Science and self-reliance, outdoors

03/29/2012

Eighteen-year-old Charity Befford lives in the projects of San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood. The monthly groceries her single mom buys with traded food stamps, she says, often don’t go far enough to last the two of them and the several half-brothers who frequently visit. Befford doesn’t much like school and isn’t doing well academically, although she’s still determined to graduate this year so she can go on to college and move closer to her goal of becoming a nurse.

“I feel like school really ain’t for me,” she said. “I just go to school ’cause I see these little jobs everybody got ain’t getting nobody nowhere, so it’s like you need your AA to really make more than the person who got their high school diploma.”    

But last Friday morning, as she hiked to Limantour Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore, the sociable, hip-hop loving teenager had more immediate concerns. Like getting mud on her snow-white sneakers. “Aaaaahhhh! My sock just got wet!” she wailed while trudging through a particularly icky section of the two-mile Laguna trail. “My whole sock is wet! Look at my poor little Converse!”

Befford and 13 of her classmates from San Francisco’s Leadership High School were trekking to the beach as part of the school’s Week Without Walls program, which replaces a week of normal classes with five days of outdoor learning. Of the charter school’s roughly 300 students, the majority are African American or Latino and will be among the first in their families to attend college. About 85 percent participate in the state’s free and reduced price lunch program. 

The group was led by Leadership High math teacher Dan Goldfield. Teacher, students, and one chaperone, local resident Collen Gibney, stayed four nights in dorm rooms in a cabin at the Point Reyes Hostel. The day before the hike to Limantour Beach the group toured Nicasio Valley Cheese Company; the day after they were planning to visit Marin Sun Farms and the Mendoza Ranch.

Goldfield, who holds a master’s degree in math and worked nearly 15 years in Silicon Valley as a director of information technology before switching to a career in education several years ago, designed the program around three main themes: learning about math and science through nature; better understanding where food comes from; and developing a sense of personal responsibility.

“I’m not all that and a bag of chips,” he said. “I know some math. I know some nature. I know some stuff about this area. But getting them out away from their comfort zone really forces them to come to terms with who they are. And oh, by the way, if we can learn a little math and science along the way—they’re asking hundreds more questions than they would in class.”   

Questions about stars and galaxies. Questions about food production and what goes into the cheese or milk they eat. Questions about practical applications of chemistry or how to use math to estimate real-life distances. Questions that, particularly for economically disadvantaged kids who have spent most of their lives within the urban confines of San Francisco, don’t usually have an opportunity to be asked. Of the 14 students on the trip, many had never been camping before, and almost all were unaccustomed to spending an extended period of time away from city conveniences like corner stores and streetlights.

“I’ve never experienced this. I’ve never been camping,” said a junior named Dither who sported low pants and a brown fuzz goatee. “It’s not a challenge because I knew I could do it—but it’s like something I really want to keep doing. It’s fun. Plus we’re learning things—like last night we all stayed up a little longer before we slept: we all had a talk, a big conversation about different things, and I learned more after doing everything yesterday than most of the things I usually do in school, like if I just sit down and listen to the teacher.” 

As new and foreign as the Point Reyes area was for the students, for their teacher it was as familiar as a childhood friend: Goldfield grew up near the seashore and attended local schools, the teachers of which he credits for instilling in him a sense of fascination and integration with the natural world.

“I grew up in this area, and going to school out here, trips like this were regular,” he recalled. “Every month we were going somewhere—we were going out to farms, we were going to the tide pools. And it was thematic education, and the idea was: ‘Well, if you want to learn how the world works you can do some of that in the classroom, but some of that you’ve got to touch it, feel it.”

Leadership High’s program, which allots required credits for the out-of-school curricula planned by teachers, is rare. Even more rare is the kind of extended, overnight program like the one Goldfield orchestrated. Because of budget woes and anxiety stemming from liability concerns, he said, it’s extremely difficult nowadays to undertake trips that require driving or taking kids overnight. As many as 100 students at the school expressed interest in taking part in the Point Reyes trip, he said, but he had a hard enough time finding just one additional chaperone so that the 14 could come.

“Everyone’s so afraid, and unfortunately people look at city youth and say, ‘Oh yeah, Title 1 school, you’ve got to be careful with them,’” he said. “You get to know them and they’re fine. For some of them it’s the first time actually being with their peers for more than just an eight-hour stretch, so there are some issues there, but you know, they’re working it out. They’re being mature. They have their little conflicts but we work it out. And I just feel grateful that our school allows us to do this opportunity.”   

So do the kids.

