wagging their tails. For a horse, wagging or twitching the tail is a signal of discontent. They will only show respect that you earn from them. In a way, horses are almost like humans. You can not receive respect from someone without giving it. You find a way to build those bridges. With horses it’s all about finding balance. You must be fierce without being ferocious. Gentle without being timid. You must try to connect with an animal that might be scared, proud, or angry.  Horses are 1,000 pounds of raw power. Training theses mighty beasts is not a hobby for the easily discouraged, for training horses will test both your mind and body. It will bring the best or the worst in you. Though if one sticks with it, it will teach them patience and show you abilities you didn’t even know you possessed. Respect is at the heart of it all, and horses show respect by listening to you, and accepting you as a partner and leader. When you’re riding a horse and they listen to you despite frightening situations, that is when you know your horse trusts you. Horses are fight or flight animals. They think about survival. Predicaments that they view as a threat, they will seek a way out of. If you have that trust, they will do almost anything you ask from them. A horse’s bond with their handler is critical, and with some guidance, I ensured Yuki and I understood one another despite being different species. The journey from building that understanding starts on day one.

Driving down the serpentine roads, in an area that is disconnected from the rest of the world, felt like an eternity. It was not my ideal way to spend a Saturday in the middle of the school year. I tried to enjoy the beautiful spring scenery on this banal adventure, but my mind kept imagining what she looked like instead. I had seen pictures of this filly, and my mentor had educated me on her pedigree, but I still found myself trying to imagine what she was like. Was she gentle? Was she independent? All these questions filled my mind on the 9-hour drive to Montana. That and the bizarre variety of foreign music my mentor enjoyed tormenting me with. We entered Montana, and my excitement overwhelmed me knowing we were only three short hours away from seeing the gorgeous bay yearling that would be a great addition to the ever-growing family. 

The excitement running through my veins was unbelievable. I could hardly handle it. Not knowing exactly where we were going was not at all frightening to me because I knew it would be worth it. We reached the given address. There was an old country-style red barn in the back. A herd of least 15 mares were grazing in the next pasture over. I could tell this breeder took great pride in her small band of broodmares as they were all fat and shiny and quietly munching on their grass.To the left of the old barn, were some corrals set up. There were several groups of horses separated in the pens. We pulled up next to the barn and I jumped out of the truck and searched the many faces of the horses before me. My heart was beating fast while I walked over to the fence looking for her. She was in a group of four with other fillies her age. All of them were curious about my presence and walked over to the fence. 

She was the only bay in the group. I leaned out and tried to pet her, but she wasn’t too sure about me.  She sniffed my hand and I gently touched her nose. She didn’t shy away from me. I thought, “I gained her trust so quickly.” I felt so much joy. I reached under to pet her chin, and then it happened. Without warning, she sunk her teeth into the side of my hand. I yelped and jerked my hand back. She was one of those. Behind me I heard my mentor chortle and say, “Don’t feed your hands to the wolves.” Should’ve known better than to stick my hand into a pen of baby horses. Might as well have been wolves. I laughed it off. I wasn’t going to back down from a challenge. Satisfied with her handy work, Yuki walked away with her head held high. She was definitely a brat. After that encounter, the breeder showed us around her facility and introduced us to several more of the horses. They spoke about shows, pedigrees, studs, breeding mares, and I knew very little of what they meant. It only made me crave more knowledge. I listened to their conversation as best I could and took mental notes when they tried to explain what they were talking about. The horse world is so vast, at times it felt like I was drowning in information. I had so much to learn. We spent the night at a nearby hotel. The next morning we loaded Yuki in the trailer and began the long journey home. She was pretty quiet for the duration of the ride. We got home and unloaded her. She stayed in a pen by herself next to the other horses for a few days. We let her get to know the herd before turning her loose in the pasture. After she had time to adjust, the hard work began of training this prissy filly that enjoyed fingers for snacks.

This was my first horse to ever work with and learn to train. From the time we picked her up, till the day of our first show, my patience, understanding, and feel have grown. It seemed like an insurmountable task at first, but under an ever watchful eye, I learned to channel my frustrations and anger away from the training arena. Every problem we encounter I approach with a sense of humor and an open mind. I quickly learned that negative emotions have no place in training horses. I never gave up, and it was all worth it. Not going to lie, it is hard work. It’s long nights and early mornings. Every day, no matter the weather, or if I’m sick, or not feeling ambitious, the horses have to be fed, doctored, and taken care of. I get chewed out if horses aren’t fed by a certain time or if I accidentally forget to add a medication or supplement to the grain. There is no room for error when striving to be the best. These horses are performance athletes and they are treated as such. 

The rewards are great though. All the sacrifices dim in comparison to knowing that you gave it your all and are holding that blue ribbon. The most rewarding thing of all, is knowing that despite the odds, we developed a strong understanding of one another. We can communicate with subtle cues and body language. I have her trust and she has mine. The opportunities are endless and we are just getting started.

Brielle Cisco, “Tension” (poems, Honorable Mention)

A Ripple
The waves are obedient 
As long as Moon remains loyal
Bound to forever be restless
Yet heart full of guilt, promised to stay 
The winds were envious of such–
Of just how easily the everlasting light
Could pull and push the waves across
To close its eyes was utterly foolish
For once in its slumbering state
Sun began to breathe
Leaving soft kisses across Moon’s face
Goodnight, goodnight 
Between the light and the waves there will always be,
A suffocating tension 

Grandmother’s teapot
Fragile pieces of glass
Lay choreographed on the wooden floor
If possible to defy the laws of reality 
One may have seen tears
No
maybe just a single tear
Stream down the man’s face
A shallow laugh like a plucked bird’s crow
Looking upon the yellowed ceiling 
She could finally see 
After years of keeping it all in 
I finally had boiled over 
Like a teapot of sorrow and angst
The tension on her heart strings
Rang at the sight

To a father
Thank you father 
For all your love 
For giving me food to eat
For your sacrifice 
For cleansing me whole
For ridding our home of aching tension 
Thank you father 
For leaving my home full of aching tension 
For scratching my soul with tainted fingernails
For using me as the sacrifice 
For leaving room for my true father
All in all 
Thank you, not

Jarret Mink, “A Game of Control and Life Lessons” (personal essay, Honorable Mention)

I love baseball, but getting someone out when I am controlling the game on the mound is bigger than love. Striking someone out is truly the best feeling in the world, and so I think about it a lot, and I mean a lot. But I have also realized that striking someone out isn’t everything. Getting outs is, so I have to trust my teammates when I am pitching, and if I put it in the right spot and the batter hits it, then kudos to them, but I trust that my defense is going to make a play. 

This is bigger than just sports though I have learned countless things from having this passion that I will use in my life after sports come to an end. One of the biggest things is that if you get too far ahead of yourself you will get thrown back into your place.

Passion is something that takes up a lot of your time and a lot of your brain space. I lay in my bed at night imagining that I am in the state championship game. It is the bottom of the 7th, two outs, bases loaded, we’re up by one, full count on their clean-up hitter. My catcher calls for a curveball, but it’s been off all game. I know I have to trust him, so I grip it and come set. In this moment I know I have to throw it hard, but I can’t try to place it or grip it too hard or it won’t have the drop-off-the-earth movement. This batter’s legit, and if I leave it hanging he’s going to rip a grand slam to center field and we’ll lose the game. I realize that I have been set for a long time. I’d better get going, so I check the runner at third and then start my motion towards home plate. I stride out, and as soon as my plant foot hits the ground I engage my hips and fire towards home. I break the ball off high and rip my arm down to create the spin on the ball. As I continue to my follow-through the ball seems to be going in slow motion. So slow that I could count every one of the 108 stitches rotating through the air. It starts off going straight and I can see the hitter grinning thinking that he’s going to crush the ball, and then it all goes to hell for him. The ball starts spinning faster, and in a matter of a half-second the ball goes from 11 o’clock to 5 o’clock and he whiffs on his swing. It smacks the catcher’s mitt and he hops up as I am yelling at the top of my lungs, and starts running to the mound along with the rest of my team. We share a giant hug as tears of joy start to run down my face like the Nile. About this time my mom walks in and tells me to go to bed, and I realize that I had been thinking about this for over an hour. 

I wouldn’t be able to have such a strong passion for getting an out while pitching if it wasn’t for my competitive spirit. I know that this is true because when I walk someone or hit someone or miss my spot I, and someone in the audience or one of my coaches says it’s okay, or says that I need to try harder, that pisses me off more than anything, because one pitch could change the whole outcome of a game, and I know that I would give anything to get that back and throw it for a strike. So when people tell me to try harder it angers me because I am trying so hard to pitch a good game, and sometimes I could be trying too hard. 

Another thing that pisses me off is when I don’t pitch well and we lose and someone comes up to me and says, “It’s okay, winning isn’t everything.” When they say this it takes everything I have in me to not turn around and ask them, “If winning isn’t everything then why do they keep score?” I like this quote because whenever I step on the field or the court it is to win, and I do what I have to do to accomplish that, so if you aren’t trying to win every time you play, then why the heck are you playing? 

But nobody wins alone. Relationships are everywhere in our lives and there will always be relationships in everything that we do. For example, when I’m pitching there is a relationship between the ball and my glove, the ball and my hand, my feet and the mound, myself and the catcher, myself and  the batter, and everything in between. I could go on for two pages just trying to list all of the relationships just in pitching, not even counting all of the other ones in the game of baseball. In pitching all of the relationships are important, but I think that the one between pitcher and catcher is the most meaningful. In the majors a team will have a lot of pitchers and those pitchers usually always get caught by one catcher throughout the year because they build up such a strong relationship that it almost gives them an advantage over the batter. I definitely prefer a particular catcher because I know that I can just relax and throw my stuff wherever he calls it and that he will catch it, so I don’t have to be worried about putting one in the dirt every once in a while to make sure that the batter isn’t getting ahead of himself.  

According to the dictionary, the definition of passion is a “Strong and barely controllable emotion.” When I think of my love for pitching this fits it to a T, because I just want to express how I feel when I strike someone out, and I try to tell people about that feeling, but I don’t think there is truly a way to describe the feeling if you haven’t experienced it for yourself. The best way I can try to explain it to you is that it conveys a feeling of total domination, because when I am on the mound it is a one-on-one battle with the person at the plate, so when the pitcher wins it is true domination for that at-bat. 

