‘Why Chile?’ we are often asked. The Alzar School returns to Chile each semester because it offers an amazing classroom for our students. Traveling to South America, students are met with a warm and welcoming culture that allows them to practice their Spanish speaking skills and make connections with locals. Beyond these wonderful people and cultures (stay tuned for a blog post about the Mapuche people,) Chile’s expansive geography and rich history provide endless lessons. Exploring Chilean Patagonia, in particular, gives our students a first-hand perspective on the contemporary and universal issue of land conservation. And this spring, Alzar School students are lucky to experience a historical moment for Chile and for the world.
On January 29, 2018, Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet and Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, President and CEO of Tompkins Conservation, came together to form five new national parks in Chile and expand three others. After decades of planning, restoration and negotiations (read more about the history of Patagonia Park,) the Chilean government and Tompkins Conservation have formalized the world's largest expansion of a national park system through the donation of private land!
The recent donation from Tompkins Foundation of over 1 million acres marks a momentous milestone for conservation and sets a president for private organizations. With this latest donation, Kristine, her late husband, Doug, and their foundation have helped to conserve more than 13 million acres of unique ecosystems in Argentina and Chile. In Chile alone, these newly formed parks will cover more than three times the area of Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined, roughly the size of Switzerland.
In her recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Kristine explains the motivation behind their conservation efforts. “We believe that the transfer of private lands to the national park system is an act of democracy. A country’s natural masterpieces are best held and protected by the public for the common good. They should be available to all people to enjoy, to remember that they are part of something much larger than themselves. National parks, monuments and other public lands remind us that regardless of race, economic standing or citizenship, we all depend on a healthy planet for our survival.”
Alzar School students will continue to trek through the natural wonders of the new Patagonia National Park this week, taking in views of expansive valleys, glaciated mountains and, roaming wildlife. As they explore these far reaches of the world they will also gain a lesson in the value of natural environments and the roles in which governments, private foundations and they themselves can plan in preserving and maintaining wild spaces.
Update: By popular demand, here is the recipe Sam used.
We have all encountered a situation where learning something new seemed utterly tedious. At the Alzar School, we help students engage in their studies by crafting curriculum and assignments to accommodate various interests and passions. For some, learning Spanish, or any language for that matter does not come naturally. Through conversational challenges in Chile, students are giving the opportunity to tailor their Spanish lessons to their interests. The power of learning and cultural exchange combine as we watch students use the Spanish language to communicate about their passions, drawing upon schema, prior knowledge, and experiences, to connect with local Chileans.
As an avid chef and baker, Sam found his Spanish learning nitch in a Chilean kitchen. Sam first approached Veronica and Joanna, the women who serve and cook our meals in Choshuenco, with a conversational challenge to learn the Spanish word for “measuring cup.” This initial conversation left Sam wondering if he would be able to use their kitchen to bake. So, he asked and they agreed. Deciding upon a dessert for the group, Sam shared his recipe for donut muffins with Veronica and Joanna. Together they worked through the ingredients, quantities, and instructions in Spanish. Sam remembers feeling more comfortable trying out new vocabulary and tenses with Veronica and Joanna “because we were in their homes” and in the familiar space of the kitchen. Throughout their baking conversations, Sam learned new vocabulary such as “moleda” meaning “powdered, “nuez moscada” or “nutmeg”, and “Imperial” which is the Chilean brand of and cultural reference for “baking soda”. Needless to say, the donut muffins were a hit! Constructing his conversational challenge around his passion in the kitchen, Sam was able to get far more out of his Spanish lesson in Chile all while making new friends.
As the students enjoy the last few days of their expeditions in Patagonia, Anita thought it would be nice to share a bit about the history and creation of the National Park our students explore.
Spanning from the eastern beech forests of the Andes Mountains to the western arid grasslands of the Patagonian steppe, Valle Chacabuco is a transitional ecosystem that forms the heart of the newly formed Parque Patagonia. Students at the Alzar School spend two weeks in this area. They explore the vast wilderness of Patagonia’s iconic granite spires and the meandering glacial waters of the Rio Baker. Located deep in southern Chile, Valle Chacabuco remained largely unexplored throughout Spanish colonization. As late 19th century explorers trekked steadily south, the resources of these remote areas were documented and soon exploited. As early as 1908, large-scale sheep and cattle ranching operations were established in Valle Chacabuco. Despite government re-appropriation of lands to agricultural elite and the steady degeneration of grazing lands, ranching remained a driving force in the area’s economy up until the early 2000’s.
In 1995, Doug and Kris Tompkins, founders of Patagonia clothing brand and avid conservationists, visited Valle Chacabuco hearing stories of how the rich habitats of this area naturally support a high level of biodiversity. Kris recalls her visit in a blog post, A History of Valle Chacabuco:
"When I drove through the Chacabuco Valley for the first time, I saw the extra-high ‘guanaco fences’ designed to keep these first-rate jumpers out of the best bottom grasslands, which were reserved for the cattle on the estancia. My eyes glazed over looking out on the tens of thousands of sheep grazing the bunch grasses up and down the valley. The grasses looked patchy and dead. Nothing left for wildlife."
The guanaco, a llama relative, is a keystone species in the region and have adapted to the harsh conditions of the high steppe. They roam freely, revitalizing native vegetation and providing food for predators. This area is also home to some of South America’s most endangered species such as giant anteaters, culpeo fox, pumas, and hairy armadillos. Realizing the ecological significance and the conservation potential of the region, Kris founded Conservacion Patagonica in 2000 with a mission, according to their website, of “building new national parks in compelling, ecologically critical areas of Patagonia.”
Since it’s inception, Conservacion Patagonica has acquired large swaths of formerly ranched land and are working to restore and link contiguous natural habitats in Argentinean and Chilean Patagonia. Once complete, Parque Patagonia will become a Chilean national park and span an area roughly the size of Oregon State. Through the acquisition of former ranching lands, extensive ecological restoration efforts and the eventual donation of these areas back to government states, Conservacion Patagonica is making an impact and setting precedent for large-scale land conservation across the globe. Read more about Conservacion Patagonica and the history of Parque Patagonia. Photos courtesy of Parque Patagonia website.
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.
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.