Greetings from Chosuenco, Chile! The weather is warm and it is real treat to be enjoying summertime in early March. We just finished our first set of classes with half the group in Chosuenco, where they participated in math, science, and history classes. Our first group has just departed to the town of Neltume (fifteen minutes up the road), and the group in Neltume will be joining us for this next week and a half. The students in Neltume have been attending English and Spanish classes as well as working on conversational challenges with their newly honed Spanish skills.
For the first time in the school’s history, Alzar has incorporated block scheduling, making each class about one and a half hours long. This system has been positively received by both students and the faculty. For my honors US history course, this has been a fantastic development. My classes have begun to resemble a college seminar-style class, in which we have been able to engage more deeply with the material. In particular, discussions on difficult topics such as cultural relativism and the illusory objectivity that history textbooks often attempt to propagate have been highly engaging. I have been impressed with each students ability to rise to the added of challenge of more readings and a higher degree of discussion in this new system.
From a teaching perspective, here in Chosuenco I lack many of the resources I rely upon in Idaho. Among these obstacles are limited wifi, no access to an electronic display of information (powerpoint and videos), an inability to email back and forth between students, and the typical distractions of teaching in a busy little town. However, with these obstacles comes a new degree of resourcefulness and creativity in designing a curriculum. We have had debates, student-driven harkness discussions, student presentations, discussions on current events, as well as numerous other engaging classroom activities.
A particular highlight for both the students and myself was the opportunity to draw and present a political cartoon. As political cartoons and satire featured prominently throughout the era we are focusing (American Imperialism and Progressive Movement), I thought it would be appropriate have the students immerse themselves in the political, social, and economic discussions of that time as well as share their knowledge in a creative and hilarious way. The results had us dying with laughter. Some highlights included Katie Milligan portraying Teddy Roosevelt as a therapist, acting as the mediator between a miner’s union and mine owners in the 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike, and Daniella Admundson comically depicting the disturbing conditions of the meatpacking industry that inspired the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1904. I felt the activity was highly engaging and I look forward to incorporating similar activities going forward. Ultimately, what makes these activities so successful are the incredibly intelligent and curious students I have the privilege of working with everyday!
History Teaching Fellow
Kayaking 150 kilometers is not an easy feat, and also not part of the everyday life of the average high school student. This unique lifestyle is very common in the day to day life of an Alzar School student. Through completing this challenging goal, the students fulfilled the six Foundations of the Alzar School; these elements include academics, outdoor adventure, environmental stewardship, cultural exchange, leadership training, and service learning.
The students on this expedition woke up early each morning in order to pack all their personal gear, complete their daily chores, and get the group prepared for embarking on the river each morning. Through this outdoor adventure of paddling on the river, these students fostered a relationship with the environment and learned how to leave as little trace as possible moving from one campsite to the next.
At the end of a long day of paddling through the beautiful wilderness of the Baker River, students would have an hour or so to complete schoolwork on their iPads. Each night a subject is assigned in which all the students complete work in that particular subject.
Two students from Los Escualos, a local kayaking club here in Cochrane, joined us for the entire expedition. They joined us for meals, leadership debriefs, and participated in other group activities on and off the river. Our Alzar School students were forced to go out of their comfort zones in order to communicate with the se students on a daily basis, and strengthened their Spanish skills socially and dynamically.
Leaders of the day (LODs) are assigned every two days and are in charge of facilitating the group and guiding them through different tasks, such as chores, meals, and explaining the overall schedule and goals for the next few days. Each evening, the group comes together to debrief the progress of the LODs that specific day, focusing on specific instances that show either a positive aspect of the 10 Elements of Leadership, or a delta, which is something that can be changed or worked on in the future.
It is essential for students to complete their chores in a timely manner in order for them to be set up for success during the day. This service learning is integral to the big picture of the expedition and the success of each day.
This expedition is just a glimpse into the daily life of an Alzar School Student and the uniqueness of this semester school. We are about to embark on another expedition before we spend time in the cities strictly taking classes, participating in cultural activities, and strengthening hard skills in white water kayaking. When we need a classroom, the world awaits.
What is wilderness? And how are we a part of it?