Nobody has the exact same reason for being passionate about something. I think there is an enormous amount of beauty in that because in today’s world everyone has something in common with someone else, but not what they are passionate about or why they are. What is something you are passionate about? Maybe it’s golfing. You could be passionate about this because you love the feeling when you hit the ball and watch it fly through the air, but your golfing buddy’s reasons could be because he/she loves admiring the landscapes of the golf courses, and seeing all the other golfers having the time of their lives. 

Pitching is a true art, and there is an endless amount of beauty in it. This is a one-on-one battle and you are hurling a ball that is 229–235 mm in diameter 100 miles an hour to a strike zone 41 inches tall and 21 inches wide, trying to make it so a guy standing 60 feet 6 inches from you cannot hit the ball with a bat that is no more than 2.61 inches in diameter at the thickest part of the bat. How in the world can you not see beauty and be passionate about that? I could get lost in Youtube just watching slow-motion clips of the best pitchers in baseball, so that I can try to mimic the good things that they do so that I can jump to the next level of baseball, and competition. I think everyone who reads this should go look up Walker Buehler highlights just to see how he carries himself and the emotion he plays with.
Emotion is something that I always play with, but I play with more of it when I am pitching.

Some people say that you can’t play with too much emotion because you will get in your own head, but I disagree with this because I think that I play better with emotion. When I get on the mound, before I start pitching I always think of my Great Grandpa Keith, who passed away in September of 2017, and on the back of the mound I write his initials in the dirt to make me feel like he is there with me because he enjoyed watching me play baseball so much. I know he is always with me; the first game I started after his passing, I pitched the whole game and only gave up one run. 

Justin Verlander, who is arguably the best pitcher in Major League Baseball, has given up 308 home runs in his career, so there is no way to absolutely dominate every time you step on the mound, but our job as pitchers is to work as hard as we can to get as close to that goal as possible, but we all know in the back of our minds that there is no way that you can actually achieve this 100 percent of the time. 

When I am pitching I experience complete control because I set the pace of the game. I’m the only one who can control what pitch that I throw, and I control the runners if they get on base. I guess you could call me a control freak. I think this gives me an edge when I’m on the mound, but it also has its down side. The last game of the 2019 regular season is an example of the down side. We traveled to Fruitland to take on the Grizzlies, and I had the start. I was so amped to start against Fruitland, because they are one of our biggest rivals. In warm-ups my arm felt pretty good, but not great. I pushed this aside and told myself that we were going to win this game and I was going to pitch great. In the top of the first their pitcher had a pretty good handle on us, as he retired three out of four batters. I took the mound thinking to myself that there was a lot riding on this start, but that I would rise to the occasion. My first pitch took me for a ride, as I spiked a curveball into the dirt about 3 feet in front of the plate.  I put my second pitch in the dirt. I ended up walking the first batter, and the second. At this point I had lost the control that I was striving to obtain. My performance continued this way as I barely managed to get out of the first inning. My struggles continued through the second inning, and I was pulled in the third, when the score was 9-0 with Fruitland dominating. I had only managed to record 8 outs. This was by far my worst outing of the year, which was brutal because the week before I was trusted to pitch in relief in the bottom of the 7th with bases loaded and we were up by one on the Payette Pirates. I came in and struck out the first batter, and was feeling pretty darn good. Well, I got ahead of myself. Big time. I proceeded to plunk the next batter to tie the game up, and then I walked the next with a count of 4-1. We lost the game, and I lost some self esteem.  
This was one of my big realization periods because at this moment I realized that life will kick you in the teeth when you are out of line. I realize that I have had lots of success pitching and yes I am very confident in my abilities but I know that if you get too far ahead of yourself you’re in for a ride. I believe that this applies to everyone in their own lives, because it doesn’t matter if it is your job or relationship you have to know how to keep yourself in check.

Some people say that they don’t have a passion. Well, I say that they just haven’t found or realized it yet. I was fortunate enough to find one of my main passions at a young age, but some people won’t find theirs until they are in the later stages of their life. Since I discovered it when I did I have benefited from that because I have learned things that I will use for the rest of my life. Like not to get ahead of yourself. To me, controlling the game and getting someone out when pitching is single-handedly the best feeling and I am always pushed by something inside of me to always strive to get better, therefore I know that it is truly my biggest passion.   

Jarret Mink, “After Christmas” (poetry, Honorable Mention)

 Miserable Essential Tasks

“Are you still good to help tomorrow?”
Every piece of me wanted to say, “Hell NO!”
But I couldn’t.
I owe it to my dad to say yes.
Anxiety, and a little regret 
flood the warm pickup as we travel up the road.
Generations of Minks before did the same,
Gathered cows in the frigid snow,
Determined to prove the cow’s worth,
Bred or open,
Determined to prove the boy’s worth,
Hand or not.

Hell after the Holy Day

The celebration of Christ’s birth comes to an end
As my alarm clock rings at 6 am.
My frantic mom is worried about layers,
While my dad is out saddling the horses.
The wind up the gulch is beyond imaginable,
The slanting snow leaving tracks across my face.
300-plus cows await their pregnancy tests
While the only happy man is my dad,
Shoulder deep in warmth, and
My job is to forget the frozen snotstache on my face
And keep the mommas moving towards the chute.

Dec 26th, Perspective

Even the warm tap water feels like needles stabbing my fingers.
I open the house door and strip down,
Losing my boots, gloves and coveralls.
The warmth of the heater in the old Dodge 
can’t thaw my fingers and toes. 
25 more cows to go, the last few move so slowly,
The horizontal snow harsh on my eyes.
Mostly pregnant is always a good sign.
My dad yells his command to “Bring cows,” 
My cue to show my worth and get started.
My horse is still fresh being just saddled, 
Even though he took me for 12 unrequested 
Laps around the round pen
At 6:30 am, December 26th.

Brendan Wood, “Stress Relieving Passions” (personal essay, Honorable Mention)

What is passion? To me, passion is one’s strong emotion towards one thing, like an NBA player’s passion for basketball. I have recently learned about various passions that people have or write about. 

For instance, Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, had a strong passion to get harmful chemicals banned, and for humans to visualize what these chemicals were really doing to our planet. To show this passion she used literature. Her strong passion in Silent Spring is amazing because she is the reason DDT is banned from the U.S. Without her passion we wouldn’t have gotten rid of DDT and other harmful chemicals, and we might not have even known how harmful they really are.

Another example, James Baldwin, author of many racial essays. Baldwin’s passion was to end racial violence. He was very passionate to make our society understand that we were not white or black until people came over to America. He wants us “white” people to understand that racism is not ok, and he wants us to understand that we are  basically going against the “U.S. Constitution.”

I’ve realized that without having passion there’s not much a person can do to accomplish his or her goals. I’ve also come to a realization that we as humans have many passions that we don’t even pay attention to or passions that aren’t very obvious to us. 

 I want to show you more about stress and how passions can resolve this issue. Stress can be very detrimental to your body, so I’m going to attempt to uncover more about my passions so you can see how they relieve my stress.

First, stress is a physical, emotional, or mental reaction that your body creates when normal things change, and it can even be related to a positive change. Stress has many effects on the body but it mainly affects me in these ways: nervousness, distraction, excessive worry, and changes in sleep patterns. My personality and motivation usually tends to change dramatically, and usually not in a good way. In some cases, you may need to get medical help, but when I’m stressed out I ski or swim. The good thing about these two passions is that one is during summer and the other is winter, so when I can’t do one, I have the other to calm me down. However, when it’s fall or spring I just hang out with my friends when I have a chance because they make me laugh and show me how to have fun.

A  big passion and stress reliever of mine is skiing. To show you how I discovered this stress reliever, first I need to show you the background. In elementary school, a majority of my class went skiing and I thought that it sounded cool, and my dad also skied a lot when he was younger. Knowing that my dad and friends skied, I wanted to try and take on this hobby, so I asked for the equipment for my birthday and Christmas, but until the age of ten I never got the right supplies. Until the day of Christmas, December 25, 2013, when I woke up and ran downstairs to the Christmas tree, and saw skis sitting in the corner waiting for me to open them.

The same year, I learned how to ski at the Little Ski Hill in McCall, Idaho. I was very impatient on the way to the resort because I was ready to start my new journey. I finally made it to the resort and took off to the lift. As I stood there in line, I felt frightened. Finally, we made it onto the lift, and away we went up the summit. When I got to the top, I refused to go down, but since I was already there, my parents told me that I had no choice. I started my way down the hill, and as my speed was starting to progress, I wasn’t able to stop. Knowing that I couldn’t stop, I had to make the quick decision to crash. Don’t worry, I made it to the bottom safely, but it took a very long time because I had to keep crashing so I wouldn’t go too fast. After crashing several times, I finally was at the bottom of the hill waiting to get in line to go to the top again. That day, I walked away with the basics of skiing and planned on using them in the near future. 

When I decided I was going to figure out why skiing is my passion, I was asked, “What makes someone so passionate about something?” I realized that you have to love something or look at something so deeply to be passionate about it. Sure, you don’t have to always think about why you like something, but you do have to grasp that there’s more to it than just thinking it’s fun or simply “because you like it.” As I began to think deeper, I noticed that I’m not like most kids at our school in many ways. I don’t average six hours on my phone a day; in fact, I usually don’t even carry my phone at all. I’m also not a huge fan of sports. A lot of kids in my school love sports, hunting, fishing, more, but I don’t love doing them as much. These hobbies might relieve their stress or it might just simply be fun to them but not for me. When I participate in the hobbies listed, I can find myself to be anxious. Participating in activities of the norm stresses me out because it makes me feel like I should reach a certain level of greatness, and that I’m supposed to be the person that other people see me as. It feels like you’re locked in a cage, and that there is only one way to life. I don’t experience this when I’m skiing because of the environment. There are trees surrounding you as you glide down the summit, there is air whistling in your ears as you accelerate in speed, and you get a feeling as if you are flying through the soft clouds of the earth. 