As the students arrived at a windswept, empty Limantour Beach—in increments of two or three, often chatting with a uniquely teenage zealousness and volume—they removed their shoes and set down the backpacks of supplies and logs they had been carrying. They were unanimously happy and good-natured, despite prior protestations about embarking on another hike (“We’re walking again?) or having to carry with them the day’s supplies—even toilet paper—because of a lack of facilities. Some made their way into the rolling surf, shrieking at first contact between ankles and cold ocean; others lay contentedly in the open sand, drifting away to the sound of lapping waves—or maybe to the familiar beats of the hip hop and top 40 songs pulsing through their headphones.

Either way, they didn’t have too much time to get comfortable. Goldfield—the name by which most of the students affectionately address their admittedly not-very-strict teacher—gathered the group on the beach for the second lesson of the day: using geometry to estimate how far it’s possible to see outwards while standing on the beach.

“So, last night when we were looking up at the stars, what were some of the stars we were looking at?” he began, raising his voice to be heard above the blustering wind and the rhythmic crashing of the waves not 30 feet behind. “Betelguese, Alpha Centauri, how far away were those things?”

They were, in fact, about a quadrillion miles away, he reminded the students.

“When we look at the night, we can see things that are really, really far away right? So right now if you look out here you see a boat on the left, and on the right you see a little hump out there? So that’s the volcano on Hawaii,” he said, goading the kids to pique their interest. Some students exclaimed in amazement; others were loudly skeptical.

Then the teacher, barefoot and enthusiastic, drew a diagram in the sand with his toes. He began explaining how the curvature of the earth limits the distance we can see. He used his finger to draw a line segment in the sand between the symbolic beach gazer’s eyes and the point on the circle, representing the spherical earth, where it intersects. The intersection point represented the visible horizon. “Our vision kind of makes a straight line,” he said, “but when we measure distance we’re actually measuring what?”

Considering that the radius of the earth is about 3,960 miles, eventually Goldfield and the students determined that the relevant arc length—the visible distance for someone standing on the beach—is only about three miles away, nowhere near Hawaii. At the end of the calculations he prodded the students to think about relevant practical applications: it wasn’t long before one boy came up with the idea of how cell phone signals must be affected by the earth’s curvature. “Because it has to revolve around the world to get to where it needs to be,” he said, “‘cause it can’t just go straight, it has to go around.”

After the lesson was a bit of free time. Some kids walked slowly along the beach; others combed the sand for loose wood in preparation for the campfire (to cook sausages and roast marshmallows, of course). One young man, DJ Peoples, fought the chilly wind by wrapping himself in a blanket as he sprawled across the sand, his flat-brimmed hat slung low over his eyes, rapper style. Peoples is interested in possibly becoming a chemist or psychologist. When he speaks, he quickly reveals himself to be impressively articulate and thoughtful.

“I felt it was a good thing to get away from the school and the busy hustle of the city, to see what nature has to offer,” he said of his decision to come on the trip. “I mean it’s cold, but once you get used to the cold it’s actually very peaceful. So far I’ve been enjoying it—just that you can just walk down and have peace and quiet, you don’t have to worry about cars driving by or have to worry about getting home at a certain time. Of course you have to worry about animals, but that’s about it.”

Over the course of the five days, the meals the group ate were all planned and prepared by students, a lesson in both responsibility and, Goldfield said, appreciation for the work usually done by parents. Minutes after enjoying the fire-cooked sausages, two girls, Kyara and Princess, explained every detail of what the group would eat the following day: French toast, bacon, eggs, sausages and orange juice for breakfast; turkey club sandwiches and fruit salad for lunch; spaghetti with meatballs and Caesar salad for dinner. Both said they enjoy cooking and were excited about preparing meals for such a large group; yet by also visiting places like a cheese factory and dairy they were cognizant, they said, of developing a deeper awareness of the food process—as in what happens long before cooking and eating. 

“I’m the one consuming it—it’s going into my body,” Princess said. “So I’ve got to know if it’s good for me. And if it’s not, I don’t want to eat something that’s not going to benefit me, because I’m just wasting my money.”

During the lessons at Limantour—after the horizon estimation, the students counted the number of grains of sand on the beach by beginning with a small plot and then using exponents to estimate increasingly larger areas until the whole beach was covered—some students were completely engrossed, others wandered off or talked among themselves. Goldfield said he was aware of the inherent challenges of conducting lessons in such an atypical setting—the attention problems invited by a more laid-back approach, the cumulative effect of many nights with little sleep, the disparity in math levels among the kids—but he was also aware of the uniqueness of the experience, the bonds built by spending time with peers, the life skills the kids will hopefully take back into their own community. 

“They’ll be able to walk away and say, ‘You know what? I counted the sands on the beach once,’” he said. “There are certain numbers they’ll remember. They’ll remember that Betelguese is 34 light years away. So there’s some stuff that they’ll hold.

“If you look back at what you did in high school, do you remember most those lessons on the chalkboard? Do you remember that one movie or that one speech that your teacher made? Or do you remember the experiences you had?”