For their first essay assignment of the semester, the AP English class at Alzar is investigating notions of wilderness in relation to humanity, sense of place, and environmentalism. Their prompt is to synthesize at least three pieces we have read so far to support Jennie Baron’s argument in “Innu Support and the Myth of Wilderness” (2003). This argument of focus is that, contrary to western images of pristine wilderness as free from human interference, mankind is actually an integral part of a wilderness landscape. The examination of how we define “wilderness” and how we interact with such spaces is fundamental to students’ experiences throughout the semester, as it lays the groundwork for dismantling our own privileges and biases, and moves us towards a more inclusive environmentalism.
In class on Thursday, AP English students discussed what wilderness currently means to them. Many described it as a place where humans do not go. Others explained it as a place foreign to them, where they have no sense of place. However, as students discussed, these opinions overlook indigenous peoples who have long lived in these spaces. In fact, American National Parks, which our society often considers the most pristine wilderness areas in our country, are only free of humans because the government removed any Native American groups who had long called those lands home. Western environmentalism, in general, has a xenophobic history. Sarah Jaquette Ray (2009) explains:
“The modern environmental movement… gained support from… those who wanted to preserve the myth of American exceptionalism… and those who feared the loss of White, Protestant dominance and wanted to prepare Americans for the competition ahead… But the positive image of environmentalism as protecting nature for “resources” and “refuge” disguised its exclusions and reinforced social norms in ways that helped regenerate the declining power of the Anglo-Protestant elite... It justified the displacement of Native Americans, subsistence farmers, and squatters to “conserve” land for White men who came from politically powerful families. The wilderness cults of the Progressive Era promoted wilderness as essential to moral, racial, and national “purity,” a focus that reflected American culture’s obsession with ‘social hygiene’ in the late 19th century" (p. 258).
By questioning romantic ideals of what a wilderness “should” look like, we inherently challenge racism and classism. Then, it is possible to begin imagining what inclusive environmentalism can look like.
Establishing a sense of place is necessary to integrating humanity with nature. In his piece Rediscovery of North America, which AP English read in the first week of school, Barry Lopez (1991) suggests that in order to truly appreciate and respect the environment, we must view land as our companion, as part of our community. Natural landscapes, therefore, are part of us, and we are part of it. If we view nature in this way, mankind integrating with wilderness areas becomes a less terrifying idea. Alzar is largely founded in an inclusive environmentalism: three of Alzar’s six foundations are Outdoor Adventure, Environmental Stewardship, and Cultural Exchange. A thorough consideration of these foundations encourages students to transcend western biases, champion a more inclusive environmentalism, and find a sense of place within natural landscapes.
When we go down to Chile, we will experience a wide range of wilderness. We will backpack through pristine mountainous landscapes in Patagonia National Park, and we will camp on trampled pasture land full of ranchers and cattle. Likewise, here in Idaho, there are protected national forests and canyonlands, as well as vast grassy fields dotted with old barns and cabins. Not one of these lands is any more or less valuable than the next. Each natural space, no matter its condition or its interaction with humans, serves a purpose, whether it be for recreation or for local livelihood. Environmental stewardship means seeing the sacred value of not only empty wilderness frontiers, but also of what Baron describes as “those local, less pristine, less sublime places that make up most of the natural world” (6).
By investigating their own beliefs of what wilderness is and is not, students will examine their western biases of land access and land management. They can also begin to see nature as an integral part of themselves, and themselves as a part of nature. They will begin to seek the wilderness within, and find their true selves in the context of the great outdoors.
Baron, J. (2003) Innu Support and the Myth of Wilderness. NOLS 2013 Diversity Briefing Guide.
Lopez, B. (1991) Rediscovery of North America. Orion Summer. 1992.
Ray, S. J. (2009). Risking Bodies in the Wild: The “Corporeal Unconscious” of American Adventure Culture. Journal of Sport& Social Issues: 33 (3) doi: 10.1177/0193723509338863
- Megan MacKenzie
In Spanish class this past Friday, both Spanish teachers decided to start their first class of the semester with a conversation about how languages can affect the way we think. This topic has been heavily debated in Linguistics for years, but now that Psychologists, Neuroscientists, Sociologists, and even Economists are getting involved, it's becoming more and more apparent just how huge the language(s) that one speaks can be in shaping the reality that they (the newly accepted singular, neutral pronoun recognized by the ADA as the Word of the Year in 2015) experience.
