Name: Becca Rolon
Years of teaching experience: 1
Class(es): 7th grade life science, 8th grade earth science, 9th grade physical science, 10th grade biology, and high school environmental science
School: Cambridge Jr./Sr. High
Town: Cambridge, ID (population 315)
Our first teacher profile is really an inspiration and model for our entire trip. Becca is a role model of mine – she has motivation, dedication and fire in her heart – and is a huge part of why I want to bike across the country and teach science. Here’s why:
I first met Becca while studying in Spain three years ago. We frolicked around Ronda, a breathtaking Malagese city that towers above a rocky canyon. I knew immediately there was a special spark in her – as the rest of la gente hid sheepishly under their umbrellas, she danced and pranced and soaked up the dripping rain, all the time with eyes wide open and a beaming glow across her face.
Then we returned from Spain… I went back to school, but Becca zipped off to adventure after adventure: first to the Netherlands, and then to Guatemala. Then in March 2013 she quit her “boring desk job” and hopped on her $300 hybrid Trek to ride SOLO across America. Becca was the first person I knew to do this trip, and I was hooked. She was one of the only reasons I kept my derrrn ol’ facebook account, and I was lucky enough to follow her along through her inspiring posts.
From Solo Cyclist to Solo Science Teacher
Just two years ago, Becca was a nutritionist back in her hometown of Raleigh, NC. So, uh, how did she become the only middle and high school science teacher in a teeny tiny farming town in rural Idaho?
The answer, of course: her bicycle lead her there! On her cross country trip, during a pit stop in Idaho to go bungee jumping, she accidentally fell in love (oopsy!)… so after her 4,000 mile, 75 day trip, she returned to Idaho to live with Forrest near a forest. Fast forward a year and another challenge zooms her way – although she’d never taught any sort of class before, she had her bachelors in science and it soon struck her:
Being a science teacher, man? That sounds like something I can do!
So she applied to teach at Cambridge Jr/Sr High last August (2014), and in less than a month started the semester.
I spoke with her in January to learn about her teaching experience and some of the challenges she faces every day. We talked for four and a half hours. This is a condensed (and slightly edited) version of our conversation.
So, what’s it like to be ‘Ms. Rolon’?
I love it. It is so rewarding to be a teacher. But it’s hard. You’re trying to engage kids. You’re trying to get them to understand something they’ve never heard before. You’re trying to get them to learn it and master it. And [that mastery] is not easy, especially in a small school district. There are an average nine students in each of my classes, and only one science class per grade. At bigger schools, teachers teach the same lesson all day long. But for me, I am the science department. Every single hour is a new class. It can be overwhelming, but I never have to teach the same thing over and over and get bored of it.
What sorts of activities do you find engage your kids the most?
I would say a lot of hands-on activities. I am the teacher who has art all over. I actually have an art wall in my room, and outside I’ve got two doors completely covered in posters. I give my students an opportunity to do projects on their own and then present them, so kids get to listen to other kids [reiterate the concepts I’ve taught]. By putting it on the wall, kids from other classes will ask questions.
Last semester, I had a science joke-of-the-day and the kids loved it. I started thinking, can I do something more educational with this? Now I have a “Did You Know?” of the day, where I write a new science fact on the board, and the kids read it every day and ask questions. I need to be able to back them up when they ask a question, so I have to do outside research and it challenges me too.
And I do labs. Kids love labs. It doesn’t even matter what we’re doing a lab on. I could have them go in there to examine poop. If I tell them ‘we’re doing a lab today,’ their eyes light up. We do labs at least once a week in each of my classes. And actually this week we did two labs. But they are really demanding. And the kids always want more. (example below)
It’s so cool you do so many labs! How do you get all the supplies you need? Grants?
(chuckles) I’ve applied for grants. I didn’t really at first because I was so overwhelmed [with being a new teacher]. I just started applying, but I haven’t got anything. From the school we get $200 per teacher. We only get $200 a year.
$200 a year!!?? What can you buy with that? Staplers?
Yup. It is a challenge to budget supplies with a smaller fund. Our school’s been around since 1940, so we’ve got a lot of chemicals sitting in the chemistry closet. I have to go in there and just find stuff. I had the kids grow alfalfa in my classroom. And the alfalfa seeds – I just found them! But I buy a lot out of my own pocket. I would love to find some kind of organization that’s like: “hey, you are working in a very small, rural town? Let’s supply you with a brand new science classroom.” You know, that’s what we need. We need it.
