Checking in at the New Meadows school front desk, an eager and cheerful middle school student offers to show me to the classroom where Devon Barker-Hicks teaches History and English Language Arts. Peering through the door’s small window I notice the lights are off, but the student assures me she’s inside. Entering, I find Barker-Hicks working one-on-one with a student, both huddling over a tablet, scrolling through an assignment. As I wait, Barker-Hicks asks the student questions in a gentle and affirming voice, prompting him as he works through the assignment questions, arriving at the solutions himself. It’s a poignant snapshot of a teacher doing what she loves, putting her students first, helping them succeed.
Barker-Hicks began teaching in 1995. It became, for her, a passion. Yet she had an earlier and quite different passion: whitewater kayaking. In the summer of 2001, she and friend Tracy Sage were surfing waves on the Salmon River when they met two kayakers on the USA Olympic Team. Watching Barker-Hicks and Sage surf, the team members suggested they try out for the USA team. Both women did, and both made the USA Freestyle Team. [Sage would be on the team for a year before becoming a SUP – standup paddle – competitor.]
Barker-Hicks now had a dilemma. She loved teaching and the upcoming school year was about to start yet the ability to compete in kayaking at the national and world levels was an incredible opportunity. Approaching Jim Freeman, her superintendant at the Nezperce School District about taking a one year leave of absence to pursue this crazy dream of kayaking for the USA Freestyle Team, Barker-Hicks was surprised to hear Freeman predict she would be gone more than a year. He also assured her that a job would be waiting for her whenever she decided to return.
True to the prediction, Barker-Hicks was part of the USA Freestyle Team from 2001 through 2007, a full-time job that allowed her to travel the world competing against the best kayakers, doing something she loved. “I was kayaking in Uganda, Europe and Ecuador all in the same year,” she says, smiling broadly. “How rad is that? How amazing?” Barker-Hicks won the World Championships in surf kayaking in 2005, and was on the podium – in the final four – many times while on the team.
Yet Barker-Hicks missed that other thing she was passionate about: teaching. In late 2007, she learned about a part-time teaching position in the New Meadows School District and applied. Having purchased a home in McCall before heading off on her USA Freestyle Team adventures, Barker-Hicks had a home waiting for her. Growing up in Lewiston, Barker-Hicks participated in the Brundage Mountain Ski Education Foundation while in high school, racing for the Brundage team and spending half of the school year in McCall. From that experience, she knew she wanted to live in this area someday. Being able to teach part-time while also pursuing her competitive kayaking was a dream come true for Barker-Hicks, combining her two passions in life.
Barker-Hicks continued to compete at the World level from 2007 through 2015 while working as a teacher. Asked if she still competes, Barker-Hicks cracks a smile and replies, “I think I’m retired; last year I competed in four events.” Feeding her need to remain active in kayaking beyond competition, Barker-Hicks created a local program for kids called Dare to Kayak. Seeking donations and writing grant proposals, she managed to acquire funding to support the program which mixes instruction in kayaking with the message that kids should seek their own passions while maintaining a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle. There’s now a kayaking club that provides instruction to kids ages 10-17 from New Meadows and Riggins during the summer months. After learning basic safety and skills in pools like Zim’s Hot Springs, the classes progress to kayaking the Salmon River. “I’m so lucky to be able to combine both of my passions,” says Barker-Hicks. “It helps me balance my life. I feel I’m doing more for my world, adding purpose with my teaching.”
STANDING UP TO HATE: NEWS CREATES A TEACHABLE MOMENT
Barker-Hicks’ passionate and open approach to teaching middle school kids has allowed an organic, grass-roots movement sparked by her students to evolve into a program inspiring kids and the community to create something important and lasting, something everyone can be proud of: Anne Frank Holocaust memorials.
“This fell into my lap,” Barker-Hicks explains. Her seventh graders were already studying the Holocaust and reading The Diary of Anne Frank when in May 2017 the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise was vandalized with anti-Semitic writings. Additional vandalism followed, leading the Boise Police Department to treat it as a hate crime. Barker-Hick’s students were deeply troubled by these events and felt compelled to do something. They were learning about bigotry and hate and how others stand up to it; now they wanted to do something themselves, to make a statement against hate.
“This idea provided the opportunity for place-based education,” explains Barker-Hicks. The kids wanted to erect two memorials – one on school grounds, one in a New Meadows city park – each with a quote from Anne Frank. To accomplish their dream, the students attended school board and city council meetings, seeking approval for their memorials, learning about civic government along the way. Thanks to nearby Talus Earth and Stone on the Little Salmon River, the kids learned about the various types of stone available for the memorials – for example, Salmon River Jade – turning that trip into a geology lesson while also learning about the process of cutting and engraving stones. Given small samples of stones, the students wrote Anne Frank quotes on them. They also created journals – handmade books covered in cloth – writing about Anne Frank, adding photos, news clips, and their own thoughts about her and the Holocaust.
The City Council of New Meadows recently approved placement of one of the memorials at the Dorsey Warr Memorial Park, across from the Historic Railway Depot, and the school board has approved the memorial for the school grounds. Plans are underway for an unveiling ceremony in the city park this winter. Barker-Hicks encourages the kids to dream big so they’re planning to invite Holocaust survivors and/or their families as well as WWII veterans to the unveiling ceremony, with speakers and a presentation immediately following at the Depot.
The kids and their memorials have already been highlighted on KTVB, receiving well-deserved attention.
Dream big and dare to follow your passions. Those are the life lessons that have propelled Barker-Hicks to compete on the USA Freestyle kayaking team and to become an inspiring teacher. She shares the same lessons and ideals with her students, acting as a role model while encouraging them to dream about making positive impacts on the world. Clearly her students are listening and taking those lessons to heart, whether developing self-confidence conquering the waves of a fast-flowing river in a kayak, or standing up to the hate-mongering rhetoric and deeds by creating Anne Frank memorials promoting tolerance and compassion.