Where to begin?
Well, in an article titled "How Languages Can Affect the Way We Think", Jessica Gross explains that languages can be understood as "futured languages" and "futureless languages". English is a "futured language", and what that means is that for native English-speakers, we unconsciously make a distinction between our reality now and our reality later. And, although that may not seem like a big deal, research shows that, "... futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year than futured language speakers... [because] when we speak about the future as more distinct from the present, it feels more distant — and we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of monetary comfort years down the line." How do you think a futureless language would affect the way relationships are conducted? On the flip-side, though, how much better do you think a futured language-speaker would be at recognizing that this is a hard day or week or month, but that things will change?
Nearly all the articles the students read cited the difference between geographically and egocentrically directional languages. An aboriginal community from Australia speak a language called Pormpuraaw, and it is considered geographically directional. English is not. When I give a friend directions to my house, I say, "Drive three streets down, take a right, and my house with be on the left". This information would likely be confusing and useless for a Pormpuraawan because they read the land using North, South, East, and West exclusively. This has such a huge affect on their ability to stay oriented that a test was conducted in which geographically directional language-speakers were put in an unknown room with no windows and spun around many times. When they were stopped and asked what direction they were facing, they were almost always correct. Could you do that?
Some language nerds might cringe at hearing the pronoun they refer to only one person -as used in the first paragraph-, and others might consider it to be too general, but the reality is that other languages actually don't have gendered pronouns at all. In Finnish, as our students read last week, there are no gender markers. No 'he's, 'she's, 'him's, or 'her's. A Spanish B students, Liam, explained that one of his good friends is Finnish. Liam said that he's never met anyone his age more comfortable with the opposite sex. Can you imagine all teen-aged American... people feeling that way?
True, we haven't even mentioned Spanish, and this is a Spanish class, right? The most obvious affect that Spanish has on its speakers is through its use of gendered, inanimate objects. In another article entitled "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?", Guy Deutscher cites Russian, Spanish, and German as languages that refer to things as 'her' and 'him'. What is fascinating about this is that the words that are feminine in one gendered languages aren't necessarily so in another which allows researchers to determine if people generally perceive them differently merely due to their assigned gender in that language. The answer is yes. For example, the word for bridge is die Brücke - a feminine noun - whereas in Spanish, it's masculine; Germans used words such as "slender" and "elegant" to describe a bridge. Spanish-speakers, on the other hand used adjectives having to do with strength (typically understood as a masculine characteristic). This ultimately lead Guy Deutscher to ask, "Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life?"
As our AP English Teaching Fellow, Megan, has said, "I'm more interested in questions than I am answers", and as far as this topic is concerned, I absolutely have to agree. Our students left that class asking themselves questions they'd never considered before. My hope is that every day's lesson obliges our students to ask even more questions - I think we're off to a good start.
The common theme lately has been, wherever I work is where I live. It started in college, living in a big house with repurposed rooms and too many friends. This was followed by summer camps where campers always felt the need to hang out on your bed and not theirs. Then interning on organic farms with potlucks and adults in bunk beds. Most recently the forest service where we find our campsite together each night all week and when that’s over we both go home to the same trailer on that one dirt road past the last campsite. And now I find myself here at the Alzar school, where I’m again a part of small community. Part of the ruffled feathers and expedited growth of friendships that come with an assortment of people spending all their time together. Except this time my fellow members are just now learning what it’s like to leave their homes and share space with staff and students. They’ve already started to take ownership in their new home and more quickly than that they’ve created a sense that they’re all connected. The connection became real and apparent during the first expedition. When a raft wasn’t loaded, we couldn’t move on; when a person was struggling, we all struggled; when dinner wasn’t cooked, we didn’t eat. The importance of the whole community being on the same page became evident. So in what seems to be a tradition, the students created a set of guidelines in their own words to define what they need to make it possible. This community contract now sits above the fireplace, to remind us of what we all value and need to thrive in such an intimate community. Although, we all know this is going to be a challenge, that’s exactly why we are here.