When I am on a ski hill there are lots of people, but it feels like there is no one there at all. I’m a very shy person, the type of person who gets stage fright, who gets nervous talking to people I don’t know, who even gets nervous answering a question in a class of ten. When I’m skiing I don’t have to worry about any of that because I’m doing something that doesn’t require much talking. I know when I leave my house to go skiing that there is no pressure to talk, no specific plan of what the day is going to look like, and more. When I’m in school or sports, I know that people expect me to take part in these things. Participating in skiing and not having to worry about these things brings down my stress levels.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been going skiing with a good friend of mine because my dad can’t go anymore. While skiing with my friend, I’ve had countless hysterical moments that I hope to never forget. Going with her and her family have taken my stress away about my dad’s back, what’s coming up in school, and sports. So much weight has been taken off my shoulders because of my passion for skiing and having someone to laugh with while doing it. 

Another big passion of mine that brings down my stress is swimming. Ever since I was little I’ve loved to swim. Whenever I go swimming, I go for many hours because it is very relaxing. Getting in the water washes away my stress, worries, and anxiety; it helps me focus on the good in life and not the bad. Usually when I go swimming I have someone to go with. I create new memories and laugh with my friend, and I tend to forget everything that distracts me from having fun in life. This is a good thing because if you are always stressed out, you are never going to have fun in life and try new things. 

A lot of times when we go swimming we usually go to a bridge on Highway 95. This is an amazing place to swim because we can jump off of the bridge. Jumping off the bridge brings many jitters to your body and I tend to only think about that. It can be very fun to do this, but you have to get enough courage to actually do it. I remember my first time going; I wanted to jump off so badly, but when I actually went up to the top I got too scared. I kept saying that I was going to jump, but then I would chicken out. I did this about 40 times before I actually built enough courage to jump, and as I’m in the air I can hear the air whistling in my ears and all of the sudden my body collides with the water. The water surrounds my body, and I fill with excitement as I poke my head out of the water. I couldn’t believe I actually did it, and I also got very confused as to why it took me as long as it did. While I was at the bridge, I gave myself a chance to forget stressful things that happened over the week and make fun and memorable moments that would brighten my week. 

Many other fun memories have been made while swimming, which is why it is such a big passion and stress reliever. My mom was a swimmer, my cousin is a swimmer, and he is currently is in New York for college swimming, which might be why I love it so much because it runs in my family. 

Looking at these two passions I have noticed some relationships of mine. Having a relationship with anything or anyone is very important, because to me I think it makes you more connected to life itself. I think it’s just a part of life because everyone has a relationship whether they know it or not, just like me having a relationship with my family. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today if I didn’t have my family to lead me in a better direction than I’m already going. I also have relationships with my passions because whatever it is gives me a loving connection with them. If I didn’t have some sort of relationship with my passions I wouldn’t like doing them.

With both passions, I’ve mentioned that I was frightened or nervous to jump off the bridge or take off down the summit. Maybe the reason why they are such stress relievers is because being afraid takes my mind off of things that make me worry the most. Maybe it’s because I still get scared every time I do them because I don’t want to drown or wreck after going off a big jump. 

Maybe there is a relationship between getting nervous or frightened and simply being relieved from stress, and maybe I should do more things that make me feel these emotions, but I may never know exactly why they actually help.

When skiing or swimming, I build many relationships with friends. I learn more about my friends and their life story. We bond through these activities, and I have so many memories that I’ve gotten from hanging out with them while doing what I love. I never want this to end, but everybody says that there is an end for everything and you just have to embrace it while you have the chance.

In the end, I recommend having something that you enjoy and that can possibly take your mind off of your stress. Stress isn’t always a bad thing because you could be stressed about doing well in school. Having skiing and swimming definitely helps me get through bad times, and they also give me memories and friendships that I want to last for the rest of my life. Find something that you can escape to when you want to get away from the real world, or when you don’t want to have expectations be set. Look for something that could be fun that is outside of the norm because exploring new things is very important, and who knows — you may discover something that you are good at that you never thought you could be good at. I actually became a pretty good skier, but I never would have been as good as I am if I didn’t want to try it. Same with swimming, I was scared to learn how to swim until I was seven because I didn’t want to drown. These two passions play a big role in my life because they calm me down, and they make me think about what is good in life. Overall, I think skiing and swimming are my biggest passions because of how they make me feel.

Nathan Kindall, “Passion For Life” (personal essay, Honorable Mention)

Passion is subjective. Passion is a unique concept and it’s often misadvertised. We are all individual beings and not one of us is the same so it makes sense that our passions would then too be uniquely different. My problem with this whole idea of having a passion is that the movies and TV shows that many of us younger people watch can make passions look outworn, meaning that many people in these shows tend to have similar if not the same passions. Examples of these could be sports in a sports movie or cars in movies having to deal with cars. This made me believe that many people my age are passionate about a sport or towards something else that is very common for us to like, but for me I felt out of place and not normal for not feeling this passionate connection for such simple things in my life. I wasn’t aware that passion is an emotion that can’t be caused by something simple to you. It has to grab your soul and give you meaning and purpose for life, and I’m still unsure if I have a true passion. The one thing that I do feel a stronger connection in life with is life, but not my life, animal and farm life.

I’ve been uncertain of what I want my whole life. Insecure, fragile, and anxious have been my main emotions for as long as I can remember. I live in a small town with minimal opportunities, so finding a true passion for something has a very small window. As I sit in class I watch eleven other students typing busily about their passions in life, but when I’m asked about mine I come to a halt. I’ve never stopped and asked myself what I want, what my future holds, what my destiny is, and what passions I have. Do I even know what passion for something feels like? I feel like love and passion confuse me easily. They have to be different concepts because they are called different things, so which emotion is higher than the other? Do I feel love for animals and the people around them, or do I feel passionate about them? I am seventeen years old, so the good news is I have a lot of life left to figure these things out. The bad news is I have my whole life to stress about. I live in a ranching and farming community, but I don’t live on a ranch or a farm. My family owns an apiary, and as I may be a part of a form of agriculture I’m also disconnected from my community and farming and ranching friends. I often feel obsolete the older I get in this community. It was easy to be friends with the kids in my class when we all knew little about our families’ lives, but now that they too are becoming farmers and ranchers I’m not sure where I stand in their lives. Honey bees may be important, but am I? I know I’m loved and a part of my community, but I feel completely alone. There are a couple of things that I do feel connected to and that’s animals and the lives of people who depend on these animals. So why do these things matter to me? Why has all I’ve ever known is honey bees, but my soul is drawn to animals, and the people whose lives depend on them? I think I’m drawn to animals because I feel like there isn’t judgment between us. I don’t have to be scared or ashamed of who I am or what I want to become. Maybe it’s because I feel like they are just listening and there for me when nothing else is. Going out to a pasture and calling an animal to be by my side and have them there, their warm fur and their genuine gestures, their abilities to just stand there and give their devoted love makes me feel wanted. 

I’ve been thinking about my future a lot lately and I’m scared. Scared of failure, scared of not being able to pay for college, scared of not falling in love. I’m worried that when the day comes to leave home and fend for myself I will break. I feel neglected by the world and that I don’t have enough experience to make it through the trial that Christ has set for us. The Bible tells me that God would not give us tasks that we could not do, but what if I take a wrong step and throw my whole life off track? I feel bad for saying this but my faith worries me. I know he has a plan for me but I’m unsure of what it is. I know he’s going to give me some hard decisions in life but how does he expect me to know what to choose? He will give me guidance through his words but words can only go as far as my vocabulary and that’s not as far as I need. I need a passion to hold me grounded to myself and to this earth.  I know that I just have to take one step at a time, take day by day, but it’s hard to know my purpose when I’m not even sure if I have a true passion.

As you can see, I let my life be consumed with worries of the future rather than being in the present. FFA has been a huge role model in my life, but I’m not passionate about FFA itself, rather the people and opportunities in FFA that have shaped how I view the world today. FFA is a huge organization with seven-hundred-thousand members. There are countless career development events for all of us members to partake in, and it’s there for people like me who don’t know what they want to do with their lives. We get to experience multiple workforces that can help spark a passion or love for something.  Don’t get me wrong, I love FFA, but I’m passionate about the members and towards the people who have opened doors for me along with the animals that I work with daily, or maybe this is love. Passion and love are very similar concepts, but I think a passion gives you purpose to live, it gives your life meaning and for me my passion would be more towards the agricultural side of FFA, the animals and farmers and ranchers.

So why do I feel passionate towards animals? Maybe it’s the innocence that glimmers in their eyes, or the unassured look they have when they are deciding if I’m worth their trust. I can’t put my finger on why I have decided to devote my life-long career to Animal and Veterinary Sciences. You could view me as foolish and think I’m making the wrong life choice because I can’t pinpoint my exact thoughts as to why I want to pursue this career, but I think this is a good thing. There are so many emotions running through my head when I wonder why I’m passionate about animals and their health care that I can’t make a list or write a paper about it, but that’s what I’ve been asked to do so I’ll try to lay it all out for you.

Imagine a little kid running through the irrigation sprinklers with his best friend chasing and pretending to hunt chickens, or riding a horse for the first time and feeling the adrenaline when the horse takes off and you don’t know how to stop it. Fast forward a few years and you decide to join 4-H and show lambs at your county fair, but being heartbroken when your lamb doesn’t show well. The next year you come back better prepared with a better show lamb to see your goals taken away when the lamb decides to ram you in the show ring. You decide lambs aren’t your best option so you move onto showing and raising pigs. You feel an immediate bond with your pigs and they are always excited to see and interact with you. They do not know misery or the horrible things going on in the world, they just know your love for them. Fair rolls around and once again you’re in the show ring, but this time something is different. There’s this bond with your animal that’s unbreakable and you make it to the final round in showmanship where you win Top Junior Showman. It’s now Saturday and you must say goodbye knowing that your pig will soon be bacon. You have a breakdown but know that that’s the industry and you have to live with it. You are now seventeen years old and ready to move onto raising market steers. You have a wonderful veterinary science class where you get to deal with all types of animals every day, and learn about the differences between all of them and to love the beauty of how each species works. That’s the moment that you realize you have a purpose and that’s to work and care for animals. This is my life, my story, and I’m so excited about my future. 

