City High at Cienega Creek

On October 4th, 2018, 8 students from City High School hiked into Cienega Creek using the Arizona Trail. This was the second expedition of the semester. Our goal was to explore perennial waterways that connect the Sky Islands, and understand just how impactful these creeks can be to the surrounding deserts. As well, this is a literacy class and our partnership has been designed to use the outdoors as a method to engage their reading studies differently.

Starting at Gabe Zimmerman trailhead, we began our hike on the cactus dominated hills which held the trail. Our previous expedition explored the mixed coniferous forests of the Santa Catalina Mountains. These low desert landscape showed students the stark differences in our environments. We were surrounded by abundant ocotillo, agave, yucca, cholla, prickly pear, and many more plants. We spent time discussing some of the adaptive and ecological qualities these plants have. Though the students are familiar with the Sonoran Desert, they did not know how important each plants role was to the desert’s ecosystem.

The trail soon led down into a dry arroyo, and it gave the impression that the promised water was gone. This was a good lesson to show even how the landscape changes when against dry creek beds. When we did make it under the cottonwood canopies, water ran beneath our feet and it appeared we were in a whole new world. We removed our shoes, then circled up to talk about the water’s path and how delicate it is as an aquatic environment. The students were surprised to learn that fish, insects, frogs, and turtles all lived in this creek, not to mention the bear, coatimundi, skunk, and so much more that depend on its presence. With this respect and understanding, we dipped our feet in and slowly started our walk forward.

After some time marching, we found a great place to stop for lunch and read out books. Before this expedition, the students were brought to a book store to select their own books to read. On the creek side, they separated to open their books and read under shade spots of cottonwood trees. For me, this is one of my favorite ways to read, and I was hopeful the students would feel the same. It was quiet for a while, which was a good sign. After some time, we all met back together and shared a bit about what it was that we read and something in the reading that was impactful. The youth seemed to enjoy reading by the creek. It is a great environment for academic learning, because when students feel they need a break from the text, they can look up and get lost in the natural beauty. Either way, they are receiving useful information.

After our wrap up, we began our hike back. The area was wonderful and the students had a difficult time leaving. Our path took us through the dry arroyo, onto the desert hills, and back to the van. It was a very successful day of outdoor learning, covering both natural and literacy studies. The students learned about connective waterways, desert landscapes, and the value of water in the desert. In total, we hiked nearly 8 collective miles of beautiful desert trails. This is how students should learn. This is what education looks like.