This week as our students explore the Lower Salmon River two hours north of campus and the Owyhee Canyonlands three hours to the south, I find myself with the less exciting task of taking care of logistics to make our expeditions run smoothly. This role has me traveling to diverse corners of Idaho, in a vivid representation of our students’ experience as they travel through distinct states, countries, and ecosystems.
The contrast between our distinct classrooms is perhaps best illustrated by my drive yesterday from a cold, snowy campus to a sunny, almost balmy Treasure Valley, where students were wrapping up their Wilderness First Aid course. We noticed the effects of that change as we hiked last week: students delighted in blooming flowers in the Owyhees, and topping out on a ridge at the end of our expedition revealed a herd of pronghorn antelope migrating from their winter to summer range.
These harbingers of seasonal environmental variation--what scientists call Phenology--allow our students to experience firsthand the natural cycles of the world around them, at a time when so much of our world is climate controlled and weatherproof. They allow our students to see the wild places we travel through not as a static backdrop but a living ecosystem; to build the basis for a connection to the natural world. As George Santayana advised, “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.”
What does a coach do when half of her team is slam dunking and half is learning to dribble? What does a teacher do when one student understands a concept and another is still learning it? Anyone who has spent time teaching or coaching a group of learners will eventually confront this dilemma: How can we ensure that all students learn at high levels? Last week, the Alzar School teaching fellow class taught by Director of Studies, Laura Bechdel, sought to answer this perennial question.
In educational circles, adjusting instruction based on an individual’s needs is called differentiation. Laura sees differentiation as a natural response to wanting the best for each student: “We explore ideas of equity versus equality, and why doing what is 'equal' isn't necessarily fair.” In an effort to strive for equity, teachers might provide choices for assessments that allow students to express learning targets in a number of ways, or assign different angles of analysis according to a student’s interest. Laura noted that teachers at Alzar School often provide “personalized bookmarks to guide reflection in reading texts and guided notes to help some students access more difficult texts.” All in an effort to help each student access the class material.
The takeaway for teaching fellows? Spencer reflected, “Differentiation applies to all students, rather than just those at the very top or the very bottom of the class. Differentiation helps to motivate students by teaching them at their level and to their best ability rather than trying to get everyone to ‘make the same shoe fit.’”
The John William Jackson Fund (JWJF) was started in 2000 by Jackie and Bill “Action” Jackson. Jackie and Action started the fund in response to the tragic loss of their son, John, in a climbing accident. Turning grief into good, the JWJF seeks to “capture the enthusiasm, passion, contemplation and enterprise that John exhibited in his life and individual pursuits.” Their mission is to advance academic scholarships, performing arts, and outdoor sporting for Idaho youth. The JWJF is making a difference in Idaho and at the Alzar School.
The JWJF has an innovative and effective funding strategy. As a donor-advised fund in the Idaho Community Foundation, the JWJF collects monetary donations from all types of supporters. In conjunction, they have created an innovative fundraising program called Idaho Youth Education Recycling Partnership, or iYERP. iYERP works to collect steel and metal recycling from individuals and construction projects around the state to help fund the John William Jackson Fund. They also partner with Pacific Steel and Recycling and their collection centers to receive scrap metal donations.
Using this unique fundraising model, the JWJF has been able to provide opportunities in education, music and the outdoors to dozens of Idaho scholars and aspiring students. In 2017, they surpassed the $1,000,000 milestone in grants given to students, nonprofits and organizations. For the past four years, the Alzar School has been a proud recipient of a John William Jackson Fund grant that supports student scholarships. Thanks to the generosity of groups like the JWJF, the Alzar School is able to provide some type of financial assistance to a quarter of our students.
Tucked into the West Central Mountains of Idaho, lined with snow-capped peaks that dip down to grassy plains, spotted with glacial lakes and bubbling natural hot springs, lies Valley County. With a past steeped in logging and mining, the community remains deeply connected to the surrounding environment. The wood mills and gold rush mines are long gone, but this area has grown into a destination for vacationers and adventurers alike. Known as a gateway for all types of year-round outdoor recreation and a finalist for America’s Best Communities in 2017, Valley County has a lot to offer as the backdrop to the Alzar School campus.
