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.

Semester 9 Staff – the Best Yet

When we arrived back at Cascade, Idaho on August 4th, we were only a little different than when we'd left two months prior; some of us had traveled to Canada for epic whitewater, others had returned to old communities to rediscover big pieces of ourselves. Most spent too many hours in cars listening to innumerable podcasts, and a few backpacked. All of us were tanner. But, the four teachers and their new experiences that returned that day only make up a fraction of the instructors that would have a new and profound effect on Semester 9's kids tomorrow (and many days to follow).

This semester we have Megan Wyllie - she was our Science Teaching Fellow last Fall and has come back for the incredible community she proved so capable of developing then. She's bubbly and passionate and fierce. She's capable and humble and caring. She's our Leadership teacher (among many other things).

We have Reed Wommack who has spent weeks and weeks backpacking and instructing in Alaska. He's taught at Swiss Semester. He's kayaked loads. And, he is incredibly good at any game you try to play with him. He's supportive and playful and pensive. He teaches a little Science, a little English, and a little Phys.Ed. He's a boss.

We got Colin back from last semester, too! Colin just came back from leading a trip in Alaska, as well. He loves being on the water and could probably teach anyone how to roll a kayak. He's great at accents and gets work done. He studied abroad in Spain, and now he teaches Spanish and P.E. Can't stop, won't stop.

And those are only our teachers! Our Teaching Fellows are so incredibly and impressively capable. Melissa traveled abroad to Ecuador, has an Education degree, and leads multi-week expeditions for Deer Hill Academy. We have John who has been to Chile multiple times, was the president of his college's outing club, and taught at Teton Science School. Johanna mountaineers, climbs, and has a degree in Education, as well. She's warm and loves to take photos. Hallie has been a raft guide for some years now, she lived abroad in Spain, and she is rocking it as our Medical Coordinator assistant. And, Dave has been a wilderness instructor for years. He's passionate about teaching leadership and orientation. He's hilarious and kind.

... and those are only are instructors! We have a new Dean of Studies and a new Director of Admissions. Our program is growing, and it's no doubt one might fear what that growth means for them or their student. Being someone who is very directly affected by these changes, I certainly wondered. And my fears have been assuaged. After five days of river-systems training, risk-management scenarios, academic lessons, early mornings, and late nights, I feel more than confident in saying that we have a stellar crew. These people know and care. They are capable and compassionate. They are role models and open to growth.

Semester 9 is bound to be the best yet -I'm sure of it-, and it's only the first day.

What is the Alzar School?

I get asked this simple (not so simple) question multiple times a week. It is a natural follow-up question to the "Where do you work?" question that is so prevalent in our culture. And every time I try to answer, I find myself stuttering, spluttering, racking my brain for a better way to put words to the very thing that I spend my days doing. The fact of the matter, is that the Alzar School is no one thing.  It is a school, a community, a support system, a haven. It is an adventure, a challenge, a reward, and a mystery - even to the people who know it most intimately. It is a place where connections form, growth is fostered, and new experiences are infinite. It is a place where education is not always synonymous with a four-walled classroom, and a place where time spent in the wilderness is valued.

And still, it is more. It is an experience - a way of living. And the people who can best explain what the Alzar School is, are the people who are living it. Who make it what it is: a place where I am proud to work.

In Leadership Class, students were tasked to video their "Elevator Pitch", to explain the Alzar School, and these four current students captured it beautifully.

Student Teacher: Austin Shotwell

In preparation for finals week, students in Spanish 2 are taking over the classroom. From a Master List of Vocabulary and Grammar Topics we covered throughout the semester, students selected the two vocabulary and two grammar topics with which they felt least comfortable. Then they became the experts. They used the "ESSDRU" template of lesson planning - very similar to the one Alzar School teachers use - to craft a dynamic review class that would engage their students in practicing verbal, listening, writing and reading proficiency skills in Spanish, while reviewing the appropriate material.

Here is the rubric that guided student planning, and which was used to assess their performance.