Are you doing anything to address the funding issue?
I had the kids in environmental science make homemade soap. That was actually a really cheap project. I bought the lye. Then I went to a local butcher and he gave me pig fat, and I had kids who had killed their animals bring in their fat, and we boiled it all down and mixed it together. In the future I’m going to have kids make soap, and then we’re going to sell it to bring back money into the science program.
I’m also going to have them grow chicken eggs. In this community, people will buy chickens and slaughter them themselves, so this way we’ll create products that people will actually want. Each class is going to be selling their own products, and then with the money they make they get to decide what kind of science projects they want to do. So it will be an incentive for them to want to work harder.
But the grants… It’s just hard. There are a million teachers competing for the same grants. I think that’s the problem—people want better teachers, but they are not willing to budget the amount of funding required for the resources for the classroom.
Teaching in Rural Idaho
I understand Idaho has not signed on to the Next Generation Science Standards. What are your science standards like?
Idaho provides the standards, so we have points we have to cover within the year. But they’re very vague. We’re supposed to teach, for example, “organization systems” – there are so many different systems, how do you talk about “systems”? Are they within the human body? Or are they talking about the systems within the animal kingdom? Be more specific!
But they’re not. It’s very frustrating. What they hear in my biology class, they might not get in another, and if they are ever given a standardized test, then they might not do well on it. Not because they didn’t learn anything, but because they learned a completely different section of science because that’s the way the teacher interpreted it.
Do you teach evolution? Is that part of your curriculum?
Yes, I teach that in biology as well as 7th grade life science. The kids have to learn about different characteristics of life, and why animals evolved, and how they evolved. We don’t go into depth about human evolution because we live in a very conservative community. I kind of vaguely went over monkeys. I taught about how animals adapt and survive, and through that adaptation they slowly evolve. The “monkey thing” is a very sensitive subject. I taught them about Lucy, but it was a very odd subject for them. They thought she was alive. I showed them a picture of her the next day and they were surprised she was all bones.
What’s the school environment like?
I am the youngest and newest teacher at my school. I’m 26, the teacher next to me is 30, and a large majority of the staff has been teaching for over 15 to 20 years. And a big majority of the staff went to Cambridge (the school Becca teaches at, not that one school in Cambridge, MA). So I’m completely new. And I’m from a different state, that part’s kind of weird.
How does the community affect the way science is taught?
It’s a farming community. They don’t desire homework. It is common for kids to miss school to work on their ranch. They work hard labor on their land. The amount of labor that my students tell me they do on the weekend is unbelievable. It is remarkable though, kids that young are learning strong working ethics.
Also, because it’s such a small school, the kids who want to be challenged are in the same class as kids with special needs, and they’re learning the exact same subject and doing the exact same activity. When do you go back and reteach something, and when do you have to move on?
How do you deal with this?
Next year, I’m going to create an honors program for high school students in the same classroom setting. They will have a higher standard of assignments and projects. This is a way for me to push the self-motivated students further in their academics. It’s fine – college is not for everyone, it really isn’t. But for the kids that want to go to college and want to do something further, I’m going to be there for them.
My primary job is a science teacher. But I think being a teacher is so much more. You’re being a role model, and you are showing kids that there is so much to life. I feel so gifted to be a part of their lives. Not only am I their teacher, but I will also be there to be their mentor. I want to help them. I really care. I really do. Sometimes they know how to get under my skin, but I truly enjoy every one of my kids.
I had a kid tell me he knows everything he wants to do with his life, so he wants to drop out of high school. It’s awesome he’s thinking about what he wants to do – but I suggested he think about how much more he has left to learn. I’m 26 and I’m still figuring out what I want to do with myself. You’re never ever going to figure it out completely.
And that’s the best part about having options. If I didn’t have my college degree, I would not have as many options. And that’s what I’m always stressing. Do everything you can to graduate high school. Have as many options as possible. Go to college. Travel. Meet new people. Go on that adventure that everyone tells you that you can’t do. Do it! Because, imagine the possibilities! I am living in Idaho. I am a science teacher! I never ever thought I’d do this. I never would have done this if I hadn’t got on that bike. You never know. You’ve just got to step out of your comfort zone and you have to try new things! If you don’t like it, try something else! I think that’s been my biggest lesson.
Want to hear more from Becca? Stay tuned, we’ll be posting her favorite lesson plans shortly. We’ll also be stopping in Cambridge to teach in her classes in mid May and snagging her for a few days to be our Idaho bicycle tour guide!