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Issue 2, Fall 2008

On Schools of Education, Theodore Sizer
Opening up to Math, Sarah Strong
In Over Our Heads, Stacey Lopaz
African Bushmeat Expedition, Jay Vavra
Learning as Production,
      Critique as Assessment
, Elisabeth Soep
Speeding Race Cars
      & Dying Embers
, Ashley Bull-Carrico
Messy Business: A Student's Perspective
      on Project-Based Learning
, Mollie Davis
The Great Lego Caper, Zoltan Sarda

1: Writing on the Walls
2: San Diego/Tijuana Crossed Gazes
3: Blogging is Writing
4: Public Service Advertising Campaign
5: Science Friction
6: I Am an Artist

HTH GSE » UnBoxed » Issue 2 » nonfiction

HTMMA student after zip-lining in Costa Rica.

In Over Our Heads

I felt our bus come to a screeching halt as I searched frantically for the pause button on my new audio recorder. Its switches and buttons had confounded me for the past thirty minutes, particularly inconvenient because this was my first-ever interview, and I was trying to make a good impression. The tone in our guide’s voice suggested that I should just put the recorder down. However, we had successfully negotiated the narrow, rarely-paved and winding roads of Costa Rica for the past week, traveling at speeds much faster than our large charter bus seemed capable of, so I felt as unfazed as the twenty-five chatty students sitting behind me—until I looked up.

Our driver Emilio seemed once again to have forgotten that we were not, in fact, driving an ATV, and was contemplating our next move. The bridge ahead was broken and, despite the mounds of dirt that the construction workers had piled on top of it, it did not seem like we would be able to cross. I felt disappointed that the students were not going to be able to go zip-lining, but before I could even complete that thought, I saw what Emilio had decided to do. We veered to the right of the bridge and sped toward the river rushing beneath our broken bridge.

At this point the students took notice. As we approached the rushing water, some of them began to yell. I noticed that, for the first time, our tour guides also looked scared. I looked over to Amy, my co-teacher on this trip and a first year teacher at my school, and could tell by the look in her eyes that we were thinking the same thing: were we going to make it? Amy told me to turn on the recorder. She wanted to record a good-bye message to her parents.

Two weeks later, as I sat down to transcribe that interview, I saw the irony in this event. Moments before our river-fording adventure, I had asked Amy to tell me about her first year of teaching. “It began in a whirlwind,” she started. “After the first week, it became apparent to me that the schedule at school is crazy. You go from worrying about your core classes, and putting your heart and soul into those kids, and particularly into the academics and curriculum that happens in your class, and then suddenly it’s the end of the day and you’re exhausted and someone is like, ‘Oh, its time for x-block’ and it feels kind of unfathomable. The first few weeks I felt like, ‘Oh my god. How am I going to push through and be energized and fun and upbeat for these x-block kids when I’m so tired right now?’ It was exhausting. I felt like maybe I was in over my head.”

Asked what she would do differently, Amy continued, “I would be more realistic. Everyone told me that I was trying to cram too much into this year and that it was going to take way longer than I expected and I didn’t believe anyone. I was like, ‘Well, that might have been your experience, but I’ll make it happen,’ and of course they were right.”

I flashed back to the moment that I decided that it would be a good idea to take twenty-five middle school students to Costa Rica, when I also convinced myself that it would be manageable to help these students raise the necessary funds themselves. Particularly, I remembered how many people told me it was not a great idea and how difficult an undertaking it would be. The advice they were giving me was clear. I, however, am not a first year teacher. Having learned the repercussions of “biting off more than I could chew” on many occasions, I should have followed the very advice I have given to many first year teachers about keeping things manageable. Yet through all of the discouraging words, all I could hear was, “There is a chance.” No one had used the word impossible.

So there Amy and I sat on the bus, not sure if we should be more scared about the fact that the road, or in this case water, ahead was uncertain, or excited about the fact that our students might have the amazing experience of zip-lining after all. We were in the water before we knew it. The front two wheels entered first, followed by a lurch, and then all four wheels were submerged. Soon the bus was halfway across the river, moving at a good speed. We all gave a sigh of relief. But our optimism vanished when the bus jolted to a complete stop. It sounded like there was water in the engine.

Emilio attempted to restart the bus while we all sat holding our breaths. He tried once, but with no success. With the sound of the rushing water in the background, he made a second and a third attempt. Nothing. Finally, as we settled back into our seats and turned our attention to our predicament, we heard the engine turn. A sudden roar came from the back of the bus in support of our fearless and, yet again, successful bus driver. We did it! Somehow Emilio safely crossed twenty-five students, two scared teachers, and one giant charter bus from one side of a river to the other, without the use of a bridge.

With one large hurdle down, we now had to convince some of our more timid and height-fearing students that it would be fun to harness their bodies to a half-mile long cable wire that would zip them over a massive canyon at 65 mph. However, with the last experience under our belts, we were ready! Amy and I watched as so many of our students overcame their fears, and smiled secretly to each other realizing that we had done so as well.

As I think back to the interview on that bus, and the number of times Amy used the word “overwhelmed,” I am reminded of all the times I thought there was no way we would ever raise enough money for all of those kids to go to Costa Rica. I was interviewing Amy as part of an action research project to support new teachers, but here I realized that even for veteran teachers, sometimes the fear of the unknown makes “crossing the river” seem impossible. This is a feeling that new and veteran teachers share. But it is in taking those risks, in having faith in the outcome, that we experience our greatest successes. Looking back, I think that perhaps Amy and I were in over our heads. But then I remember the giant smiles plastered across our students’ faces as they finished their last zip line, and I wonder if we would have had it any other way.