Nestled in the heart of Idaho’s west-central mountains, the Alzar School’s unique location lends the opportunity to explore pristine and vast natural environments in a manner of ways. Our 100+ acre campus is located along the Payette River. Just 3 miles downstream from Kelly’s Whitewater Park and a geothermally heated pool, students can practice their kayaking skills almost year round. The Alzar School is also surrounded by the Payette and Boise National Forests which lends ample opportunities to hike high mountain trails and camp alongside backcountry lakes. This upcoming weekend students have the chance to explore a bit more of Idaho - not kayaking or backpacking, but on skis and snowboards!
There are two ski areas, Tamarack Ski Resort and Brundage Mountain Resort, located within an hour’s drive of the Alzar School. With an average annual snowfall of over 11 feet, this region provides amazing snow, diverse terrain and short lift lines that come with small-town mountain resorts. These factors combined, make Tamarack and Brundage ideal for students to learn on and explore a few times each semester. On ski days, all Alzar School students, regardless of skill level, take a short lesson. Whether it is linking turns on the beginner hill or finding a powder stash in the trees, students of all abilities tend to have a blast on these family-friendly mountains. Skiing and snowboarding with the Alzar School provides students with the chance to try a new sport or hone existing skills, sliding along with teachers and peers amidst the beauty of Idaho’s winter.
After six weeks in Chile and spring breaks spent across the USA, Alzar School students have finally returned to campus and hit the ground running. Between busy class days, outdoor activity, PE, and even some spring skiing, the schedule has been jam-packed. But students haven’t forgotten their time in Chile, or the language skills they learned while abroad. Last week, students had the opportunity to share their experiences, as well as their language skills, with local elementary students in Valley County.
Students began planning their lessons in Spanish class. Each class prepared not only a short presentation on Chile, but also fun and engaging 15-minute lessons based on concepts recently studied in their Spanish classes. Spanish teachers Auriona East and Colin Hull encouraged their students to think outside the box, and students worked in small groups to develop lessons and materials for their classes. They prepared slideshows, poster-boards, cut-out figures, and fun games to help their soon-to-be students engage with the new content.
On Tuesday, students travelled to Donnelley Elementary School, where they taught in first, third, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms. On Thursday, I joined students at Cascade Elementary School, where they taught fifth and sixth grade classrooms; following our time at the school, we headed to the Cascade Cultural Arts Center, where students taught a small group of homeschooled children of various ages.
The lessons at Cascade Elementary started with a brief slideshow in which Alzar School students presented on their experience in Chile. The students had the opportunity to share not only about the various different landscapes and environments that we travelled through, but also to discuss differences in Chilean cultural and lifestyle. The Spanish C class enthusiastically shared about the different foods that they ate in Chile, from empanadas to the famous lomo a lo pobre, a steak dish served with caramelized onions, French fries, and a fried egg. The Cascade students gobbled down the information as readily as they might have gobbled down one of the dishes displayed on their Smartboard; as the Alzar School students moved through their lesson, they reviewed new vocab. “What’s the word for soup? Or bread?” they asked the class. The local students perched on their knees, shouting sopa, pan, stretching their arms up into the air to be called on.
After the short presentations on Chile, the fifth and sixth graders split into four groups, rotating through stations planned by Alzar School students. One group of students taught a wonderful geography lesson, in which Cascade students competed against one another in a “trashketball” competition based on identifying new vocab. Another group had a vibrantly colored poster-board with illustrations of valleys, mountains, rivers, and more, which transitioned into a Pictionary game on the board. Students shouted the new vocab enthusiastically. “El rio, el sol, la montaña!” echoed through the locker-lined hallways.
Another group practiced weather vocabulary with an animated game of charades, directed by the Spanish B students. A slight, blonde boy stood at the front of a table of his peers, violently shaking and chattering his teeth; “Hace frio!” his friends cried out, competing to be first to remember the new words. On the floor nearby, Spanish D students split their small group into clusters of two and three, and each group was tasked with arranging a cut-out house, tree, and person based on a Spanish phrase. “El hombre es lejos de la casa,” Ceilidh said, and an active brunette with a tie-dye sweatshirt on quickly grabbed the stick-figure man and placed him an arm’s length away from the house. Each student, whether from the Alzar School or from Cascade Elementary School, was active, engaged, and excited.
