This is the 3rd in a series about our partnership with the Chula Vista Nature Center at Gunpowder Point. These posts will document our progress as we move our middle school science program off campus– to a satellite classroom called the San Diego Bay!
On Tuesday we launched seven of our 8th grade girls into the bay. The Nature Center is an extraordinary lab for studying the the marshes and reservoirs and natural bayfront ecosystems, but nothing compares to being in the water itself. Splashing through the mud-decked channels in the shadows of the powerplant. Battling the currents. Reading the tide. Checking the waterproof bird guide against strange-beaked egrets and massive herons.
So that’s where we went.
Harry owns Chula Vista Kayaks and he is our partner in our effort to get all of our middle school students out on the water at least once every quarter. Just about anybody can paddle a kayak. They are stable and low to the tide. You get wet. You feel the water. You smell the exposed shells baking even on cloud-covered mornings like this.
So we launched from the boat ramp: Harry, seven students, Conchita (our office manager) and me. Into the calm marina, out past the last moored pleasure boats, a hard left around the jetty, and into the open bay. The day before we had taken seven of the boys so we anticipated a :30 minute paddle across the water to reach the isolated channels on the other side.
Sometimes when you are teaching kids you can anticipate stuff like that. But then there are those lessons you could never have anticipated. There are those lessons that end up being far more instructive to the teacher than they could ever be for students. Like on this morning. On San Diego Bay. With seven middle school girls in kayaks.
The first four students got the hang of paddling instantly and powered across the water with Harry and Conchita. Vanessa had started off with the others, but rapidly ran out of gas and fell off the pace. The last two struggled to paddle at all, and the tide immediately pushed them sideways closer and closer to the rocks of the jetty. They had no technique. No basic skills.
As an intermediate level kayaker, I could model the technique for them. And so I did. But they still pushed close to the rocks. So I tried to explain the technique– but now their kayaks were relentlessly pressing against the jetty edge. Then I tried to encourage them… but my voice was muffled by the momentary panic, the surging water, the steady roar, the helpless on-lookers.
But in the end, this is a bay– not some 10-foot crashing surfline along the ocean cliffs– so eventually the girls were able to turn their kayaks into the current and push away. They were finally free of the jetty and into the open water. So we were back on course, some 800 yards behind the others. I offered to turn back with the girls to the calm marina and just wait for the others to return. But they wanted to go on. For the next ten minutes I watched them splash and flail and try everything they could to get some traction. Finally, the light bulb clicked on. Maybe they were tired of being so far behind. Maybe they felt a sudden urgency to catch up with the others. Maybe they didn’t want to get left out there on San Diego Bay all day. Maybe it was just a developmental thing– they just needed to practice and fail and adjust and fail some more. But they didn’t quit. And just when it looked like we might spend the rest of the academic year out there trying to move in one direction or another, two middle school girls somehow turned into kayakers and found the rhythm to power across the water and catch the others just as they entered the channel.
The return trip was very different. There were now six girls in the pack with Harry and Conchita, paddling like scupper pros and confidently dangling their feet in the water. They were enjoying the bay and the birds and the amazing realization that this was actually a school day and they were in their science class!
Six girls. The seventh was Vanessa, exhausted from using muscle groups she never knew she had. So I tied her kayak to mine and together we paddled in.
And that is the story. And when I shared it with our teachers yesterday they could clearly see the metaphor:
“Students learn and develop in different ways…”
“We have to hang in their with our struggling students and look for different ways to teach them…”
“We can’t give up on students who might be way behind…”
“Once the light bulb goes off they may accelerate to the head of the pack…”
“We can’t leave a single child crashing against the rocks. Failure really is NOT a option…”
“Sometimes when kids are exhausted from the long, inspired fight against the tide, you just have to lash their boat to yours and tow them until they get their second wind.”
At El Milagro we are going to help 90% of our students become proficient this year. We learned from the jetty and the bay and the surging tide, that that is not possible unless we commit to every child, we monitor their growth, we make adjustments, we treat them according to their place in the journey. We will push and tow them. We will teach them to steer.
Sometimes you set out to teach a lesson about egrets and come back to the marina having learned to navigate on the open water.