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Physics: Dropping Knowledge

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.

Charlie, Nick, and Bryan showing off their egg-protection contraption

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! 

Saturday’s Discussion: Science + Communication

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:

  1. Lecture: Meg talked about what's happening in the atmosphere at a molecular level
  2. Visual Aids: graphs, diagrams, charts, infographics, etc.
  3. Photography: computer-generated and real-life
  4. Videos: ranging from An Inconvenient Truth to CNN films about the Marshall Islands
  5. Humor: comics, parody films, etc.
  6. Non-fictional Literature: news articles, personal accounts, etc.
  7. 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

Re-“Reed”ing Environmental Science

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?

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.

My Inspiring Teaching Fellow

I remember last semester when I was told that I would be mentoring a Teaching Fellow in my English class this Spring. It would be my responsibility and privilege to provide a healthy learning environment for not only my English students but also an aspiring educator... I was nervous.

I remember, too, weeks before our Spring semester began, receiving an e-mail from my to-be Teaching Fellow; her name was Megan. She was pumped, passionate, and prepared. (I guess we're going for alliteration in this... account.) She wanted to know if there was any reading material she could get moving on, and she wanted me to know she was stoked to be coming. I remember sitting on my friend's floor over our Winter Break reading her letter and feeling compelled to immediately respond - I wanted Megan to know that I would do everything I could to help her get as much out of this experience as she was willing to put in. I hadn't realized how passionate I would be about that. As we shared later, I may have been a little... overzealous in my response. But, I think that's okay.

As everybody who is at all familiar with our program knows, our schedule is crazy - trying to introduce someone to classroom systems while helping them understand our chores systems, activity systems, faculty-meeting systems, expedition backpacking and river systems, etc... is just more intense than can be described. Megan, in the midst of all of it, figured out how to integrate her own system into it so she could keep track of everything. She made her own calendar to organize personal-recharge time, Teaching Fellow-duty time, and curriculum-planning time. And, during those planning hours, she was engaged, excited, and eager to know more (alliteration, see?!).

I remember that while in Chile we tried out block scheduling -which was a pretty huge success. Megan helped me come up with a creative way to present a Unit in six days that was normally taught over the course of fourteen. She observed me teaching the curriculum, and then she got to teach it to another class herself. It was awesome to see how she took my approach and morphed it to suit her style all the while fine-tuning what that style would be. She gracefully accepted feedback and immediately attempted to address it. She was growing intentionally and impressively fast.

I remember, too, that when we returned from Chile, it was her turn to teach an entire Unit. She was passionate about Into the Wild in a way that inspired me. It spoke to her interest in Psychology and Gender Studies. She found complicating questions in a text that could have been so simple. She pushed the kids to ask themselves what 'privilege' means. How many kids do you know that think about that? She incorporated oral history, magazine articles, scholarly articles, and visual art into her lessons. She helped them practice their metacognitive skills of self-assessment through Harkness discussion, in-class timed writes (with the multiple outcome of preparing them for the AP Language & Composition Exam), and peer reviews. Yet, what makes me the most excited about her development is her ability to manage a classroom dynamic in a way that feels playful, supportive, and educational. The students enjoy her class. They look to her for answers. They respect her questions.

I soooooooooooo (Look at all those 'o's!) appreciate contributing to a program that recognizes we all have room to grow. It doesn't matter if we're students, faculty, administrative staff, or Teaching Fellows. We came here for an opportunity to improve ourselves while helping others do so; Megan is both the product and the source of this ideology, and I couldn't be prouder of her.