Fun in Discomfort: How A PE Teacher Extends The Scope Of Her Work To Uplift Youth In The Bay
Annicia Jones (she/her), a Physical Education teacher at Everett Middle School in San Francisco, sits on the Board of Advisors with Bay Area Wilderness Training. She is into her sixth year with the SF Unified School District and coaches soccer, basketball, and track within and outside the public school system. Annicia devotes her work to shaping “lifelong movers” with expansive knowledge of what they can accomplish through movement and through opportunities outside of sport.
For those who have found bliss in unplugging from the world, inhaling the pine breeze, taking a dip in a cool brook, or bundling up by a campfire on a cold starry night, the outdoors presents a sacred space. For others who have reservations about venturing outside, some common questions revolve around whether or not there will be restrooms where adventure takes them, whether the weather might take a turn, what critters to expect on the excursion, and the list goes on. Annicia had hesitations about adventuring, too. Why go sleep in the cold, on the ground when you’ve got a perfectly nice bed in a very fortunate, warm home?
Annicia connected with Project Green Beard in October, sharing her story of bringing the outdoor experience to a group of middle school students. She recognized what higher education had brought into her life--the joy of connecting to nature and herself by finding her place outside. As a college student, she took a leap of faith to take a backpacking trip with her roommate, not knowing exactly what to expect. “You have to get uncomfortable, sometimes,” she says with such buoyancy, “to build confidence. I travel and try different things and explore.” True to this sentiment, she admits that her first time backpacking was a lot to take in. She reminisces not checking her phone for days, sleeping under the stars, and lifelong friendships (with people who were once strangers to her) forged from these shared moments. But these trips can be expensive. If it weren’t for a group of friends who eagerly loaned her backpacking gear, one trip can easily amount to hundreds of dollars or more in necessities.
Annicia Jones visiting Yosemite. Photo courtesy Annicia Jones; BAWT Board of Advisors
Through working with BAWT (Bay Area Wilderness Training), Annicia is joining a growing league of BIPOC women in leveling the playing field for women of color to explore the outdoor spaces. BAWT has provided her with the training and tools (i.e.- tents, jackets, cooking utilities, etc.) necessary to bring a young group outside for a learning experience. Meanwhile boys at Everett Middle School have fun fishing trips and more affluent schools in the district can bring students out to waterfalls in Washington state. Students within the same school district are experiencing the world through a drastically different lens. Annicia aims to introduce enriching solutions by bringing her students into new spaces.
She’s structured an annual outdoor camp trip that has become something the kids are enthused to prep for year long. Annicia reaches out to teachers from different departments at school to expand her reach, offering a little lunch time meet-up to brief the kids on what to expect if they choose to join her camping group. Throughout the year, she teaches them useful skills about the outdoors, including how to spot specific plants (like poison oak), how to enjoy public parks responsibly, and guides growing comradery between 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. She likens the entire process to planning an elaborate family camping trip.
Her annual trip with the Everett Middle School group takes the ladies to camp within a 20 minute drive from home in a mini-escape that Park Presidio provides in the boundaries of San Francisco. The landscape changes from that of the concrete layout of the bustling city and for a moment the kids don’t realize they are still in their hometown. The scene is unrecognizable and feels far from home for her students. There is a level of discomfort that comes with being in this new territory. But, when they arrive at their site, the young ladies are equipped with enough knowledge to pitch their tents and prep for their stay. The kids know how to put up and secure their tents, chop and prepare food for their recipes, and have a space to feel truly comfortable in their skin. Annicia goes the extra mile to put a variety of enriching activities on their itinerary, including a yoga session, a designated time for meditation, and a scavenger hunt in which the students have to use their compasses and navigate a map to find the gift cards Annicia has fundraised for during the school year. One year, she even scheduled an African drum healer to perform at the campsite.
If the trip sounds fun to you, it’s likely because the games and activities she incorporates would be fun for any age group. Annicia has a background in coaching at a variety of experience and age levels, including the Wallenberg High School Women’s Soccer Team. In the past six years, she’s put in work coaching youth soccer, basketball, and track within and outside the San Francisco Unified School District. Becoming more involved with the new generation in SF, Annicia prioritized being “family strong” with the work she does--revisiting how she approaches students and uplifting voices of POC communities.
Left to right (Taken By: Jannah Salih): Annicia Jones coaching with Demetric Strong; Annicia Jones and high school soccer team.