Reflecting on the experience over the course of the next few days, our students noted that teaching was incredibly fun, as well as exhausting. They returned to campus with a newfound appreciation for their Alzar School teachers, and the work each of us puts in to planning an engaging classroom discussion or activity.
But more importantly, they reflected on how exciting it had been to share their knowledge and experience with local students. They had offered the Cascade and Donnelly students a glimpse into Chilean culture, as well as an inspiration to continue to study language – and perhaps, one day, to use that language to connect with a new place, to make a new friend, and to expand their understanding of the world.
The day after students arrived, we began academic classes. One class, Physics, immediately took their heady concepts and formulas to the test.
During a Physics Lab last week, the students were asked to consider the forces of gravity, drag, and impact on a given object. In our Physics class last Wednesday, the object was a raw egg.
Gravity, when left entirely to its own devices, will cause a falling object to accelerate. So, as we all know, if you simply dropped a raw egg from a ~4.35 meter ledge (as the students did), that thing should definitely break! But, students were asked to help create "drag", or air resistance... or friction (all synonyms that helped me understand this concept) on their egg so they could slow acceleration and hopefully keep the egg from cracking.
Another way to protect the egg is by displacing or slowing down impact. If you protect the falling egg with some kind of buffer such as bubble wrap, the time of impact will increase, so the intensity of the hit will be spread out over... maybe .5 seconds instead of .25. In this way, the students could also attempt to protect their egg.
So, our Semester 10 Physics students were given a variety of materials to increase drag and decrease impact. The one caveat was that they could only build one device. They couldn't have something attached to the egg and on the ground; they had to get creative. And, they did.
Some built elaborate pillows dangling just below their eggs to decrease impact. Others, as you'll see in the picture below, made parachutes.
We're so lucky to have an academic environment where our kiddos can learn hands-on - test their ideas and learn from their experiences. Not one egg broke!
What's so exciting about learning at Alzar School is that we have the opportunity to delve into interdisciplinary studies every few weeks. They come about in the form of "Saturday Classes". This past Saturday was our 2nd of the year. In the first, the Environmental Science and Math teachers, Reed and Jonathan respectively, teamed up to teach the students about food composting and then the logistics behind making a large-scale compost site feasible... and then they did it! As an institution, we've been dreaming about making our campus' food consumption more sustainable, and we did it. Semester 9's students did to be exact.
This past Saturday, Megan and I co-taught a class combining Biology and English. To get the kids' attention, we called it "Making Science Sexy" because the truth is that "Science and Communication" sounds down-right boring. However, -I'm getting excited here- that's the whole point! We wanted to get the students thinking about how the words/data/images/videos that are used to convey scientific information can either bore you to death or engage you into action. On top of that, we wanted them to reflect on which formats are most engaging for them specifically. We introduced the science of Global Climate Change to them in seven styles:
- Lecture: Meg talked about what's happening in the atmosphere at a molecular level
- Visual Aids: graphs, diagrams, charts, infographics, etc.
- Photography: computer-generated and real-life
- Videos: ranging from An Inconvenient Truth to CNN films about the Marshall Islands
- Humor: comics, parody films, etc.
- Non-fictional Literature: news articles, personal accounts, etc.
- Fictional Literature: written poetry, spoken word, short stories
We showed myriad resources in each category and had the students reflect on each one, asking them how informative and engaging they found those styles of information to be.
After reviewing all of them, the students came together and discussed how scientific information can be made "sexier". They found out that for some of them articles and diagrams were the most engaging. Others were hit hard by the spoken word poetry and photographs of real people. They talked about using a variety of formats to appeal to multiple audiences. The students saw that what most appealed to them was often very different than what the kid next to them wanted to see, hear, or read.
After our Harkness Discussion the students were asked to delve into a social and environmental issue occurring in their sending communities. They had to produce a presentation for that information that called to their style of learning. Some kids created raps, others drew comics. Many wrote articles drawing on diagrams and photographs. One prepared a power point, and a few others made a video. More than a couple wrote poems. They came up with some awesome final products.
I'd like to share a poem by one of our students who wanted to address the intersection of homelessness and disease:
"Responsibility" by Samantha Daddi
Closed eyes, run by, look away no one makes a sound
Sitting there, a man dressed as though he hasn't a change of clothes,
Seemingly twinning with the man on his right,
The women on the bus snicker and scorn, advising distance to keep from those two, oh and all of the people over there, warning us not to go over there.
