Members of our community are often asked to focus on the big picture despite a maelstrom of other concerns competing for their interest: leadership nuggets in the hail, chemistry on an airplane, personal growth in a semester of rigorous academics and international travel. Of course, this tension between the monumental and the minute is both necessary--we endeavor accomplish a lot into four short months--and by design--it is through challenge that our students become resilient.
Rarely is this tension more evident than last Friday night when, in the midst of packing for a six week international expedition, our community took time aside to attend the Third Annual Foundations Film Festival. Each fall, Anita, our Director of Advancement, puts together a collection of films that each highlight one or more of our Six Foundations. Proceeds from the event benefit our Valley County Scholarship Program, and the night serves as a cogent reminder of why we do what we do.
Student favorites included Our Theory of Human Motivation, a short film about finding strength inside oneself, and The Wild President, a profile of Jimmy Carter’s relationship with rivers in the Southeastern United States and his work protecting wild places across the country. The People’s Choice award went to Follow Through, the story of a young skier and her journey through adversity to achieve ambitious goals. Izzy Sullivan of New York reflected recently, “It was so inspiring to see how women in the outdoors have become prominent figures and inspirations to other young women… I feel like everything I do at Alzar inspires me to be a better person.”
* Please note that the film festival screening censored some mildly inappropriate language; the linked versions are not censored.
Turning leaves and falling temperatures elicit mixed emotions for me. I grew up in New England farm country; crisp hayrides and the crunch of leaves underfoot harken back to a childhood dominated by seasonality. Having spent 13 months of the last three years in the southern hemisphere, I'm craving a full calendar year in one place--preferably one with vibrant foliage, copious mud, and snow measured by the foot. In some ways, though, I’ve adopted a new form of seasonality: one dominated by cultural shifts rather than climatic ones. Three days to go before our semester leaves for southern Chile, I find myself reflecting on how much our lives change in mid-October--and how much stays constant.
Each semester, our school spends three weeks in our adopted homes of Choshuenco and Neltume: small villages in the shadow of an active, snow-capped volcanoes. Students split time between the two towns, taking half of their classes in each town. Teachers get an extended block schedule to delve deeper into their curriculum, and the whole community gets the unique opportunity to live, shop, play and learn in a place quite different than their own. We ask a great deal of our students in Chile. Non-traditional classrooms require driven students, and so much of the learning happens outside of the classroom. Everyday tasks like ordering dinner go from routine interactions to an authentic learning opportunity.
For their part, our students are characteristically eager for a new set of challenges. Shirley, from Westwood, Massachusetts, finds consistency in the community of learners surrounding her: “My whole idea of Alzar was that it didn’t matter where we were, we were going to be learning anyways… I wanted to get as much in as possible it made a lot of sense that I would move around a little bit.” Shirley is worried about the block classes: “I’m not good at staying focused, so 80 minute blocks might be hard, but we’ll see.” If the past two months are any judge, I think Shirley will do just fine.
On day three of our backpacking trip, instructors woke to an icy tarp hugging their faces. The culprit: three inches of wet snow and a blown grommet. A nearby student tent lay flat, its occupants exposed to a wintery mix. The date was September 20th, and one thing was clear: summer in Idaho had come to an abrupt end.
As instructors, we faced a difficult situation. Countless days spent in backcountry situations prove over and over again that challenge is often the greatest source of growth: it’s easy for students to lead their peers under warm, blue skies, quite another to do so at 34° and pouring rain. Such situations are central to our educational philosophy: learning happens when you step outside of your comfort zone. On the other hand, as our students had learned not two days prior in their Wilderness First Aid course, hypothermia and other cold-related injuries presented a serious risk in such cold, wet conditions. Continue onward or double back and regroup in better conditions?
My co-instructors and I debated back and forth about the merits and risks of adjusting our course itinerary. Try as we might, we knew that the crucial element of the decision was how our students felt about confronting the challenge ahead. Moreover, this was their course, not ours. So, as rain turned to sleet turned to snow turned back to rain, we voiced our concerns and turned over the reigns to our students. Afterall, they had everything they needed to make the decision: knowledge of cold injuries and the risk they posed; an acute awareness of each other’s abilities and struggles; and an appreciation for the goals of our time in the backcountry.
Students began discussing the situation, noting each other’s comfort level, speaking to their own goals and anxieties, and weighing risk versus reward. Each student shared organically, and instructors served as little more than autonomous maps, detailing various trail options and mileages. After 10 minutes, students reached a strong consensus: the risk of continued winter conditions was too great for our novice group. We would turn back.
As the group began walking back in the direction we came, I turned to my co-instructor, Meredith, who was slated to teach a lesson on decision-making that evening. We quickly agreed that the lesson was no longer necessary: experience had taught our students far better than we ever could.
Parent’s Weekend is almost here! So comes the time during each semester when the Alzar School invites all current families to visit our campus in Idaho and witness first-hand the power of the Alzar School semester.
As six o’clock on Friday evening approaches, marking the official start of the weekend’s events, students dorn their best formal wear and anxiously await the arrival of familiar faces they nervously left behind two months prior. Emotions run high as empty nested parents see their fledged children and students excitingly tour parents through their independent lives at the Alzar School. By this time in the semester, students have settled into an Alzar School routine -- the curved walls of yurts embody the comforts of home, classes are not necessarily confined to classrooms and daily gratitudes and hand waggles are the norms. From personal bunk spaces to the communal compost pit, students beam with pride and ownership as they usher family and friends around campus.
Parent’s Weekend also provides great opportunities for parents to check in on and witness Alzar School academics. Each family has designated time to meet with both the student's mentor and a teacher of their choosing. In addition, all students prepare two demonstrations of their learning: one academic presentation and one skills-based presentation. These presentations can range from demonstrating how to treat a hypothermic patient using Wilderness First Aid skills, to solving a trigonometric problem involving wildfire and resources. Needless to say, we are greatly looking forward to welcoming our Fall 2017 parents to the Alzar School campus and community this weekend.
Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech launched the then-Senatorial candidate from tall kid with a funny name to the most powerful person in the world. In 18 and a half minutes, Obama told of his working class roots in Kansas, Kenya and Hawaii; how US American values, manifest in programs like Federal Housing Assistance and the GI Bill, allowed Barack himself to climb to the very precipice of power. He spoke of countless Americans, steel workers and immigrants from Florida to Oregon, striving to fulfill the very same ideals: meritocracy, dignity, and a universal belief in the American Dream.
The format of the speech was nothing new. Marshall Ganz developed the Public Narrative model of community organizing over the course of the 1970’s and 1980’s while working in California. He found that a leader speaking from their own experience and appealing to the shared values of their audience motivated communities much more than a simple action plan. Put simply, Barack Obama told stories: a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now. Ganz went on to advise Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, but his Public Narrative model is perhaps even more pervasive.
In leadership class this unit, we spent time analyzing speeches that utilized the Public Narrative model. As a culminating experience, students crafted speeches that addressed an issue on campus, real or imaginary. Students urged their peers to act on such diverse issues as inclusivity at the Alzar School, faults in our Community Tasks program, bringing mindfulness to campus, and the impending alien invasion of Cascade.
On issues serious and silly, practicable and practically nonsense, students spoke to the shared values that we have developed as a community, and urged their peers to act on those values. It’s a skill that requires a deep understanding of why we come together for a whirlwind 4 months, and that students will use throughout their lives as they push their communities to effect positive change.