Annicia committed her studies and work to cooperate with social justice advocates and educators to break down societal barriers that keep kids from experiencing movement in diverse ways. The pursuit to bring learning opportunities outside, to create visibility and become the role model for a generation of kids in a new environment that traditionally touts faces dissimilar to the diverse communities that exist especially in the San Francisco Bay Area--this is a tenacious effort rooted deeply in inspiring women who are educators and protectors of public lands. Miho Aida, an environmental protector and outdoor athlete, uses the project “If She Can Do It, I Can Too” to empower women and to “support activists who come from marginalized communities and who use adventure sports to promote environmentalism rooted in social justice”. Aida has a decorated background, including earning her Masters in Environmental Sciences and Natural Sciences, and works with NatureBridge (the largest educational partner with the National Parks Service) as the Equity and Inclusion Coordinator.
Powerful voices are coming into the spotlight including Alex Bailey (one of the founders of Black Outside, Inc.), African American writer James Mills (who explains why the “adventure gap” requires a new generation of role models), and Carolyn Finney (who continues to rewrite how BIPOC communities relate to nature and the outdoors). Carolyn Finney writes “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship Between African Americans to the Great Outdoors” to shed light on the significance of visibility, race, outdoor spaces and engagement to environmentalism. The call to action involves getting inspirational people, like Annicia, into influential positions where they can demonstrate how enjoying the outdoors is anything but monochromatic.
Annicia’s work continues to expand. The students who had the thrill of going on the short excursion have formed lifelong memories. This is evident in their welcomed nagging at Annicia for dates on the next annual trip. She has plans to welcome back rising high school freshmen on future trips, so that they may support younger students through their commitment to outdoor spaces and activities. Seeing similar faces, from the same schools or neighborhoods and cultures, reflected in these otherwise uncharted environments increases representation. Annicia is not only a role model herself, but shaping a generation of mindful and engaged individuals who will serve as role models for those growing up in these urban communities.
These days, the ongoing pandemic has put a damper on the momentum she’s generated working with BAWT to bring opportunities to kids. Annicia has continued to hone her skills and prep hopefully for another trip in the future, but for the time being she uses her dynamic skill set to bring in a range of different movement patterns and approaches to health in virtual classrooms. Her approach to education puts her students’ best interests first. She keeps them engaged by using mindfulness practices, utilizing check-ins and questionnaires, and leaning on her savvy kinesiology background for inventive incorporation of movement patterns.
Annicia’s approach to health is parallel to her dissemination of enjoying the outdoors: seek joy in what you do and where you go. Her definition of healthy involves being able to go through an active day without feeling exhausted, discovering a brand new sport or endeavor and choosing to try it out just because she can. “I want to be a lifelong learner of movement,” she gleams, “Even if it’s not a sport, if it’s just a game or activity, I want to know how to get involved and ask…’hey, can I try that?’” In fact, her next activity might be hang gliding, after seeing bold folks take off from Fort Funston; who knows?
Annicia Jones walking the Great Wall of China, Annicia in Kyoto, Japan. Photos courtesy Annicia Jones.
Her initiative to match movement in sport and activities to peak interests of young minds, to expand the horizons of where the curious can discover and play, and her commitment to creating a space of greater acceptance are qualities we hope to embody with Project Green Beard. In partnering with BAWT this year, we hope to expand the reach of youth workers in the SF Bay Area to create a healthier, happier future.
A few quick links:
How can I contribute to BAWT? How can I become a leader with BAWT? Project Green Beard Gear Orders where profits are donated to BAWT until January 1, 2021.
The following exercises featured in the article are common recommendations from our training/physical therapy team, but they are not to be used as prescriptive movements. Each reader should be advised to seek care from a primary physician or licensed therapist if they are experiencing notable pain/discomfort, and to be advised to practice safely if they choose to try the exercises without supervision.
Push Up Variations
Annicia's favorite exercise go-to is the push up. Here we go through what an ideal push up can look like and how to spice things up so they challenge your body and never get boring!
Photos and media of variations by Alina Rodgers. Find her on Instagram @ra.r_photography
The Push Up
There is a textbook approach to push ups. Ideally, at your highest point (initial position), the body is in a strong plank. As you reach the bottom-most point, your elbows achieve a 90 degree bend before coming back to the top. To protect the shoulders, the angle between the torso and the arm is ideally about 45 degrees (so be careful not to "flare out" the elbows).
