English teacher Steve Poovey reflects on an 8th-grade project that is a good example of Pacific Ridge’s approach to integrated learning. The project involved English, Service Learning, world languages and a field trip, and resulted in some powerful creative writing by his students.
The genesis of this project was a history colleague who happened to drop by our office to use our printer. I mentioned that my students were reading Of Mice and Men, and he suggested that, as part of our study, we meet migrant workers. I liked the idea.
Andy Wright, Head of the Middle School, heard about my interest and immediately put me in touch with Joaquin Blas, Operations Supervisor at La Posada de Guadalupe, a migrant and homeless shelter not far from school. Sr. Blas, having worked with Pacific Ridge in the context of Service Learning, was very accommodating. He invited us to visit the shelter for a tour and discussion of its services. Mr. Wright and Mr. Jones volunteered to chaperone.
In advance of our visit, students wrote brief notes to the migrant workers, which Sr. Burman’s AP Spanish students translated for us. I also asked that students bring a bottle of sunscreen to donate to the workers, as that need came up in my conversation with Sr. Blas.
In October, our 8th-graders spent a morning at the shelter, learning more about the worker’s lives and getting a feel for the world reflected in Steinbeck’s novel. We had been reviewing Of Mice and Men line by line, and I asked my students to make careful, detailed observations at the shelter - the kinds of observations Steinbeck so successfully wove into his narrative - for an upcoming creative writing assignment.
It’s hard for me to imagine another independent school like ours where a project like this could materialize the way it did. To me, the field trip illustrates the interdisciplinary cooperation this school fosters and actualizes, uniquely. As a result, students have made direct connections with migrant workers, walked in their shoes, at least somewhat, and have used the visit to write creative descriptions of La Posada in Steinbeck’s narrative style. Here are a few examples of their work, written by Jackson and Tori, two students in my class:
“Leather jackets and cowboy hats worn from season to season lie neatly up on a single hanger just beside the top right bunk. Their faded pillows and blown out shoes remind them of the long, debilitating, and arduous hours in the fields. The money earned [is] carefully stored, each dollar being savored and carefully planned to find its way into the hands of a loved one. A silver plated wrist watch hidden in between the covers and the pillows seems to slow down time every second.”
“Under one of the beds were cleaning supplies stuffed into dirty, worn down boots. The trash bins were littered with cigarettes and crushed resumes. A sweat stained baseball cap was neatly placed on a bed with blue blankets. In a fold up chair, there was a rusted nail clipper, no longer in use because the men's work naturally filed their nails to stubs."
From this exercise, my students learned the importance of careful observation, and that it can drive creative writing. For their assignments, I encourage them to act like scientists, making categorical lists of observations, the more detailed the better. Students took this directive to heart and the excerpts above illustrate how they used these observations to make their writing rich and mature.
They also leaned into the discomfort of connecting with people who may be different from themselves. When drafting notes for the workers, students were rather timid – concerned that their questions might be offensive. We had a productive discussion about this and I encouraged them to be direct. Questions such as “How did you get here?” and “Do you miss your family?”, when coming from a place of genuine curiosity without an intent to judge, are not likely to offend, and are important if you are to truly understand someone’s experience.
As for me, the project was a great introduction to Pacific Ridge and it affirmed my passion for teaching creative writing. Assignments that capture students’ imaginations and inspire them to create are incredibly valuable. Middle schoolers have the energy and willingness to write creatively, and aren’t afraid to take risks. They are primed for this kind of learning experience, and I am pleased this one came together so easily and so well.