Life is an interesting thing to think about. Mine and yours has so much purpose, but one wrong move and it can all come crashing down. If you think about it, it’s a miracle that we all survive day to day. We have to be one hundred percent devoted to our own lives to conform to the world we live in. We are very materialistic creatures so it’s easy for us to get attached to things, and unfortunately many of those things can ruin us. Drugs is a perfect example, just one hit of something can alter your future forever and sadly people find a love for these substances instead of filling their lives with actual meaning. There is a lack of passion throughout the globe, but I understand this lack because before this paper I didn’t think I had a passion either.

If I didn’t grow up in this community during the time I am now I’m sure that I too could be one of those people that are making the wrong decisions, I have been very fortunate that I happen to be a part of our school’s strong FFA program because it hasn’t always been this way. If it wasn’t for this I would never have learned about cows, horses, pigs, and sheep. 
Cows are often considered to be dumb animals, but they are far more intelligent than we give them credit for. Cows are very protective of their young and can live in some of the harshest environments. Cows being dumb is one of the biggest stereotypes and it’s not true at all. Cows can protect their young, open gates, turn on water valves, know how to tell time. They know how to protect themselves in large groups and survive on a mountain for months at a time. Horses are also an amazing animal that we can take for granted. Horses can ride up steep mountainsides for countless hours without letting you know they need a break. They are dedicated to you and we give them our full trust. Almost everyone who owns horses will tell you that they are a part of their family. Losing a horse is like losing a family member. Then there is my personal favorite, dogs! If we want to learn about passion we should take notes form the brain of a dog. They are so loving and genuine. Dogs are so passionate towards serving us and making us happy. Dogs would put their whole lives on the line for their owners if they had to. They truly are man’s best friend. Cow dogs are the best work companion. Cow dogs are so athletic and smart. To be able to move a whole herd of cattle, sheep, or whatever you need moved is a result of great skill and knowledge. They have to evaluate every situation while trying to move herds and make decisions in split seconds. Cows are very large animals and moving them takes a lot of power.

Although I have a passion for the lives of animals, I also have a passion for the lives of everyone around me. I love communicating with people and learning about everyone’s special characteristics. I may be a little biased towards agricultural people and learning about them but to me every single person’s life matters. I get down on myself and ask why I’m here, but talking to people and making them feel like they are needed in this world makes me feel good and I often forget that I’m also needed. Often times we get in our own heads and tell ourselves that we can’t do certain things because we aren’t smart enough, don’t have enough resources, or confidence. 

This is where we get to the farmers. This is the real reason as to why I want to stay in the agricultural field and become a vet. I love working with people and finding a common ground among those people. If I can take my love for science, animals, and human communication why can’t I put it all together and become a vet? Suicide rates of farmers and ranchers are at an all-time high, and if I can be that kind person that evaluates their livestock and be there for them to talk to, then I will be there. I live in Cambridge, Idaho, so almost every person I interact with is a farmer or rancher. Knowing that some of these farmers and ranchers I talk to may be having these thoughts breaks my heart. I want to be here in their lives. I am going to be that person who makes their lives easier by having them trust me with their livelihood. I may not live on a farm or a ranch, but I think that’s what makes me appreciate these animals and people so much more. I haven’t always been as close to agriculture as my community, but when your whole life is based off of one thing I feel like you can miss some things that people from the outside don’t. Animals and the lives of people around them are my passion, and without this essay here for me to realize this I’m not sure if my life would have had as much meaning as it does now.

Emma Hollon, “Beauty and Art” (personal essay, Silver Key Award)

November 13, 2017. It was my first day of school at Cambridge Jr-Sr. High School. I was afraid and anxious. There was one class that intrigued me, but not necessarily in a positive way. Floral Design. Making flower arrangements was not something I would ever enjoy. The only reason I took that class was because I had only one other choice, welding, and that was beyond my capabilities. As I went through floral my freshman and sophomore year, I learned how to make arrangements, wreaths, corsages, and boutonnieres. I even competed on the FFA Floral Team. I learned to somewhat enjoy learning about and practicing floral design, but by no means did I love it. At least at that point. Eventually something changed, and I am not sure what. 

I am very introverted. I like to be a follower rather than a leader, and I like to listen rather than share. So, as you might imagine, sharing things or doing things, especially things that pertain to my own thoughts and feelings and require me to express myself, is beyond difficult. But, what might be more difficult, is that I do want to share them. I just don’t know how. I try sometimes, but much of the time, for me, using words to express myself and how I feel is difficult. 

Floral somehow developed into one of the things I formed a deep connection with. I think I started to realize this after a unique experience which most high school floral students would not get the opportunity to participate in. I got the opportunity to make flower arrangements for a wedding.

We started the night before the wedding. A couple other floral shop gals and I, and our advisor, had to make some of the wedding arrangements ahead of time. To start off, we made the bridal bouquet. We started with some greenery and eventually started adding the main flowers. We got to use several different types of flowers that I had never used in arrangements, such as peonies and dahlias. If you aren’t familiar with what these flowers look like, they are vivacious, but they are also elegant. I had never really seen such flowers, and I felt ecstatic to work with them. Dahlias and peonies were the main flowers for many of the bigger arrangements, but in the smaller bouquets we used beautiful blush pink roses. Anyway, we started to add the main flowers. Mostly I just put them where others told me, never really thinking for myself. We started to add amaranthus and pepper berry to make it cascade more, then we added smaller flowers and more greenery to fill it in. By the time we finished, we were more than excited. It was the most gorgeous bouquet I had ever seen, and to think I helped make it. Wow.

After making the bridal bouquet, we made seven or so bridesmaid’s bouquets. These were the same colors and the same style as the bride’s, but they had more ordinary main flowers, although they were still beautiful. To arrange these, we each strategized how to make it. We each started with a pink rose as the center focal point, and built around it. We did this to make them similar to one another. All bouquets are different; things can go together, compliment one another, and maybe even have some of the same ingredients, but they are all different in their own way. Just like us. Humans. We are all different, but we have things that we involve ourselves in, or that we are born with that makes us similar to one another. Those things that make us similar are not just because we look alike on the outside, but they are also because some of us have the same beliefs or interests. We compliment each other, and yet we are vastly different. Even things different from one another can compliment each other, not necessarily look alike in any way, but they have such differences that they are attracted to each other. As said in science, opposites attract. 

Following the bouquets, we worked on the boutonnieres for the groom and groomsmen. We also made a few wrist corsages for mothers and grandmothers. Corsages and boutonnieres are what I consider to be some of the most difficult items to make in the floral design industry. They require precise focus. In order to make a substantial boutonniere or corsage, you have to figure out the right size of things, you have to use the right materials, and you have to make it sturdy. We can’t afford to have one too big so that it won’t stay on the person’s wrist or shoulder. If you don’t use the correct materials, then you won’t be able to have it the right size. Making sure the the boutineer or corsage is sturdy means that nothing will fall off. But, there is so much more to making these that it requires an extensive amount of practice just to have something adequate. To make a corsage or boutonniere to even be acceptable is an accomplishment to me, and very rewarding. In order to love something, there has to be an aspect of it that is difficult. In the book Ender’s Game, there is a boy whose intelligence is far above everyone else. The boy is bullied, but in order to defeat his enemy, he learns to understand them first. And by understanding something, and in my case accomplishing something, you learn to love it. You overcome something difficult and accomplish something great.That is where love develops. In order to successfully have a relationship with another, you have to overcome the difficulties and faults there may be, and then your love for them only grows. In order to become sufficient in a sport, you have to overcome your weaknesses. And in order to make an adequate corsage or boutonniere you have to work and make them over and over again. Those things are beyond rewarding, and they help develop a care for something that may not have been there before.

So, the night before the wedding we made one one brides bouquet, seven bridesmaids bouquets, eight or so boutonnieres, and about six wrist corsages. It took about five hours, and on top of that we had to pack all the materials for the next day. It was a lot of work, but enjoyable work. People say that when you look for a career, to try and find one you’d enjoy. Maybe I discovered that floral could be a career I’d enjoy, but if it promised a substantial income is another story. 

The following morning, June 29, 2019, we woke up early to go to the school and load our supplies. Our drive to the wedding was long but enjoyable. I was able to form a better relationship with my advisor and the other girls who came along. Although throughout the drive, I rarely spoke. In fact, the only time I really spoke was when someone else said something to me first. Part of this was because my voice wasn’t loud enough, and the other part was because I was too scared to say something. Still, I felt special to be one of the only people going to help at this wedding.  

We arrived at around two in the afternoon, and met the maid of honor. She took the bouquets and boutonnieres so that they could be ready by the time of the ceremony. We moved on to the archway. The archway had two main foam arrangements. One on the top right corner, and the other, in the middle of the left side. These were some of the most important arrangements because they were going to be seen by the most people. We started by adding greenery in the back to both fill up space, and help create shape. We slowly added the main flowers, and different accents. Another aspect I’ve learned to appreciate about floral is the preciseness of it. You have to make things so that they are appealing to the eye. That means putting the flowers in the right places and adding depth to them. There are several principles to making an eye appealing floral arrangements; pattern, emphasis, variety, unity, balance, rhythm and movement, and proportion. To sum this up it means that floral arrangements should typically have things in a particular shape that the person seeing it can point out, it should have certain focal points that draw someone’s eye, there should be several different elements in the arrangement to keep the viewer interested, but those elements should work well together and compliment each other, and it should be balanced and proportional to the size of the foam. That is how we made the arrangements on the archway. Before being involved in floral design I would have never thought that it would require so much thought and expression. 