Spanish 2 Project Rubric : VISITING PROFESSORSHIP (Student Teacher)

Student Name:                                                                   Score:         /80



Proficient and Beyond






Below Basic


Little to No Attempt Made


Speaking: student delivers at least 70% of lesson in complete, grammatically correct, properly pronounced Spanish sentences          

Lesson Includes:

  • ESSDRU model
  • Completed Lesson Plan prior to delivery of lesson
  • Completed paragraph of reflection within 24hrs of lesson
  • All accurate information
  • Exercises which enable students to practice ALL 4 main language skill areas:






Engaging Qualities:

Are all students engaged in the lesson physically, verbally and mentally? Is this an appropriate review of material?



Student conveys information in a lively, engaging manner


  • Powerpoint,
  • pictionary,
  • charades,
  • quiz game,
  • worksheet
  • listening comprehension
  • Easy Step by Step workbook
  • El Nuevo Houdini
  • Youtube
  • Bingo
  • Reading Comprehension passage
  • Dialogue activity



After their lesson delivery, they completed a paragraph of reflection on their preparation and delivery. After Professor Austin's first lesson, he reflected the following:

I feel like the lesson went well over all. However, there were a few key points in which it did not feel so solid. First, Robert demonstrated a mastery of the weather portion of the lesson right off the bat, so I did not feel the need to rehash what he already knew. After this, we moved on (and I neglected to do a formal assessment because of his apparent mastery). Another piece that was lacking was a proper sell for my lessons. I tried to sell the cuerpo lesson by acting like I was hurting, but this did not properly explain why it was necessary to know. The biggest fault in my lesson, however, was my lack of a detailed plan. To Improve this, I am going to have a far more in depth plan.

Next lesson, he took his own feedback to heart and knocked his lesson out of the park! See below for his full lesson plan and reflection:



Present Progressive and

Preterite vs. Imperfect

SWK- the present progressive and the difference between preterite and imperfect. Also, the regular and irregular conjugations of the two

SWBAT- use the present progressive correctly and know whether to use preterite or imperfect.

Disciplines:  Spanish 2 Semester 2

Engaging Qualities:  Lesson will be highly vocal and will be physically engaging. It will also include writing and reading together.

Timeline: (day of the week and time of each portion)

Minutes 1-3: Warm Up

Translate the following into English, and then write them in the past tense

Estoy caminando y veo mi amigo

Él está bailando en su dormitorio y yo lo llamo

Estás jugando videojuegos y estoy corriendo


Minutes 3-4 explanation of why Present progressive is important

¿Porque es el presente progresivo importante?

Esto es importante por qué lo muestra cuando una acción es en curso.

Minutes 4-6: teaching present progressive

El presente progresivo es estar + un gerund. Es como i am walking o he is running en ingles.

Estar es como normal presente. El gerund es un verbo con ando o iendo. Ando es para verbos de ar y iendo es para verbos de er y ir


Minutes 6-12: practice the present progressive

Voy a hacer una acción y vas a decir que hago en el presente progresivo

Voy a decir una acción en el presente progresivo y vas a hacerlo

Vamos a leer el nuevo houdini y vamos a identificar los presente progresivos

Review if necessary.


Minutos 12-15: formal assessment

Voy a decir unas frases en el presente progresivo en inglés  y vas a escribirlas en español. Después, voy a decir frases en español y vas a escribirlas en inglés

I am walking to the store.

I am singing in the rain.

They are running together.

Estoy esquiando en el nieve.

Estamos corriendo en el llueve.

Están jugando un juego se llama mao.


Minutos 15-17: warm up

Draw two charts on the board, one labelled preterite, one labelled imperfect

Escribes los conjugaciones, por favor.

¿Cuál  es la diferencia?


Minutos 17-19: explain why it is important to know them.

Es importante saber la diferencia entre el pretérito y el imperfecto para decir que una cosa que está

sucedido cuando una otra cosa continuaba que está sucediendo .

