Tracy Ruiz chose to attend Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in 1991 because it was close to the beach and she thought it was safe. After Kristin Smart went missing from the Cal Poly campus in 1996, however, Ruiz viewed her alma mater differently.
Now an English teacher at Will C. Wood High School in her hometown of Vacaville, Ruiz has been able to use the Smart case and Your Own Backyard, the podcast devoted to it, in her curriculum. Lessons have completely engaged her students: In addition to learning critical thinking skills, they feel connected to the case, and are dedicated to preserving Smart’s memory. Ruiz , a member of Vacaville Teachers Association who graduated from Cal Poly in 1995, heard about the global hit podcast in summer 2020. Created by Chris Lambert in 2019, it follows the long-unsolved case of Smart, a Cal Poly freshman who vanished on her way back from a party, and how it impacted her family and the community.
“Walking through and feeling that loss in the podcast was unexpectedly powerful,” Ruiz says. Ruiz saw other teachers using true-crime podcasts in their teaching and designed a unit around Your Own Backyard for her AP Language and Composition class. Assignments included writing a letter to the Smart family and a final essay in which students, using evidence Lambert laid out in the series, had to “present a viable and coherent theory of the crime that includes the role of Paul [Flores], his father Ruben, and his mother Susan.” Paul and Ruben Flores were arrested in connection with Smart’s death in mid-April.
“One of the biggest lessons we got out of this activity was putting yourself in those shoes and trying to figure out what you can say to a family in pain.”
—Tracy Ruiz, Vacaville Teachers Association
The letter, which teaches students empathy and how to thoughtfully consider their audience and the purpose of their writing, was student Perri Cargill’s favorite assignment of the unit. Cargill wrote in her letter, “I see Kristin as my sister, as my mom, as my best friend, as my little brother, as my own stubbornness and wild love for life. I have never thought of her as ‘gone.’ I see her in the moonlight and the sun.”
“That was one of the biggest lessons I think we got out of this activity, putting yourself in those shoes and trying to figure out what you can say to a family in pain,” Ruiz says.
After Ruiz posted about her curriculum on Facebook, she became online friends with Lambert’s mom. With that connection, Ruiz organized a Q&A session with Lambert over Zoom.
Cargill helped Ruiz review submitted questions to prioritize the right ones for the Q&A, and Ruiz had the class practice their questions the day before.
“I didn’t sleep the night before meeting Chris, but on the day of the talk, I had to kick the students out after they were 20 minutes late to their next class,” Ruiz recalls, laughing. Student Kaydence Garrison was excited about the opportunity to meet Lambert.
“You could tell he cared about Kristin and cared about bringing that story to life. He was honest and transparent about all the work he’s done,” she says.
Ruiz notes that on the day of the Q&A, every student was present and had their cameras turned on. Not one student missed an assignment in the unit. Even weeks after they had completed the unit, students stopped class in its tracks to discuss the arrests of Paul and Ruben Flores.
“Watching my students so engaged in real time was unique and something I will definitely remember. It has opened my eyes to moving away from traditional teaching and doing better at getting their attention,” Ruiz says.
Ruiz’s own connections to Cal Poly made a difference for students, too.
“Knowing [Ruiz] went there almost created a reference point for the class,” Garrison says. “It made it feel so real knowing she was down there around the time when [Smart] was abducted.” Cargill agrees. She says that “meeting” Smart through Lambert’s telling of her was an inspiration to live her own life to the fullest.
“Seeing what Cal Poly alumni [like Ruiz] can accomplish and realizing Kristin wouldn’t experience that honestly made it more tragic,” she adds. Garrison says learning about the Smart case impacted her life.
“I have learned to step out of my world and insert myself into another person’s life. It changed my perspective on how I interact with people,” Garrison says.
Adapted from a story that appeared in the Mustang News. Read it in full here.