The trip was the focal point of months of study that began with research projects in the classroom on topics ranging from the island fox and global fisheries, to marine kelp forests and plastics in our ocean. This interactive unit culminated this fall with a visit from author TC Boyle, whose latest novel When the Killing’s Done was set in the Channel Islands National Park. The students read Boyle’s novel in English class. Central to the novel is the debate between the animal rights activists and the ecologists, whose opposing arguments encompass the controversy over an invasive species that thrives on the Channel Islands.
Though the students are too young to remember this hot-button ecological topic from local news headlines several years ago, they were able to visit many of the literary, political and ecological locations which they had studied in their classes, and had read about in TC Boyle’s novel during their recent expedition to the islands.
On the first morning of the trip, students awoke half way across the channel on board the Conception, a locally owned and operated dive boat. Eating breakfast upstairs in the galley, students watched a large pod of pinnipeds also enjoying their breakfast at sea. Later that day, the seafaring students dropped anchor in Cuyler’s Harbor near San Miguel Island, and it wasn’t long before the deserted beach was filled with curious students and teachers. Hiking along the hillside, they passed many of the endemic plant species the students had recently studied in class. At the top of the hill they sat next to the Cabrillo’s monument and discussed the convergence of the old world and new world politics, and how this pivotal moment in history shaped our culture.
The research and discovery continued when students donned snorkels, masks and fins and dove into the kelp forests off Santa Rosa Island. Marine biologists and award-winning underwater filmmaker Mike deGruy, led snorkeling students through the world-class diving forests. The next day, Head of School Brian McWilliams, led a kayaking exploration of the sea caves of Santa Cruz Island, which included a brief descent into the depths of one of the world’s largest sea caves in the world.
Once the students returned to dry land their experiences continued to inform their studies and influence their work in the classroom. Award winning local author TC Boyle visited the SBMS campus and discussed his novel with the ninth grade last week.
Boyle began his visit by reading “Back in the Eocene,” one of his short stories, and explained his process of story writing, from idea to paper.
Boyle took questions from the students who asked him about his own views on the Channel Island debate and about his writing in general. When asked about the endemic species controversy surrounding the Channel Islands, he said, “I would like to come down on the side of ‘Let everything thrive,’ but then scientists will tell us we’ll have a very homogenous world.”
Student Frances deGruy asked him how he felt about having his books read and used as discussion and as writing prompts in middle school English and Science classes.
“I love the idea of being in the cannon,” he said. “I’m so honored. But it scares me a little, the essay part, because I write for entertainment. I don’t like the idea of people reading Tortilla Curtain or When the Killings Done, under pain of death,” Boyle said, referring to the interpretive essay the students wrote after reading his novel.
In 1988, Boyle won the PEN/Faulkner award for his third novel, World’s End, but has never rested on his laurels. In fact, Boyle told students that he writes an average of one book per year. He writes half of a book of short stories, a new novel, and then completes the other half of the book of short stories. According to Boyle, his prolific writing habits prevent him from running out of ideas for his stories.
As Boyle took in the warm morning light streaming through the classroom window, he added, “Normally at this point in the morning, I’m dressed in rags, shivering, and typing.”
Student Lia Millar asked the author for a list of book recommendations for ninth grade students, and he suggested Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, which he called “the funniest book ever written.”
The answer that got the loudest laugh was in response to a question from student Dylan Carmody. Carmody asked, “You have said that life ‘is tragic and absurd and none of it has any purpose at all.’ If you believe that, what gets you up in the morning and what drives you to keep writing books?” Without missing a beat, Boyle responded, “Hatred of my enemies and the wish to destroy them.”
Santa Barbara Middle School students are not soon to forget the relevance of their hands-on experience in the Channel Islands National Park, nor TC Boyle’s novel and discussion. Real learning in authentic settings with real people is what sticks in the minds of middle school students. The lessons they learned first-hand have allowed them to see the islands, far out on the ocean horizon, as a thriving part of the Santa Barbara landscape.