Minutos 19-22:  video/ explain irregulars.

Tener- to have- tuve
Estar-to be- estuve
Ir- to go- fui
Ser- to be- fui
Poner- to put- puse
Poder- to be able to- pude
Traer- to bring- traje
Hacer- to do/make- hice
Haber- hubo- there was there were
Saber- to know- supe
Querer- to want- quise
Decir- to say- dije
Venir-to come- vine
Ver- to see- vi
Dar- to give- di

Yo- e
Tú- iste
Él- o
Nosotros- imos
Ellos- ieron



Ir- iba , ibas,iba,íbamos, iban
Ser- era, eras, era,éramos, eran
Ver- veía, veías, veía, veíamos, veían


Minutos 22-25 practicar

Vamos a leer el nuevo houdini

Review if necessary

Minutes 25-27 formal assessment

Voy a escribir unas frases y vas a escribir las frases de español en inglés y los frases de inglés  en español.

Yo cantaba cuando Roberto me llamó.

Él iba al supermercado cuando él veía su hermana.

I was in my house when a gift arrived

Tú Escribe cinco de los irregulares pretérito y una irregular imperfecta.


Environment:classroom with markers

Sell It: explain why each is important

Show It: explain the present progressive, work over the warm ups, explain the irregulars

Do It: present progressive actions, reading Houdini.

Review It: ask if he needs a review, if so, review

Use It:formal assessments

Formal Assessment: (how will you test if your students learned or understood the material?)

The present progressive assessment will measure his vocabulary knowledge, conjugation ability, and listening abilities.

The preterite and imperfect assessment will test his writing skills and vocabulary.

References (what resources did you use and from where?)

My notes

YouTube video

Teacher’s Reflection (1 paragraph post-lesson reflecting on what went well and what you would have done differently):

I feel that this lesson certainly went fairly well over all. It was also quite an improvement from my first lesson, which was not properly planned. In contrast to yesterday's lesson, today I had a very thorough plan, which definitely helped the lesson go smoothly and cover all the material. I felt that Robert was very engaged throughout the lesson and seemed to understand the material. The biggest issue with my lesson today was that we ran out of time, which, in my mind, is better than running out of material. I could have avoided this by reading less of el Nuevo Houdini. All in all, it was a strong lesson and the tweaks that I could have made were not major.

The training has begun!

This week, I have been working to make the logistics happen so our students can have amazing experiences in some of Chile's most spectacular places.  Lately, that has meant dealing with changing out car tires, getting engines repaired, and securing access to the river we are looking to explore.  There have been several long days, but it has been incredibly rewarding to see our students embark on weeks backpacking in Cochamó and paddling on the Rio Petrohue.  Even now, I am writing this post late into the night, connected to the power outlet of the bathroom at our campground.  I love my job because it is constantly challenging me, and when I am successful, our students have transformative experiences.

During my time here in Chile, I have begun training for a feat I will take on May 7th, 2015.  I hope that if I continue to challenge myself, with an eye towards future generations of Alzar School teens, others will join me.

Challenge is a constant theme here at the school.  The Alzar School asks our students to challenge themselves...  There are long days on the trail, backpacking through the Owyhee Canyonlands.  There are epic study sessions as they engage in rigorous courses that equip them with critical thinking skills to be thoughtful leaders.  And there are the meaningful culminating leadership projects students plan for implementation in their communities.  In their career as leaders, joining the Alzar School for a semester is just the launching point for a life long journey towards being community leaders who work to make the world around them a better place.

Back in 2004, when Kristin and I started the Alzar School, we anticipated the journey ahead would challenge us.  From running the entire school out of their living room, to the school’s newly purchased van breaking down on our first summer expedition, to starting our Semester 1 with no complete buildings… creating this one-of-a-kind school has been a feat of endurance, a demonstration of persistence in the face of many obstacles.  This year, we are launching an annual effort to support the school’s ability to make the Alzar School experience accessible for as many great teenagers as possible.  “Paddle for Leaders” will enable supporters of the school to get in on the challenge and adventure of developing the next generation of leaders.  We are committed to making this experience possible for years to come.

