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Decision-Making in a Snowy September

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?

Summer in Idaho

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 – A time to share

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.   

Written by Anita Cussler, posted under: Uncategorized

Students Craft Public Narratives to Address Real and Imaginary Issues

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.

Written by John Bengtson, posted under: Uncategorized

Community of Learners: Professional Development at Alzar School

Teaching Fellows and Staff discuss their educational practice.

Every Tuesday, sometime between lunch and biology, Faculty and Teaching Fellows sit down at a small table on the patio, beneath the whitebark pine, in view of Snowbank Mountain. We gather because for a brief window each week, we cease to be teachers: we desert our lesson plans and relish in the opportunity to be learners again.

It’s called PD30--Professional Development, 30 minutes--a brief moment to step away from teaching to think critically about how we can best educate our students. We hear from teachers across disciplines, each with distinct background and educational philosophy; we discuss rubrics, differentiation, assessment tools, and each others’ growth as educators. Whatever the topic, PD30 is a chance to improve our instruction together.

Jack, our Biology Teaching Fellow, enjoys “looking at things in a different way--similar topics, with a new perspective.” Laura, our Director of Studies, is PD30 host and instructor extraordinaire: “every teacher is going to have their own take, their own style, their own approach. I find it refreshing to keep learning from one another.” As instructors, we came to the Alzar School to be a part of a community of continual learners: for our students, and for each other.

Written by John Bengtson, posted under: Academics, Instructor, Semester Program, Teaching Fellow

An Alzar Eclipse

As instructors, we go to great lengths to bring experiential learning opportunities to our students. Sometimes, though, those opportunities drop right at your doorstep. Last week, we were lucky to find ourselves in the path of totality of the Great American Eclipse--the first total solar eclipse in the continental US in almost 40 years. Members of the University of Arizona Astronomy Department gave us the scientific perspective at a lecture in town the day before, and joined us at the Barn on campus with solar binocular and retrofitted telescopes to take in the event.

The moon began to make its appearance an hour before totality, as students hurried about to show off shadow bands through pin-pricked pieces of paper. Students observed that “the weather is shifting, the colors are changing, and the mountains are looking more saturated.” Totality hit at 11:26: “a moment of awe;” and “a once in a lifetime opportunity.” We are grateful to the University of Arizona for giving us a deep understanding of this special event, and even more thankful to the moon for gracing us with its presence. We should start with an eclipse every semester!

Written by John Bengtson, posted under: Uncategorized