After the archway, we were technically finished with all that was asked of us, but we did have some extra flowers. Before this, I rarely ever made arrangements on my own. Not that I wasn’t given that opportunity, because I was, on several occasions. The problem was that my introvertedness made me so dependent on other people’s ideas and opinions, that I never acknowledged that I was allowed to have my own. But, also, the problem was that I didn’t believe that I was capable of making a beautiful arrangement on my own, and I didn’t want people to criticize my abilities. I need to get over that fear. At this wedding, I had to make an arrangement on my own, and I didn’t really want to. I still relied slightly on other people’s ideas, but at some point it was just me. I went into my own world and created something of my own. The way I wanted it. It had pepper berry and eucalyptus cascading out the sides. It had a beautiful burgundy dahlia with white tipped petals that was in the center, for it was the main focal point of the arrangement. It had some burgundy carnations and baby pink mini roses around it to help compliment. There was mint green seeded, silver dollar, and spiral eucalyptus to help contrast, and there was soft white wax flower to fill any gaps. The arrangement was eclectic, and it was all me. I made it all on my own. 

This was an experience that changed my entire perspective on floral. It was like I grew this love for floral in an instant. There is a beauty about it which I learned to love. Floral gave me freedom from my introvertedness to express myself.  I might not have seen it at first, but I realized it’s there. 

Maybe it was that I finally came to a realization of what it is all about. Maybe it was because I stopped the constant relying on others to do it for me. Maybe it was because I discovered that I have the ability to make something beautiful. It could be because in some ways I can relate floral arrangements to humanity and its societies. Part of it is that it pushed me out of my comfort zone, and by that I mean it forced me to express and share my thoughts and feelings. Another part forced me to do something I wasn’t good at in the beginning, and turn it into something that I am proficient at. Floral is a way of expression, and it’s beautiful. Some would even call it art. I know I would. 

Not only is it a love, but I also would consider to be something I have a passion for. Maybe in the beginning it was not my passion, but now I would perceive that it is. Why? It seems shocking to me, someone whose life is centered around sports, school, and religious beliefs. And someone who’s too intimidated to express anything to anyone. Why is it that I feel that floral design, which does indeed require expressions of numerous kinds, is something which I feel I am passionate about? 

I don’t think I’ll ever really know the answer, but if I had to guess, I would say that the reason is because I learned to love something I had no intention of loving. Something that was hard to love. Just like myself. Maybe learning to love floral was like learning to love who I am. Even if who I am isn’t who I want to be.

Lauren DeVries, “My Story About Stories” (personal essay, Silver Key Award)

I am seventeen. Part of me feels like I have lived a large chunk of life, but the other part of me knows that in all reality I have only started to embark on this journey. While I may be young, I sometimes feel like I belong in a different crowd than my peers, perhaps with an older crowd; I consider myself an old soul. Maybe the reason I have a slightly different outlook on life compared to some Gen Z teens, who seem to be stereotyped to be self-indulgent and only caring about the here-and-now, is because I have an interest for “ordinary people” stories. I genuinely care about others and value having knowledge about the “good ole days.” It doesn’t matter if I am sitting in a group of old cowboys while working cows, or checking out at Walmart, I always wonder about people’s stories and love to hear them. I have such strong emotions about these stories, but no words seem to really pinpoint my feelings about them.

Ever since I was little I remember being the kid who was quite content sitting with my dad or mom listening to people telling stories at family and friend gatherings rather than watching a movie or playing with the other children. Sometimes I wish I would have taken advantage of the innocence and naive pleasures of just being a kid, messing around with my cousins, and getting into a little bit of mischief. Now, I still did do that stuff, but something in me would rather just listen to the chatter and laughter of people telling stories. I remember worrying that they might think I was nosey or too cool for school, but I am eager to hear and listen to good stories. There is something that I find so captivating and fascinating about an excellent story that is told well. It doesn’t matter if I am in the branding pen with cowboys who are just shooting the breeze, someone sharing their life story, or if I am the one telling the story; I love to listen. As humans I think we crave emotional connection, and that is what stories bring to me.

Storytelling is an art form. There are so many fantastic stories out there, but I think the reason why telling stories is so important is because it helps us as humans to connect to each other. I’ve noticed that telling someone how you feel can be so difficult sometimes, but telling stories is a way to relate to one another by describing actions or situations; this creates the understanding that I think we often crave. Stories have been used since the beginning of time as a means of oral communication. Before words were being written by humans, we were telling stories that would be passed down from generation to generation. Stories have been a crucial part of history, but they also have been a crucial part of my life. 

At two years old I was a world traveler. My mom and dad packed up their three daughters all under the age of four and decided to move across the world to Armenia. This created my love for traveling. This journey taught me a lot about other people’s stories. I only lived there for two young years of my life so I don’t remember as much as I’d like to about my time there, but I love when my mom and dad tell stories about those years and I start to remember small details again. I remember the darkness of the cold and concrete city during the winter time in Yerevan. The smell of burning cigarettes and Armenian brandy is still instilled in my olfactory nerves. It was pretty grim and so frigid during the winter; I felt like the sun wouldn’t come out for days, or at least it couldn’t burn through the city’s cloud of air pollution. My mom would bundle us up from head to toe and my parents would bring their three daughters into the underground market to get our weekly groceries. I will always remember how the old ladies would squeeze my cheeks so hard, and my twin sister Anna would beg my dad not to let them pinch her face. We would get our usual groceries, endure the pain of our cheeks being pinched, and be ready to get home to warm up. On our way out there was a family that would sit and beg every day; we would always buy bananas to give to them. I think one day for some reason we didn’t, and I remember how this tore me apart. I was heartbroken for days. I remember many situations like this. 

I still have this strong feeling that I can recall 15 years later. I saw little girls who were my age, had the same dark hair as I, and should have had the same opportunities I did, but they were in an orphanage being visited by what they probably thought was an entitled little American girl. I often think about where they are and how they have written their stories. As a little girl sitting in our apartment, I remember crying for them because they didn’t have a mom and dad who took them to school, read them bedtime stories and tucked them in, or sat around the dinner table with them every night. These memories have often kept me up at night hoping that those girls are content, feel loved, and have a passion for something in life. 

Sometimes my compassion and sentiment for people who live a completely different life from mine gets slightly muffled with the hustle and bustle of life, but then a letter from an Armenian girl named Ashken, who my family has now sponsored for 14 years, comes in the mail and reminds me of the connection we have made with this girl who isn’t so little anymore. This experience of living in Armenia ignited my interest for traveling because I have made so many connections with so many people. Listening to the stories of the new people I meet, cities I tour, and new things to explore force me to take a step back from my life and reevaluate how I allow my dedication to drive me to live a better life. The stories that traveling has told me have made me feel grateful, thankful, regretful, joyful, painful, meaningful, and mindful of my life and other people’s lives; this is what I call passion. 

My own culture, which I might call agriculture influenced by heritage and religion, is very important to me and I love learning more about it; maybe the reason I love it so much is because of the people that it connects me to. About three years ago around Thanksgiving we visited my cousins who lived about an hour and forty-five minutes away from me. We decided to go visit my great grandma about five minutes away from them. She was around 86 at that time. My Great Grandma Dolores was a full, but frail Basque woman, and her arthritis made it difficult for her to do some things in her older age. Still, her fiery and independent personality kept us on our toes all the way up until December 21, 2019 when she passed away. On that day we had planned to go see grandma for a few minutes and head out, but this ordinary visit turned into my favorite memory of my great grandma. We started to talk to her and for some reason that day none of us could stop telling stories. As we sat on the couch and she sat in her chair everything seemed perfect. It was one of those times that you knew you would remember for the rest of your life. I have never seen her laugh so hard. Her eyes were squinting but looked brighter than usual, and you could see where the laugh lines in her face had formed from many years of laughter. Honestly, I was a little worried because I thought that this much laughing wasn’t good for her, but I had never seen her let loose like that and really just laugh, so I accepted that while she may look in pain from gasping for air we should keep telling her our stories. 

Pretty soon Grandma D, as we called her, began to tell her great grand daughters about our ancestors who immigrated from Spain, and about her life working from sun up to sun down on the dairy, and silly things that she would do as a little girl, and much more. I learned so much about her that day, but ultimately I learned about myself. 

At the end of Grandma D’s life this last December all I really wanted was for her to know how much I loved her. The very last time I saw her I knew that it was it. She demanded to be at home, so that is where she was. I walked into her bedroom and her eyes were closed; I thought to myself, “What do you say to someone who is dying?” The only thing I could talk about was that day when we came to visit her and we just told stories the whole time. It was at this time in my life when the only way that I could truly say, “I love you,” was to talk about that one memory in my mind where we told stories for hours on end. Stories brought me my favorite memory of my great grandma and an appreciation for my Basque culture and heritage. 

This storytelling actually goes on both sides of my family. My Grandpa Jim has stories upon stories. We were sitting at the table last Thanksgiving and Grandpa was beginning to tell stories about all sorts of things. I am sure he told some stories that were actually important, but all I can remember is when he began to talk about the time where he had to travel to go see the allergist. At first I was like, “Here we go.” I didn’t really think this story was going to be interesting or funny. Grandpa continued and was saying how after they tested for allergies he was starving so he went out to find some fried chicken. The doctor gave him something to help with the irritation so he was a little loopy. I still remember how hard everyone was laughing after he continued to explain that he chewed all the way through the bone on a drumstick, but he didn’t really notice until after the waitress gave him a very concerned look. On that day I learned where my dad got his funny chuckle from. By the end of the story he could barely keep telling it he was laughing so hard. My grandma was trying to keep her composure, but she was cracking up too. I still try and imagine my poised and well-mannered Grandpa Jim chewing through a drumstick. There are many other stories that he tells about our ancestors and the family ranch in South Dakota, but something about this one will stick with me. Sometimes we may not remember the most important detail from a story, but instead we remember how that story made us feel.

