by Watershed's 2020 Class
Painstakingly crafted to reflect an entire identity in under 650 words, the CommonApp’s personal essay section is a notorious quandary most students must eventually face. As application deadlines approach, we invite you to glimpse into the mundane, the life-altering, and the profound of Watershed’s 2020 class. Read excerpts from class of 2019 here.
Dancing requires minimal conscious thought for me. It is an act of permission, allowing my temporal lobe to process the music, causing my motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum to send signals through my nervous system leading to the contraction and release of my muscles to the beat. I imagine this process as a multitude of little balls of light racing through a web of tunnels underneath my skin. The process is miraculous and incredibly fascinating. I will forever be grateful to live in a body in which—at least so far—all of the many facets function properly together to create movement.
As I travel the barren path and peer upon the windswept peak I scream “this land is my land!” For the rocks are jagged, the cold is sharp, the legs grow weak and the mind faint. Still, the summit persists, maintains the space where I witness the earth's curvature and the carelessness of the everchanging clouds. As the leaves fall, the snow and resilient wind sting my face, I remind my blistered lips and my bare chest that warmth is inevitable. I whisper in the ear of my love, you make me question my mind and my looks, you cause me heartache when I feel you are upset, however you kiss me softly and brush my cheek with your long dark lashes. Be that as it may, the fire cracks-n-pops its secret language and I imagine the impossibility of the stars above. As I dance to my favorite song and watch my paint evolve the canvasses vast nothingness I insist, “I am here now! This land is my land!”
Heavy flakes of ash drift up the crumbling mountainside, wafting over us and through our shuffling legs, leaving streaks of chalky grey on our nylon pants. The sun is harsh, but a light breeze dilutes the heat. Stepping awkwardly to the left, my Nikes just miss some mud. Stones and tattered shoes hold tarp roofs, from lifting off in the wind, so they flutter against the mud and brick walls instead. I will call them houses for absence of a word to describe the dwellings in rural Xela. They were more tarp than roof, more dirt than floor, and more heart than home.
We wandered around trailer parks, streets, stores, and restaurants to ask average women for interviews, phones in hand. All we got were uncomfortable silences, averted glances, awkward laughs, and fidgeting hands. Interviewers and interviewees alike tiptoed around the controversy. Up until then, my only exposure to right-wing politics had come from vitriolic politicians. But here in Sterling, Colorado, we were determined to be kind, and, likewise, we found our interviewees to be thoughtful and caring. It seemed we had all made a commitment to understanding each other and recognizing our similarities. The hope of mutual compassion grew with each passing question.
A young boy’s scream rings out against a dissonant circus melody and the thuds of wooden props. A life-sized marionette, face painted white, staggers toward him on its knees. An older boy—his brother, maybe—steps back for a moment, seemingly unimpressed.
“She’s not real,” he says, smirking. “Also, they’re legally not allowed to touch you.”
The short, haunting tune pauses, loops back, and repeats.
They hurry towards the next room as it crawls closer, the older boy holding back the young one by his arm. “Slow down!” he hisses as they round the corner.
As they step out of the room, the marionette backs up to the wall and slumps. We share unamused looks. I’ll spend the rest of their time in this haunted house tiptoeing around in the shadows behind them, handing out painkillers, band-aids, and water to a beaten crew.
Before my 8th grade year I actively shunned physically difficult activity, and paid no attention to what I was eating. I was overweight and on the path to becoming obese. My parents tried to get me moving, but outside a once-a-week swim class I was uninterested. My science teacher, Mr. Trasky, was the 8th grade basketball coach. As he was one of my favorite teachers, my parents tried again and signed me up to play. I was pudgy and out of shape, and although the two hour daily practices totally wiped me out, I always felt accomplished and happy afterwards.
From that time on, I slowly changed my life around health and exercise. I have adapted my eating habits from careless consumption to foods that help my body grow and function. My exercise habits changed from nonexistent (playing video games every chance I could) to waking up at 5 AM to complete workouts before school. In the past 4 years, my entire lifestyle has changed because of a whim of my parents to try basketball.
by Mikai Tilton
Engagement in schools is lacking. A recent study of over 900,000 public school students in the United States found that in 5th grade, 75% of students feel engaged—but by the time they reach high school, that number drops to around 33%. High school students today are unmotivated, uninterested, and uninspired.
On November 9, Google software engineer Brian Brewington gathered students, teachers, parents, and entrepreneurs of the local community to unpack why. Dubbed “Saturday Sparks,” the community design event, as Brewington described, set out to “work together to uncover sparks of learning, and create solutions based on the needs we find.”
8 “Lightning Talks”—rapid-fire presentations by one or two people—were given on subjects ranging from weather balloons to travel experiences at the Watershed School.
A School of Mines student described how a curiosity about drones led them to their current career trajectory. A student from Monarch High School outlined an app that they designed that would allow teachers collaborate in scheduling assignments and tests to avoid concentrated student workloads.
Erica Fine from Thorne Nature Experience described her work as the E Movement program manager. E Movement, heavily backed by Boulder County, seeks to make nature and outdoor experiences accessible for every child in Boulder County. The program hopes to promote environmental literacy through adulthood in every graduate of schools within Boulder County. Beyond environmental knowledge, environmental education has been shown to improve critical thinking and leadership skills, academic performance, and civic engagement in K-12 students.
Hundreds of inquiries structured around the phrase “how might we…?” were drafted in response to the problems, solutions, and outcomes described in these talks, among them:
“How might we open the time and space for exploration and creativity in schools?” “How might we create more time and flexibility for educators to plan?” “How might we create, support, and validate unstructured time?” “How might we break down the barriers of inequality in order for everyone to experience tailored learning?” “How can we connect learners to mentors in their community?”
Patterns soon emerged in questions posed; most notably were themes of promoting meaningful community relationships, re-imagining traditional school structures, equity in education accessibility, and creating a platform to foster everyday curiosities.
Led by Brian, a group began drafting the interface, target user profiles, and advertising of a platform where those with inquiries can connect with teachers, experts, and or organizations to explore or solve them. The app is structured so that one person can ask a question and work together to pursue an answer with a community of certified experts, teachers, or companies that can foster this “spark” of curiosity. Unlike existing apps or websites, the app hopes to be able to steer away from a black-and-white question-and-answer format and instead encourage learners to work together with mentors. Ultimately, the goal is a community that can rely on and work with each other to do “work that matters.” The first step of this process—a general platform objective and trajectory—are set; likely next steps are more detailed user interface concepts and piloting the website or app inside of a school or organization.