Reading the landscape

On September 6th, 2018, Seeds of Stewardships first expedition of the fall semester began. 5 students from City High School embarked on an adventure into the Santa Catalina Mountains. Unlike other SOS groups, our partnership works to specifically build greater literacy skills through reading and being read to. Our partnership is designed to bring the students into beautiful Sonoran Desert landscapes and explore, learn, then read. Our goal is to educate and offer outdoor experience to these students while harboring a low-pressure atmosphere to engage with literature in a way these students had not. It was an idea that I was anxious to see the results of; making students read is never an easy task.

When deciding how to engage these students, I thought about my teen years and what helped me gain an attachment to reading. My mother or grandmother would take me to a bookstore and send me off to wander, explore, read and return with I book I wanted to take home; I thought the same might work for these students. Before our expedition, we made a trip to Bookman’s bookstore where the youth were set free.

Only a handful of days later, we were driving up the spectacular Catalina Highway on our way to Sunset Trail Head. On this trip, we wanted to rise above the heat and explore the cool mixed coniferous forests of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The students were impressed with the abundance of wildflowers and the variety of plants that congregated near the running creek. Together we discussed ethical harvesting practices, then set out to create small bouquets by carefully collecting each variety of flower and stalk. This practice allows students to gain a deeper relationship to the flora by giving them hands-on experience collecting them. It also brings wonderful smiles to the students faces, and when combined with learning, nothing is quite as good.

After 45 minutes of hiking, we reached a rocky area that stood over a series of small waterfalls. Here the flora was abundant and diverse, sheltered under a high pine canopy. The birds matched this abundance and variety, and their songs carried our far. This backdrop of natural noise and light offered the perfect reading environment, and because of this, I asked the group to separate and find their own place to sit and read. I was nervous to see the result of this task, but to my surprise, the students responded incredibly well. The kids went out and seemed deep into their books for nearly 45 minutes. This length of time is even difficult for adults, let alone students who struggle with reading.

After an hour it was time to collect and begin the hike back, so before leaving we circled up to debrief on the day. The group reported this was easier than reading in the classroom, and that they enjoyed the process. It seems that using the outdoors as a vehicle to engage reading was successful. Every student shared the belief that they would not have been engaged like this while in the classroom. By bringing the kids outside where there is an abundance of natural distraction, their minds are stimulated without unnatural consequences. When they are distracted, it is not followed by behavior that is deemed as “bad” or “disruptive”, but instead it is through beneficial observations through major sensory receptive organs that facilitate conscious and unconscious learning. It invokes imagination and thoughtfulness in an organic matter, in a way students might not receive it if they were in a classroom. It was the first expedition and we have plenty more to go, but if the next is anything like the first, we will be in great shape. It couldn’t have happened without this amazing group from City High.