I consider myself a cowboy. I know I am a girl, but there is a saying, “Sometimes the best cowboys aren’t boys,” and I would have to agree. I love riding through cows on the back of my horse, checking the mama cows calving in the spring, and spending some time on the range all by myself. But probably the thing I love the most about ranching and the cowboy culture is the community. With community comes a lot of stories. I love sitting with a group of cowboys, both girls and boys, who are telling stories of cows, hardships, rewards after great efforts, great dogs, crazy horses, cold winters, hot summers, green pasture, miserable blizzards, or anything between. They all seem to enjoy the group therapy. If they are discouraged, often their passion might be rekindled. Hearing stories in the branding pen or at dinner after a long day, I notice my burning passion for the agriculture industry, the struggles and joys that ranching brings, the cowboys, and the animals. I specifically remember sitting on the porch after branding on a Wednesday, which meant I was skipping school, completely exhausted. I wrestled calves that entire day and my hands were starting to blister and callus from grabbing the ropes because I was too stubborn to ask for gloves because I forgot mine. I was sitting on the ground because the adults got to sit in the chairs. My dad and a few other cowboys were finishing their meal and talking about some of their childhood memories. Honestly, I can’t even remember what the story was; all I remember is how much they were laughing. At one point I think I was laughing at their laughs more than the actual story. On the spring day the sun was shining, and I had the feeling of complete satisfaction of a long day of labor and a good meal at the end. I enjoy working hard, and I don’t mind being the only girl every once in a while because I know if I wasn’t an asset my dad wouldn’t ask me to help; maybe he has just trained me well, but I feel powerful swinging a rope with my finger nails painted pink. Everything just felt right. My dad was cracking up, and seeing him that joyful puts a smile on my face. It’s days like these that I know why I have passions for stories and think to myself that I could do this kind of work with a bunch of rough and tough cowboys for the rest of my life. My passion comes from the love I have for this community and the connection with this culture that seems to grow as I do. It makes me appreciate growing up as a ranch kid and that even though sometimes it may feel like the industry that I love so dearly is under attack it is something to be proud of and something to have passion for. 

In one way or another I think we have all felt this connection when we listen to stories. I struggle to define it or explain it, but perhaps it is passion, which I think everyone needs in their lives. We may not feel passion in stories, but if we examine our lives and things we find beautiful I believe we’ll find something that we’re passionate about; it isn’t always obvious. Sometimes I don’t think we know how to describe it or explain it, but maybe that is what makes it so beautiful. 

Lauren DeVries, “Lady of Velvet and Sand” (poetry, Honorable Mention)

Painted fingernails masked in dirt
Lipstick residue on the coffee mug
The burning sun awakened the earth
Engraved silver earrings dangling in the slight breeze
Plain clothes but a breathtaking face
Leather fringe swaying off her hips
Alone with her horse on the sagebrush sea
The mare’s footprints pounded like her heartbeat
A young border collie pup printed through the young grass
Blooming Arrowleaf Balsamroot tucked in her black hair
Smoke from the branding iron fire rose around her
Golden light flooded the range
The surrounding mountains looked purple and royal
Mother Earth looked so young and refreshed but old and wise
Laughs of joy and words of pain filled the air
The buzzing radio played Hank, Willy and Waylon
Worn boots removed on the patio after a hard day
Exhausted she laid in bed feeling passionate
Her heart soft like velvet
Her hands rough like sand 

Stellar Field Trip

I recently took my dual-credit English 175 students on a field trip to Boise. We piled in our frigid little white bus at 8:00 a.m. (it was about 10 degrees that morning) and got home later that night about 11 p.m.

Posing at the “B”

It was a busy day. After the two-hour drive, we parked near the BSU football stadium and high-tailed it to meet our Concurrent Enrollment coordinator extraordinaire, Kristi Lakatos, in the student union building. Kristi has been my go-to person at BSU’s awesome Concurrent Enrollment department since I began teaching these courses in 2013. High school students get credit for college courses, at no cost to them (thanks to a state program called “Advanced Opportunities“). At our school, juniors and seniors who meet certain criteria may take, in alternate years, English 101 (required of all college students in Idaho) and English 175 (“Literature and Ideas”; this fulfills a Humanities requirement at any college in Idaho and most other 4-year schools around the country).

Kristi shepherded our group of 9 students and me to: a life sciences lab that studies Parkinson’s Disease where doctoral student Alex taught us about autophagy and gene therapy; the magnificent and brand new Center for Visual Arts; the Boise River Cafe for an all-you-can-eat lunch (paid for by BSU Concurrent Enrollment!); a presentation by the Nursing Program; a presentation by the Writing Center; an English 175 class, taught by professor Matthew Hansen (who’d graciously moved his class to a bigger room so we could attend); and finally to the fascinating Games, Interactive Media, & Mobile department (GIMM), where our students learned about the intersection between cutting-edge technology and humanity: many of the projects GIMM develops are aimed at helping learning-disabled students overcome their challenges. Two applications our students previewed used VR (virtual reality) technology to help young children navigate a busy airport, and another one (commissioned by Idaho Fish and Game) that guides the user through field-dressing and skinning an elk. GIMM program founder and director, Professor Anthony Ellertson (whom I know through our shared passion for upland bird hunting) took an hour out of his extremely busy day to talk to us about the many ways this kind of technology can help solve human problems. It was an eye-opening climax to a busy day on campus.

Parkinson’s research lab
Gallery walk at Center for Visual Arts
Nursing presentation
Writing Center presentation with my friend and colleague Amanda Micheletty
Lauren at GIMM, using the child-at-airport VR application. Professor Ellertson watches (left).
Morgan skinning an elk in VR at GIMM

We booked it back to the bus, and drove to where we’d end the field trip later that night, just outside JUMP (Jack’s Urban Meeting Place), a relatively new cultural event space in downtown Boise. I managed to find a legal, free parking space right on the street! Woo hoo! Then we had a longish, fast walk to the tiny Front Door, my favorite place to eat when I lived in Boise. Tuesdays are Calzone Night there, and we were able to reserve their little back room where they served us all calzones we’d pre-ordered earlier that day. Yum.

Calzone Night at the Front Door (clockwise from left: Carly, Brielle, McKensi, Emma, Morgan, me, Zoe, Brendan, Anna, Lauren)

I had to leave the Front Door a little early to get over to JUMP for the sound-check (more on this in a bit), so Leslie, my wife and chaperone, finished dinner with the students, marshaled them over to Chip (a cookie place), where they consumed more sugary fuel (I had Leslie get one to go for me), and then walked them back over to JUMP.

At JUMP, I was to perform in a unique story-telling performance with five other writers in something called “Starry Story Night,” which is an annual event produced by the Boise institution Story Story Night. “Starry Story Night” intermixes the stories of six writers, all based on a theme related to the constellation they choose each year; this year it was Orion, the hunter, and all six stories were edited together and focused on some aspect of hunting. Mine was based on an essay I’d published about my dog, another focused on a bow hunter pursuing an elk, another an older woman hunting pronghorn while feeling hunted by depression, another was a woman feeling prey to anorexia, another woman — in Kenya — was being hunted by a sexual predator, and (the sixth storyteller) is an astrophysics major at BSU, who added a lot of detail about the stars.

The stage was in the center of the room, and the nucleus of it was occupied by a stellar brass quintet whose musical performance was integrated into the stories. Each of the six writers moved around the stage at various points, and once we each got onto a box in the center of the brass quintet at climactic moments in our stories. The audience sat on chairs surrounding the stage, and the place was packed; I’d guess there might have been 400 people there. At one point, storytellers were supposed to get out of their chairs and kind of dance to the R&B song “Celebration” (“Celebrate good times, come on!”); I was terrified to do this, so I decided at the last minute to get down off the stage and grab my wife and make her dance with me; the mortified look on her face was priceless, as was the look on the faces of several students as I grabbed them to join me. A first, and — probably — last, but fun nonetheless. It was truly the most unique literary event I’d witnessed (not to mention been a part of).

On the box for Starry Story Night
Leslie, Anna, and Zoe listening
Celebrating with Leslie

I’d traveled to Boise three times to rehearse for this event, and all the while was worried first that nobody would be able to follow the individual stories, and second that my students would be bored by it. When we finished the performance, the entire audience immediately stood up and gave us a long standing ovation. I looked over at my students and saw huge smiles on their faces. They asked me tons of questions while chatting with people after the performance, and when we all piled back on the bus for the long drive home I heard several of them say, “That was really fun!” It was.

I’m blessed with good students, as is our school. I don’t think there are many kids in the country who could go on a 15-hour, constant action, attention- and manners-demanding field trip and say at the end of it, “That was really fun!” The next day in class, we spent the entire hour talking about the day. They asked me many more questions, commented thoughtfully on everything we did, and surprised me with what they noticed.

I’m also blessed to work at a school in a community that supports opportunities like these. We’re very fortunate to have the Upper Country Education Foundation, which provides financial and other support for programs, equipment, and activities in our district, and which paid for tickets to “Starry Story Night” and dinner at the Front Door. As a rural school, we sometimes have to go a few extra miles (in this case, about 200) to experience things students in urban districts might take for granted, but I think it’s important that our students at least get a first-hand glimpse of life outside our wonderful, salubrious valley.

I want to do more of these stellar field trips.

Modeling

Some learning

One of the key things my favorite teachers did a couple centuries ago when I was getting kicked out of their classes for farting or mouthing off was to show me they were real people. To me, that meant they laughed at funny things kids said, at least sometimes, or were unafraid to admit they were wrong about something or to answer personal questions we nosy kids asked, such as what Mr. Huck’s nickname for his wife was or how often he wore the same pair of corduroy pants before washing them. Real-people teachers also showed us they were serious about being the “life-long learners” other teachers always told us we should try to become. They lived it. They weren’t posers. They didn’t pretend they already knew everything, a hopeless, transparent attempt to intimidate us into docility with bogus wisdom. Their showing us, without making a big deal about it, that they were always trying to learn something because they couldn’t help it or just for the sake of it made us feel like real people, too, modally equal even if closer to the beginning of the learning progression than they. Real-people teachers made their excitement and curiosity plain. They assumed we were as eager to learn as they were. They never lectured us about the importance of education; they never guilt-tripped us into paying attention; instead, they got truly excited about Edgar Allan Poe or a weird interpretation one of us snot-nosed miscreants spewed while squinting at a cubist Picasso. They just modeled. That reached some of us, maybe all of us.

In the classroom, I often forget this, especially when feeling overwhelmed, which is rare for teachers, I know. (If you’re not a teacher, you might not get that that was a joke.) But I try, especially when feeling overwhelmed, to remember a moment when a teacher’s spark ignited something unexpected in me. Most often, some memory of deciphering the love a teacher showed for anything saves me, if only for a second. Love seems to be increasingly disarming in our world; that sounds cliche. But I think it’s true, for whatever reason, so it can be a good weapon against a lot of things we bitch about daily, such as disintegrating adolescent attention spans, social media (everyone’s favorite public whipping boy and private plaything), standardized testing.

