Letter from a Teaching Artist #2

The second in a series on the intersection of landscape and identity in an American classroom.

On a chilly October morning, forty Owen High School Students stand next to Swannanoa Creek, half of them dressed in waterproof waders, the other half equipped with notebooks, pencils, and macroinvertebrate identification charts. We’re here to perform a Pollution Tolerance Index (PTI) on the creek, an experience we’ll write about later on a blog we’ve started about the landscape, culture, and environment of Black Mountain. For now, no one is taking notes. They’re fidgeting and teasing each other over the way the waders look (“like Care Bears,” says one girl), and I can tell the RiverLink volunteers, who are leading this part of the field trip, aren’t sure they’ve heard the instructions.

But as soon as students wade into the stream bed, everything changes. They become focused on their task, working in teams to collect Dobson fly larvae and gilled snails and crayfish. Students most resistant to classroom participation are eager here. Out of the water, they’re diligent about matching what they see to the illustrations and descriptions on their PTI charts, and excited (some of them a little incredulous) as they determine that the river is healthy.

Later in the day, we visit a Cherokee archaeological site at Warren Wilson College and take a hike along the Swannanoa River. On the bus back to school, I ask a few students about how they found the coldest part of the river (best for scouting sensitive macroinvertebrates) and about the effects of erosion and construction on water quality, and their answers are solid and confident. Their writing about the day, from poetry inspired by the talk at the dig site to observations about the river hike, is detailed and specific. Their teachers praise their behavior, their engagement with tasks, their smart questions.

Recording the trip for the blog, ninth grader Dalton writes:

We could tell the river was full of life because we found so many macroinvertebrates: we found crawdads, water pennies, insects, larvae, and even some worms. They were all very cool, especially the crawdads with their huge claws…..

I watched the fall colorful leaves as they casually floated down onto the water. I looked over at the bank that was covered with flowers. I also stopped to look at a tree that was covered with leaves as it dangled its branches into the creek as if it were fishing. I could see on the clear water, the bright white glare of the sun. I looked up at the branches of the oaks and sycamores as they were getting twirled around by the fall breeze. I looked up at the songbirds as they flew through the sunlight.

Hundreds of miles away, students in Saxapahaw, North Carolina; Brooklyn, New York; and Westport, Connecticut, take walks and river hikes and report back to the blog, and I’m struck, too, by the specificity, urgency, and voice that is evident in their work.

Kayla, a student from Brooklyn, publishes a prose poem inspired, in part, by her class’s trip to Saratoga Park:

I am the bike rides along the walkway. I am the tall trees that allow squirrels to climb my bark. I am the still bench that is hard as a rock and cold as ice. I am the other few students who observe the park. I am the playground that smells like cheesy kids. I am the grass that never grows more than three feet. I am the dirt that is kicked along the side. I am the trash on the floor that desperately waits to be thrown in the trash can. I am New York.

I am the last few minutes on the swings that dive into the sky.

Next time I’ll tell you about what happens when students write for and interact with an audience of geographically distant peers. In the meantime, click here to find additional posts inspired by the environments in Black Mountain, Saxapahaw, Westport, and Brooklyn. And feel free to leave a comment or a question!

Belle Boggs is the author of the story collection Mattaponi Queen. She lives and teaches in North Carolina. Her essay “The Art of Waiting” was published in the March/April 2012 issue of Orion.


  1. Interesting project, nice to see that there’s a wide geographic scope that connects the kids.

    The poem above is good. Really good. And this made me laugh out loud, too: “I am the playground that smells like cheesy kids.”

    Thanks, Kayla.

  2. I took a class like this in rural New Hampshire in 11th grade, and it did a lot to shape how I saw science. So glad to hear more teenagers are getting these kinds of experiences outdoors.

  3. I’m so glad you’re helping your students fall in love with western North Carolina, a landscape that needs the love of all its inhabitants. Good work!

  4. Thank you for your comments and thanks for the recommendation, Daniel! Ms. Ray, a big inspiration for this project (and one of our readings) is your incredible _Ecology of a Cracker Childhood_.

  5. Belle,
    Thank you for being there in Black Mountain and sharing your time with the high school students. As a former resident of that beautiful mountain town, I am happy to hear about the students experiencing their amazing landscape! Wish I was with you all! Also glad you are reading Janisse’ s book!

  6. What a fine project with solid, embedded environmental reporting. I too loved the cheesy kids line. And Joe Hollis’ world at Mountain Gardens in Yancey County would blow their minds and open up many possibilities. Let me know when you’re coming so I can come and be inspired by these kids.

  7. The kids definitely miss you–I know I do! And I’ve not been able to get computers for them to check the site all this week.

    We have gone on to doing research about water issues. They will be researching and creating a power point/movie about their topic.

    I hope to get them online to check their sites and respond to my comments that were all made last weekend. Let me know if you want them to do another post.

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