Push Up Plus
A push up plus starts in the same initial position--the strong, high plank. The body descends to a 90 degree bend in the elbow, torso parallel to the ground. Then when you return to the high plank, pause at the high plank before pushing the ground away just a bit more. The shoulder blades will separate from the midline (creating more space between them) then return the torso to the strong high plank (shoulder blades return to a more neutral position).
This move works the serratus anterior, a muscle group integral to shoulder and neck health.
Inchworm Push Ups
Inchworms are a fan-favorite when it comes to dynamic warm ups. Start with balanced feet, arms raised, body in one tall pillar-like stance. Reach the fingertips down towards the ground as you bend at the hip. Walk the hands forward and arrive in your high plank. Perform a push up, then walk the hands towards the feet, pulling the hips towards the sky, and come back into standing with the hands raised.
Looking for something to help perfect form or get depth on your push ups? Start in your high plank position, drawing navel to spine, base of the head in-line with the back. From there, slowly descend while trying to reach the 90 degree bend. As you near it, the integrity of your plank will become more difficult to hold. Notice where in the process your arms "give out", but keep going until your body is laying on the floor, hands still planted firmly. Once the chest touches the ground, try to bring the body back up into the high plank by pressing through the palms.
You might feel your chest rising first, then hips and knees--for now, that's okay! Be sure to always return to a strong plank position each time.
The Floating Child
Feeling adventurous? Begin in your high plank. Keeping the knees off the ground and hands firmly planted, bend your knees and bring the hips towards your heels (be careful not to let the hips rise towards the ceiling). Keep the chest parallel to the ground. Then bring the body back into the high plank and perform a push up. That's one rep!
Your chest stays as parallel to the floor as possible throughout this move, so maybe have some fun and try balancing a book on your back!
Pike Push Ups
This is a great one to challenge the shoulders and dynamically stretch the hamstrings/calves.
Begin in your high plank. With the hands firmly planted, bend at the hip as they rise towards the ceiling. Push the floor away with intention, maintaining control at the shoulder, and notice the space between the shoulders and ears (you want there to be space, and for it to be consistent). Shift back into the high plank position then complete a push up before returning to high plank before another pike movement.
It is easy to forget to engage the core throughout these more dynamic movements, so stop at the top of your move or any time you reach the high plank position, to check-in with whether your core is engaged and the low back is protected.
Uneven Push Ups
This one can help develop different aspects of the chest (pectorals). You can use any sturdy object (a bumper plate, a textbook, a brick...get creative!) to place under one hand. Start in your high plank. You will need to adjust your body so that you can maintain true plank integrity--the spine is aligned, core is tight and feels like a corset holding the body together, low back is protected.
As you descend, try to achieve 90 degrees in the elbow of the arm that is planted directly on the ground. The elevated arm will go into a deeper bend. As you push up, focus on having the body rise with the chest facing the floor evenly the entire time (avoid coming up with one side then the other).
Explosive Push Ups
Sometimes you deserve a round of applause. Clapping push ups are a way to train for power in the upper body--so that you can exert a lot of force very quickly. These are a more advanced move to execute. When doing these, be sure to perform a proper warm up and be aware of how your joints (particularly the wrists) are doing.
Start in your push up position. Slowly descend into your 90 degree elbow bend at the lowest point of a push up. Then quickly push the ground away, body rising above the high plank position (torso is no longer parallel to floor), fingers escape the floor to come to midline for palms to clap. When you land, aim the hands to land under the shoulders, bend the elbows to absorb landing forces. Return to high plank position.
If this is a huge goal for you, there are ways you can work towards this! Reach out to us for training!
Bench Push Ups
Maybe you're just starting off. Maybe you're coming back from an injury. Maybe it's a rest day. Bench push ups are a great way to continue this "push" movement pattern throughout our lifetime.
Place your hands on the edge of a firm, supportive bench/chair/counter with the thumbs wrapped around for a good grip. Step the feet back so you are on the balls of your feet, keep feet hip/shoulder width apart. Bring your body into a line (the hips should pull towards the corner of where the bench/chair/counter meets the floor) where the ankles, hips, back, shoulders, and head form one smooth line. This is your initial position.
From this position, bring the chest towards the edge of the surface, aiming the chest to the space between the hands. Then bring the body back to the initial position.
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