I believe one of the best things teachers can do is show students they love to learn (as long as that’s true), regardless of what it is or whether it relates to the subject matter they teach. It might even be better if it’s “irrelevant” (which is impossible because whatever anyone does it’s still human, as are all disciplines) to the subject of the class. My students know I love lots of things that aren’t directly related to Language Arts, but they also know that there’s nothing that’s not related somehow to Language Arts. So I tell them stories about and show them pictures of my dogs, videos of bird hunting with my wife and our mutts, and they know I have a life outside of school that’s filled with love for lots of things about which I can’t learn enough. I can’t say, exactly, what kind of effect sharing this stuff with my students has on them, but I feel that most of them are truly interested and that they don’t mind terribly spending time in my classroom, despite the fact that they are working hard most of the time and I’m not just doing stand-up or show-and-tell. I like to think they see me as a real-people teacher who sees them as people, too. I do. I love them all.

Every second February I’m lucky enough to go to a week-long school to study bagpiping with ten of the top players in the world, truly an overwhelming experience. The first couple of times I did it I kept it on the down-low because I was afraid some of my students, colleagues, and parents might think I was screwing off. “Personal reasons” was my answer to anyone asking why I’d be gone for a week in the middle of the third quarter. Now, I better understand its relevance to what I do with kids. It’s truly important to me, and — I believe — models for my students what I loved about my favorite teachers.

The week is suffused with an intense struggle to learn as much as possible in a short amount of time. And it’s the one, biennial time I get to play music with anyone other than myself (it’s too expensive to go to every year). I relish it because it comes during a time in the school year when it’s easy to be worn out and feel uninspired, and it’s like an injection of love for life framed by study. Coming back to school after this feels better, despite the backlog of stuff from being gone and the cost of catching up. It’s more than worth it. Each time I go, I learn a lot about teaching from the Scottish and Canadian instructors, each of whom has a different style and focus, and I can reflect on whose approach helped me the best and think about how to incorporate aspects of that in my own teaching. It’s good.

This year I decided to show my students a bit of what the week was about for me, so I made this short video. They watched with genuine interest and some asked unexpected questions. Take a look, and let me know if you have any questions.

But Beautiful

Looking at Miles

Beautiful to take a chance
And if you fall you fall
And I’m thinking I wouldn’t mind at all

–Burke/Van Heusen, “But Beautiful”

My high school students (grades 9-12) recently completed an inquiry unit I’d wanted to teach since I started this gig in 2012, but, for whatever reason, hadn’t. I spent some time this summer planning it, and, despite its sprawl from 6 to 9 weeks, I’m very pleased with the results, for several reasons.

The first is that the “Beauty Unit” served as a vehicle for students to learn and practice the important skills of analysis and synthesis. We started small, with Anne Frank’s sentence, “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.” Students were amazed by how big such a little sentence could get when we broke it down and investigated the meanings of individual words such as “think” and “still” and “you” and “be.” We analyzed visual texts, too, and I experienced some serendipity when technical issues prevented us from analyzing a digital image and I “resorted” to a poster I’ve had on my wall for years, of Miles Davis playing at Birdland in 1958.

This turned out well because students realized they’d looked at this photo for years but had never “seen” it. It didn’t hurt, either, that I exposed them to a fair bit of Miles Davis’s music while they looked and took notes and discussed what they saw. In their short essays analyzing the poster, many described how the process of looking carefully and thoughtfully at the poster changed how they felt about it, and that they were able to see beauty in it through their interrogations and dialogue. That was some currency I hoped I’d see them spend on their culminating projects at the end of the unit.

The second reason I’m pleased with this project, which was more of a surprise than the first, is that every student found it more difficult than they expected. Nearly every student had a very easy time choosing the topic for their culminating project (which was to be a presentation answering the question, “What is beauty to you, and what role does it play in your life?”), yet when it came down to meaningfully answering the question most of them struggled. Seeing them struggle wasn’t what pleased me; seeing them not give up did. “Beautiful to take a chance / And if you fall you fall / And I’m thinking I wouldn’t mind at all.” I did not mind, at all, watching them take chances, fall down, and get back up again for more on their way to discovering some moving things about themselves and their world.

But the best reason this unit pleased me is that nearly everyone was moved multiply by it. They moved themselves in creating and presenting their projects to their peers, and they were moved watching their peers become moved while presenting, and they were moved simply from watching presentations of such variety and depth. The power in all this, for me and them (whether they realize it or not, although I’ve tried to make this clear to them), is that most of my students were able to allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of their classmates. Many cried, some temporarily lost control, and most were surprised by their emotion. But nobody was ashamed, and everyone was supportive and appreciative. It was truly beautiful. Nothing I’ve shared with them or exposed them to has come close to creating this kind of space.

Their culminating projects included a reflective essay about their process and learning during the unit. I often include reflective essays at the ends of units, and think often of John Dewey’s remark that we don’t learn from experience, but rather from reflecting on it. My hope is that these students’ reflections on the experience of thinking about and presenting their ideas on beauty will stay with them and help them see more in their increasingly alienating world, where the superficiality of social media tends, or threatens, to dominate their existence. Time, I guess, will tell.

Still, we’re left with some artifacts I think are impressive and would like to share. Most students opted to make a Google Slides presentation, which I can’t share very easily. The topics included: sadness; eye contact; the ocean; the sound and smell of rain; the first snow; music and poetry; cattle brands; friendship; death; writing; chicken tortellini Alfredo; spring snow melt; bow hunting; brownies; sleep; memory; motocross; bull riding; irony; a piglet named Judy; time; horses; a particular mountain associated with a very-recently-passed great-grandfather; a particular mother fighting cancer; a particular uncle who’d passed away just before the student presented.

Some made videos, some of which I’ve posted below. Enjoy.

PS: I want to thank super teachers Katie Rotchford and Anna Daley, and the participating teachers in the Boise State Writing Project’s Summer Inquiry Institute last June for their helpful suggestions in planning this unit.

What Makes Us Human?

Art is the most effective form of communication that exists. –John Dewey

Carving Cambridge

This year, I’m lucky enough to be teaching a new elective course simply called Humanities. I’ve realized in the five years I’ve been here that students at our school don’t have that many chances to be exposed to a wide variety of art, music, and other kinds of human expression commonly referred to as “the humanities.” The course is inquiry based, and organized around the question, “What makes us human?” The hope is that by the end of the course, students will have their own meaningful answers to that question, and will have found at least one particular kind of humanistic expression that excites them enough to create a culminating presentation based on a deep exploration of a specific work of art, an artist, a genre, or a medium.

There are seven students in the class, sophomores through seniors, and we began by reading and discussing some of the big questions philosophers have wrestled with through the ages, such as “How do we know anything?” and “How do words get their meanings?” and “What is free will?” and “What is death and the meaning of life?” Our discussions vacillated between riveting and confusing, and several students complained of headaches caused by intense thought. I’d say that was a success.

We’re in the midst of our second unit, on art and architecture, and have the great fortune of two community members – a former art history professor and an architect – exposing us to all sorts of great work from around the world. Because our students also lack a broad understanding of world history, it’s hard to give them a complete picture of any one school or period or even a single artist. I find this a bit frustrating because I want to “fill them in” on all kinds of related things to nearly every piece we look at, but I have to remind myself that the point is to focus more on the variety of expression and allow students’ natural curiosity to determine what specific things they want to explore more deeply on their own, with the guidance of us teachers.

Drilling holes for the feathers

Most of the class so far has taken place in my classroom, using technology to show digital images and video of various things. Yesterday, however, was different. We went outside and were guided by Mr. Walters, the architect, on how to use antique stone-working tools. The video below shows what we all did in a single, compelling hour. I know everyone learned. As the great educational philosopher John Dewey said, “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.” I think the video shows in each student’s face the result of that experience. It was one of the most beautiful hours I’ve had as a teacher. Now, when they look at Michelangelo’s “David” or one of the 5,000 gargoyles on the Notre Dame cathedral they’ll understand more deeply what they’re seeing. One of the students, waiting for her turn to pound the wedge between the iron “feathers” used to split one of the stones, said quietly to me, “This is nothing like any school I’ve ever been to!” Dewey again: “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Carving the “C” for Cambridge

As a language arts teacher, I often struggle to imagine ways to “give my pupils something to do” with language, other than to read, write, and talk about it. But I think about Dewey a lot when tackling new material and trying to make it relatable; digital storytelling and other uses of technology help, but it’s rare to be able to go outside and cut stone when you’re trying to teach students about evidentiary reasoning or character development. But I think those connections between “doing” and “just writing/reading/talking” are there if you look hard enough for them. Yesterday, with the engagement I saw in students, especially when the stone split in two as a result of their guided work, I’ve got some new inspiration.

It’s… Blog Time!

Image result for blogs

I love teaching English 101. Students get college credit for the first semester of English composition in college, and they satisfy their high school junior or senior English credit at the same time. And, thanks to Advanced Opportunities, it costs them nothing.

They understand the trade-off, though: there’s a lot of homework and outside-of-class reading, which the “normal” English classes don’t require. Consequently, the students are often a little stressed but they see the value and don’t complain to me about the work. They hold themselves accountable, and I don’t have to. I love seeing them come to realize that and — with very few exceptions — grow and prosper as people.