Ignored by society, pushed away to the side
Dropped to the ground from such a large high,
Drugs help to stabilize some of these guys,
Came here after loosing the game we call life.
Illness is not always apparent to the eye.
needs a clean slate, restrictions, guidelines and contributions
Outside perspectives no not responsible for their actions, they aren't mine
Mentally ill falling down a hill isn't that their problem?
Closed minded fragile views on social stigmas
Drugs may help this poor man's struggles but without regulation they may just be trouble,
Ways of communicating health and wellbeing to people who aren't being helped or well treated
One thing leads to another and that poor man is now in more turbulent trouble
Self care isn't there, access and efforts leading to outward diseases
Respiratory infection, skin disease and even hiv
Problems snowballing into a very large set,
Without taking responsibility,
standing up to systems that aren't met
we must never forget it is your responsibility to help one another, hard times good times, no one will know if we all contribute to a societal uphill
Alzar School is in full swing now! This is the end of our first full week of academics. The students have attended every class four times this week and invested hours in learning engaging and -modestly speaking- mind blowing information. I could spend blogs on blogs talking about that mind blowing content in each class, but I wanted to spend today just discussing one: Environmental Science with Reed.
This Environmental Science unit flows nicely into our English and Spanish curriculum, as well. We're all talking about a sense of self and a sense of place. Who are we? And how does our home affect our understanding of ourselves? In Reed's class, the question is: "What do we know about our new home?" The reality is that most of them know very little, and for that reason, Reed has decided to re-imagine our Environmental curriculum to be much more place-based. The focus is not on deep water currents in the Atlantic or tornados in Kansas. The focus is central Idaho. It's Valley County. It's Alzar School.
So, in Reed's lab last week, he asked the kids to steep in "4 meditations" in the woods on campus. He says that we are often stuck in one lens of perception. That, as writers we describe. As artists we paint and draw, and as scientists we define. Every one of these forms of "meditations" is valuable; however, taking the time to investigate and experience a place through multiple lenses will help one to create a much deeper sense of place. His 4 meditations were:
- Naturalist's: The student spends time attempting to accurately and scientifically analyze and describe one tree. So, measuring the trunk's diameter or shape of its leaves.
- Ecologist's: He or she attempts to acknowledge all the connections that tree has with all other biotic and abiotic aspects of its environment, i.e. the wind, fungus, shrubs, birds, sunlight.
- Artist's: Each person draws their tree as they see it and as it makes them feel.
- Spiritualist's: The individual gives thanks to that tree for its existence.
Between each meditation, the students came together with Reed to discuss how their perspectives changed as they changed their focuses, how they felt differently, and which ones felt the most natural to them. Ultimately, the students came away with the lessons Reed had been hoping for: a focused meditation on nature and one's environment invites deep compassion - an interest in and a love for that which sustains us.
Building on the past week's lessons, yesterday Reed and his class took a tour around campus to identify some of the plant-life we enjoy here. They identified five trees, six shrubs, and a few forbs. They discussed its medicinal uses, investigated its smells, and tasted its sap or bark or leaves. They shared stories. Reed told them wild things they'd never known. He explained that this same species of conifer found on our campus - the Ponderosa pine - was once used in nuclear testing to determine the adverse affects nuclear bombs would have on forests... I think we all can imagine the outcome. He explained that when sagebrush is damaged, it releases a chemical that warns nearby sagebrush plants that danger may be coming so they can start channeling toxins into their leaves. For that reason, ungulates (antelopes and deer) tend to eat while moving upwind so that they can eat 'unsuspecting' sagebrush with lower toxicity in its leaves.
Today the students had a quiz on all these plants that are native to our property - Reed says they nailed it.
I asked Reed where he is going with the rest of the unit, and it's apparent he has big and equally impacting dreams. He wants to build towards a comprehensive understanding and appreciation of the forest and grass ecology in this area. Ultimately, they will choose and plant a native and edible forb on our property. This will help to diversify the already beautifully rich land we live on, as well as provide food for future Alzar students, and through it all they will continue to develop their own sense of place while simultaneously creating it. How amazing is it to think of our students taking this curiosity and passion back to their families and their homes?