Paddle-for-Leaders-2015-AerialAnd, we’re pushing ourselves to make sure the Alzar School continues to offer its semester programs to students with leadership potential from all socioeconomic backgrounds.  In one day, (May 7th, 2015) I will paddle from Payette Lake, high in the river’s watershed, down the upper North Fork of the Payette River, across Cascade Reservoir, and back onto the river, passing the Alzar School’s campus, before finishing the journey in Smith’s Ferry.  In total, I will travel just over 60 miles, taking more than 24,000 strokes in over 19 hours of continuous paddling.  I will launch at midnight, paddle a variety of crafts, and will be joined for different legs of the trip by stakeholders in the school.  Please see for more information about the journey.

Additionally, alumni from around the country will also complete their own “Paddle for Leaders” challenges, raising funds to give the Alzar School experience to future teenagers.  Supporters will have the opportunity to empower the school through online donations, pledging support by stroke, mile, or lump sum, choosing to sponsor Sean’s journey in the Payette watershed, or an alumni’s “Paddle for Leaders” challenge on their waterway around the country.

This effort will finish the school’s annual goal of raising $100,000 to supply student scholarships.  We need your support to reach that goal.

You are probably asking yourself... why is paddling important?  What does paddling teach you about leadership?  For me, paddling changed my world.  I moved to Idaho when I was 18 on a whim (an uncle told me that raft guiding could be a fun summer job).  As I started as a paddle raft guide, I began by thinking of paddling as a team sport.  You didn't make progress unless everyone was pitching in.  When I started kayaking, I learned a great deal of confidence from testing myself and learning my limits.  Paddling rafts and kayaks allowed me to travel and see the world in a unique way.   Now, I am lucky to be a part of a fun, responsible team that paddles some of the world's best rivers.

Since arriving here in Chile in early February, I have been taking every opportunity to train for my 60-mile paddle on May 7th.  I've also been putting in runs to build my cardio endurance and researching the best crafts to use for the day.  Tonight, after spending all day dealing with cars and flat tires, I was able to squeeze in a quick 30-minute sprint on Lago Llanquihue, in the shadow of Volcan Osorno.  The sun was setting and an almost-full moon rising as I worked out my stress on this beautiful Andean Lake.  When I turned to head in, and saw my students completing their homework on the beach of this lake by headlamp, I was reminded of what a special school I get to work for.  I'm a little nervous about completing the 19.5 hours of paddling, but know that if I can, and if we can raise the targeted amount, it will be an effort well worth it.

Once we created the Paddle for Leaders program, we immediately began reaching out to supporters to see who would help us make this project a success.  I am so humbled and appreciative of the various sponsors who are either pledging money already, donating items for our raffle/auction, or otherwise providing logistical support.  My Paddle for Leaders 2015 event will be a great kickstarter to an annual program that ensures scholarships for deserving teenagers.

Already, we are seeing companies such as NRS, Snapdragon, Shore Lodge, Lakeview Chevron, ProBuild, May’s Hardware, Harlows, Gravity Sports, and more jump behind this effort.

There are a couple of KEY ways you can get involved:

  1. Go online and pledge your donation now.
  2. Consider joining the school as a major supporter on our select trip down the Main Salmon River.  See more here: Paddle for Leaders - Salmon River Trip Invitation.
  3. Join us on May 6th, when we will have a launch event at the Shore Lodge in McCall before I start my marathon paddling journey.
  4. Join us on May 7th, by completing the last leg of the journey (down the Cabarton Section of the NF Payette).  Your trip comes with a $100 or more donation.
  5. Follow my training and epic paddle on social media and spread the word by posting our custom hashtag -- #ipaddle4 -- and shouting out to an aspect of our school you support (e.g. “#ipaddle4 #communityservice” or “#ipaddle4 #rivers).

Thank you for supporting the Paddle for Leaders 2015 effort.