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.

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