My favorite unit in this year-long course (in college, this course is done in one semester, but I take all year and incorporate other things in it, and we get a bit more time on some of the more complex material) is the Digital Story unit. Students create a blog intended to “sell” their intended college major. The blog gives them an authentic space to synthesize material we’ve worked on for the first three quarters of the year: rhetorical moves, argumentation, use of evidence, narrative structures, documentation, recursive composition process, metanoic revision, and more. They can choose their own “theme” and when and where to include audio and visual elements. Plus, they “get” to figure out how to use a digital platform such as a blog that is much more complex and taxing than Snapchatting or Facebooking (some on the more technophobic end of the spectrum learn from the “nerdier” of the bunch). They also peer review each other’s blogs, and I’ve been impressed with the constructive level of their comments. And, although I don’t usually do this in classes, I have a competition for the “most effective” blog (a combination of views, visitors, followers, and comments). This year we’ve got a class with a few hard-nosed competitors who are making it fun. Take a look at their blogs, and feel free to comment on any of them. Thanks for reading!

https://foodscienceiscool.wordpress.com/

https://exercisesciencemajor.wordpress.com/

https://writingmajorblog.wordpress.com/

https://mechtechhub.wordpress.com/

https://confusedaboutyourmajor.wordpress.com/

https://mechanicalengineermajor.wordpress.com/

https://civilengineeringaspects.wordpress.com/

https://filmdirectingandacting.wordpress.com/

https://computersciencemajor.wordpress.com/

Japanquiry 

A dear friend of mine surprised me with a care package recently, from someplace far away. Not really sure what to do, I decided to let my students figure it out for this week’s Article of the Week. Three snack foods and a pile of printed material later, one of the students said, “This is the best thing you’ve ever had us do!” Everyone showed genuine curiosity, argued whether the green tea flavored Kit Kat bars were tasty, if the rice crackers were salty enough, figured out what apps to download to help translate the pizza ads, shared advice about how to decipher the material. Their assignment was to reflect on the experience and write ten questions, try to answer five, and describe the food. We’ll see what they come up with. Many of the students got pretty absorbed in the translation process, and I urged them to think bigger and smaller, and we had some discussions about what that meant. Younger students (8th graders) seemed amazed at how impossible the language appeared, and I encouraged them to think about how they learned their own language. I liked seeing some head-scratching going on. Domo arigato, Angela-san.

 

 

Compliments Project

p1170048A good friend and mentor recently sent me an email telling me about something called the “Compliments Project.” It’s a community-building activity in which students sit in the “hot seat” while the rest of the class writes something positive about them on the board. Since our culture is still reeling from the recent election and horrendously uncivil campaign preceding it, learning about this project seemed very serendipitous, and I wanted to try it as soon as I could fit it in.

I found myself with two “lame-duck” days before Thanksgiving; we’d just finished a unit the week before, and I went for it with my Freshman-Sophomore class. Before the activity I gave a quick mini-lecture on what I thought the “arts” in Language Arts was about, and how it related to humanism, and how that related to the concept of dignity, in which every person born has value and is worth the same as every other person; I emphasized that everyone is born equal – nobody is born a Christian or a Muslim or a pianist or a point guard – and it’s only after we’re born that our identities and other cultural values are shaped. I added that often what gets lost in the process of identity formation is the understanding that everybody has dignity and value, and that it’s important to try to remember that when we find ourselves judging others. Then, at the suggestion of the Compliments Project post, I showed the wonderful student video, “People React To Being Called Beautiful,” which truly exemplifies the aphorism, “beauty’s in the eye of the beholder.” Students appeared to understand that, although many of the subjects in the short film weren’t “typically” beautiful, someone (the film maker) found them beautiful somehow. From this I believe my students made the connection to the compliment activity: everyone can find something positive in anyone.

p1170068Then I called two students to sit in the hot seats while other students wrote compliments about them. Instead of having them write on the board, I decided to have them write on adhesive Post-It poster paper so I could hang them on the walls afterward; I also took photos of students as they turned around to read the comments about themselves, printed them out, and attached them to their posters.

With 19 students, it took two class periods to have each student sit in the hot seat, going two at a time. The results were interesting. I wasn’t sure what to expect because the post I read about the project made it sound very emotional and powerful and immediately transformative. Because of the small size of our school, and how familiar students are with one another (many have been in the same class since elementary school), I was not expecting such sudden and profound responses but wanted to see what happened. After the first day, in fact, I thought it might have been a waste of time because people didn’t write much on the posters, with many jotting down just one word, such as “special” or “funny” or “cool.” Later that day I asked a small group of students what they thought about the experience, and they raved about it, saying it was really thought-provoking. “Cool,” I thought. We’ll see how tomorrow goes.

p1170112The second day, I prefaced the activity by suggesting that they feel free to write a bit more than a single word or phrase, and all students heard me. Their thoughts were more developed and longer (despite continuing to confuse “your” and “you’re”; arg!). After school, when many students came in to look at the posters, I asked if they felt the activity was worth the time we spent on it. I got an overwhelmingly positive response, even from some students who often criticize most classroom activities. They said things such as, “We don’t normally hang out with all those people, so we didn’t know what they thought of us,” or, “It was good to have the chance to compliment others because we don’t normally do that.” I asked why they didn’t normally compliment others, and the response was, “People don’t trust you when you say something nice to them. They think you want something from them.” If there’s a value for us in this, then, it’s that the posters might point to the idea that compliments not only matter, they can be trusted and they feel good both to give and to get.

p1170189Now the posters hang on my wall, waiting for students to return from Thanksgiving break. I hope each of them carries something positive home with them from this activity to share with their loved ones. I hope that when they return to my class, they’ll remember something positive about the experience. What I’m taking away from it is the very gratifying feeling that we had, together, two days of safe, vulnerable sharing and fun. I’m thankful for that.

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A student reacts to seeing what others wrote on his poster.

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Here’s the poster for that student.

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I didn’t intend to sit for them, but they insisted. I was moved by what they wrote.

Reflections, arguments

1476291524599All of my students (8th-12th grades) have been working on argumentation this semester. Many of them hate it. I do Articles of the Week (thanks, Kelly Gallagher), and the first seven AoW’s this semester required students to write an argument-based response (“just” one page). On the 8th AoW I changed the focus of their response to a reflection. A favorite student wrote, under the “FOCUS: Reflection” tag on the printed article (which they must annotate), “FINALLY!!!!!!!!!”

Today, though, a dreary November Monday, Halloween, actually, I decided to do something different for the AoW (I assign them on a Monday and they’re due the following Thursday; they have most of the class period on Monday to read, annotate, and write a response, but if they don’t finish it’s homework – about half of the students finish during class time on Monday; while they’re working on the AoW I have short, quiet 1-on-1 writing conferences with many of the students). Instead of giving them another news article, I had them write two detailed paragraphs: one was to focus on their two most memorable AoW’s so far, and the other was to describe what, if anything, they’ve learned from writing their responses to the AoW’s.

I had no idea what to expect. Here are some excerpts from 8th-, 9th-, and 10th-graders:

I like the way we’ve been writing this semester because we’ve wrote a lot of arguments which I honestly don’t really like but they’re helpful for writing skills. The arguments give us a chance to see the way certain things are in a different perspective that lets us explain our thoughts and learn while explaining our thoughts. The subjects in each argument were different they went from what others believe to political situations to what the class thought about one subject, so it was a good thing to learn so far this year.

I have learned some new things about writing. For example I learned that I need to put a topic sentence for the first sentence in every paragraph to show what the paragraph is about. I also learned where I should put commas, semicolon and, periods. But I still very strongly dislike Article of the weeks.

I have definitely learned quite a bit about how to write better, also I would like to thank auto correct so my sentences don’t look like this “I hade has a bads daye allot in the nethr lends for haloween”.

Honestly, I don’t like typing and I think it’s because in seventh grade we were forced into taking that class and the teacher that none of us liked would make us type a certain speed every week which made me fail the dumb class.

You can fix uninformed but you can’t fix ignorant. I feel like my writing is progressing. I enjoy writing about the more controversial subjects because I feel the need to write everything super clear and factual, since people twist words like hell.

Article of the weeks are a good way to practice writing to improve and when have the little meetings it helps us see what we did wrong and can help us improve for the next article. If I hadn’t done article of the weeks I probably wouldn’t be able to write a strong argument or a good reflection. I think that I can now write these pretty good because I have practiced many times with the article of the weeks.

I remember the Colin Kaepernick article really well. I enjoyed that one. I think a lot of people will talk about that article because it so easily sparked passion in people. Almost everyone in the class had a strong opinion on Colin Kaepernick. The debate in class also helped. We should have more of those. I don’t like being forced to write and I didn’t feel forced writing that. It was something I enjoyed doing.

I think the article of the weeks definitely has helped me voice my opinion better in my writing and real life. The arguments taught me how to argue while always respecting the other’s opinion.

At this point in the semester I think my writing can still use some work. Especially my counter-arguments. They are always just like a little awkward paragraph that makes sense but not to all people. I could really work on how to write them better.

I have learned a lot by doing Article of the Weeks. For example I have learned to be more careful when I write by proof-reading and writing slower so I get all of the words that I want to say on the paper. I have a tendency to not put in the little words that are necessary to have a sentence make sense.

I think there are a lot of ways writing articles of the week have improved my writing. One being that I am able to look up different information siding with both sides of an argument. It helps when you start writing arguments and you need to show evidence as well. Also when we do claims, and warrants. All of these help me become a better writer.

Other articles that help me are reflections. I get to reflect what the article was about. It lets me remember what happened in the article and I get to explain what I think about it. Also we get a better picture of what is happening around the world and we’re in English.

I have to say I was surprised by the depth of some of the reflections. I was more surprised by the fact that several of the students seemed genuinely to value argument writing and understand its purpose. In the four years I’ve been doing the AoW, this was the first time I ever had students reflect on the process. I will definitely do this again. The meta-cognitive value, having students begin to name elements of their writing process, to have them point out what they think they do well and what they believe they can improve on, seems like time well spent. Plus, it’s just fun to read their thoughts.

Culture of Argument

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In this election year, the title of this post might warn you off reading it. But no: it’s actually a good thing, and students at my school are learning that “argument” means better things than mainstream culture, and some politicians, would appear to believe.

As part of the National Writing Project’s College-Ready Writers Program (CRWP), I’m expanding my quest to get my students to see “argument” as “informed civil discourse.” I’ve been doing this for a while, but in not nearly as organized and smart a way as the CRWP initiative I’m grateful to be a part of. As a new teacher just four years ago, I happened on Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide and took the “article of the week” idea from his book, which has allowed me to implement weekly argument writing for all grades (I’m the sole English teacher here for 8th-12th grade). The CRWP project is much more fully developed, and will increase the skill level and sophistication of my students’ academic writing. I’m very excited, although a bit daunted, to be involved in this project. Stay tuned for more…