It was not a list of pop songs, of folk songs, or even country songs.
The list included “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver, “Inspired” by Miley Cyrus, “The Sound of Sunshine” by Michael Franti & Spearhead, “Dragonfly” by Ziggy Marley, and 19 other songs spanning various decades and genres.
So when University High School senior Rebecca Elliott presented the list of 23 songs to her classmates in Literature & The Environment, an advanced English course offered this spring, she knew that something in there – some lyric, some melody, some feeling – would resonate with each student.
Senior Clare Little picked up on the Woody Guthrie-esque sound of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Senior Sydney Schacht added that the line “put away the DDT” made her think of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which the class had read earlier in the semester. Greta Karwath, another senior, connected more with “Alaska” by Maggie Rogers; it reminded her of her recent January Term experience, heading out by train to explore parts of the country she’d never seen before. “Dragonfly” by Ziggy Marley is what resonated with senior Reggie Mables; he found it interesting to see mankind’s treatment of the environment through the eyes of animals.
After the discussion of which song resonated with each student and why, Elliott charged her peers with one more assignment: look through your own playlists, she said, and pick a song (or two) that evokes a memory, good or bad, of the outdoors. Reflect on that memory, and then write about it.
Elliott led her peers through this activity and discussion with the ease of a somewhat seasoned classroom teacher because, in part, she was. This semester, Elliott both enrolled in and co-taught the Literature & The Environment course with English instructor Wes Priest. While this is an unusual role for a high school student to take, it was a seemingly natural step for Elliott, a lifelong lover of the outdoors who found her entry point into English through environmental writings.
Elliott’s “Amazing” Realization
“I was diagnosed with Dyslexia when I was in second grade, and I never really enjoyed English because it was hard for me to grasp,” said Elliott. “When I took the National Parks January Term course [with Priest] in my sophomore year, we read some John Muir and Sigurd Olson and other outdoor writings. I’d read them before and thought they were nice, but once I read them in a classroom setting, I was like ‘This is amazing! We’re having class discussions about the outdoors and things that I identify with.’ It was this amazing realization to discover that I could actually enjoy English.”
Priest recognized that the J-Term experience sparked something in Elliott, and the two started having regular conversations about environmental books and readers she could get. He even gave her some Gary Snyder poems.
“Wes offhandedly made this comment one day in my sophomore year: ‘You know, we should teach a class together about outdoor literature,’” said Elliott. “Then, one day the following year, he brought it up again. He said, ‘So when’s this class going to happen?’ I was like, ‘Whoa, wait. You were serious?’”
He was. Priest and Elliott proposed Literature & The Environment as an upperclassman English course for the 2017-18 school year, and the course ran this spring with 15 students plus Elliott.
The Gold Award Connection
The idea took shape at just the right time for Elliott. A lifelong Girl Scout, Elliott was just beginning to think about her Gold Award project, but she was struggling to come up with something that met the dual requirements of being global and local and that matched her interests.
“I was really struggling to find my Gold Award project, and my mom said, ‘Let’s not think about it for a week, and it’ll come to you,’” said Elliott. “One day, we were in the car and I was telling her about this class Wes and I were thinking about teaching. She said, ‘Could that be your Gold Award?’ I said, ‘I don’t know; could it?’ And it ended up happening.”
Elliott named her Gold Award project “Get Lost,” inspired by the idea that just as one can get lost in nature, one can also get lost in good literature. She focused on the idea that people can connect to the outdoors through literature, and the work she did for this class reflected that belief.
The teaching arrangement was as follows: Priest taught the 1st period course for all single blocks (Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays generally). He handled the heavy academic work, walking students through dense texts like Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and its “The Land Ethic” essay, teaching rhetorical strategies used by the authors, and guiding students through a handful of polished writing pieces over the course of the semester. The 90-minute double blocks (often on Tuesdays) were Elliott’s responsibility.
Expertise in Action
It was important to Elliott and Priest that a course with the environment as a central theme also put students face-to-face with their own environments. For that, they often went outside. For the first double period, in the dead of winter, Elliott led her classmates on a silent nature walk.
“My main objective for these doubles was to give students a taste of the outdoors,” said Elliott. “For the first double, we went on a silent walk around campus. My group was on the back side of Mt. University, walking down, when I looked up and saw a coyote. I pointed it out, and everyone got to see it. We saw so much that day.”
Over the course of the semester, Elliott taught lessons on everything from wayfinding to building fires, from building bluebird houses to tapping maple trees. The culminating experience was a class campout. What’s surprised Elliott most about the experience has been her classmates’ willingness to dive in and try.
“The way that everyone in the class is diving into it has been amazing,” said Elliott. “They’re not like, “Oh, it’s just Becca being her weird self and geeking out about nature.’ They’re really thinking about what I’m saying. They’re really thinking about what we’re reading. They’re taking it seriously, which I’m really excited about.”
The outdoor, hands-on activities have been a highlight of the class, to be sure, but they have not detracted from the more academic and reflective work that both Priest and Elliott value. Elliott has made sure some of her double blocks have included more reflective activities, like the one they did with the song list. In part, this is because Elliott’s love and appreciation for the outdoors has come from her own reflection, so she sees great value in that.
“A huge part of spending time outside is reflecting on how you felt, what you saw, the emotion that it brought up in you,” said Elliott. “I sometimes am brought to tears by pictures because they’re so beautiful, or I will see a mountain and just have a meltdown because it’s so beautiful. I personally need to reflect on that experience because if I just say, ‘Okay, it’s a mountain. Cool.’ and then move on with my life, I get nothing from it.”
Elliott officially earned her Gold Award this spring, and it was presented to her at University High School by former Girl Scouts of Central Indiana CEO Deborah Hearn Smith on May 23, 2018. Elliott’s “Get Lost” project was so impressive that her council nominated her for the National Young Women of Distinction Award. Recipients of this award will be announced in July.