Winter months bring some of the finest snow in the West to the surrounding mountains. Excellent conditions and vast public land access draw outdoor enthusiasts to the area to ski, snowmobile, ice skate, fish and hunt. Now in its 53rd year, the McCall Winter Carnival also attracts thousands for two weeks of events ranging from dog sled races to snow sculpting contests. Due to the long winter season, both fall and spring students at the Alzar School get embrace winter’s activities - taking ski or snowboard laps at one of the area’s three ski resorts, shoveling yurt stoops and even having an occasional snowball skirmish.
As warmer temperatures bring about spring thaw, locals and visitors alike emerge from their ski pants and don kayaking helmets and biking shoes. Keen on paddling the snowmelt flows, boaters flock to the Payette and Salmon drainages and bikers push past the last patches of snow to ride the valley’s extensive trail system. Alzar School students will brave the colder spring waters of Kelly’s Whitewater Park which, located just three miles from campus, provides endless entertainment and opportunities to hone paddling skills.
Summer arrives in late June in Idaho and provides dozens of opportunities to explore and experience nature. Forage for mushrooms while hiking to one of the countless high mountain lakes, relax on the natural white sand beaches of the Salmon after a day of rafting, or enjoy the pristine sunset from one of the various golf courses. Paddleboards, wakeboards, surfboards, and all types of watersports and crafts are vehicles for adventure, spanning out across Valley County’s expansive network of lakes, rivers and streams.
Autumn does not disappoint in Valley County. Brilliant yellow Western Larch stand out amongst the greenery of coniferous fir while spotted Aspen shimmer and shake their fiery leaves in the waning light. Student backpackers face nighttime temperatures that dip below freezing and spike up 50 degrees during the day. Outdoor adventures shift to outdoor chores - bringing in the garden harvest, gathering firewood and swapping sails for skis and sandals for snow boots. And so, the cycle of living in the West Central Mountains of Idaho begins again. We love our Valley County home.
“Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.” - Charles Dickens
The Alzar School hosts students from around the country and the world. To date, we’ve had students come from thirty-five states and six countries. Some hail from rural mountains and some from urban jungles. Some join their semester having had weeks of outdoor experience while others arrive with none.
Throughout the semester, students are challenged to think about who they are, where they come from and what experiences have shaped their character. As students ponder these ecocentric ideas, they are encouraged to manifest them through an Alzar School English assignment called “Where I Come From.”
Jacob from Atlanta writes:
A quaint house in a little neighborhood.
Asphalt hot underneath the summer sun.
Roads surrounded by oak trees and pinewood.
This is where I'm able to climb and run.
Cute puppy pestering mom day and night,
With a little nap time squeezed in halfway.
A dog's tongue waking me up with a fright.
Emory, she knows how to start my day.
The melodious sound of piano,
A Billy Joel song filling the dense air.
At the pearl white keys putting on a show
My brother determined, up off the chair.
Through our joy over tacos, pain, and jeers.
I know I'll always have my home, all years.
While Richard reflects upon his home in Asheville:
I am from where the mountains touch the sky,
And in those mountains life itself resides.
Beckoning me to not settle for a normal Wednesday afternoon, but rather hike to a view.
I sit on top of a hill and look out over the canopy
Red and orange leaves cover the trees
like tinfoil over a platter of food.
When I drive down Kimberly,
Those same leaves challenge me to not sit around at home, but to go kayaking in a beautiful place….
This assignment draws attention to (and hopefully an appreciation of) the power of home. Listening to each other’s perception of place, helps students realize both their similarities and differences and gain a deeper understanding of their peers. Through this understanding, we form a community at the Alzar School. With hope, students emerge from their Alzar School experience knowing more of who they are, and from there, can work to shape who they want to be.