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.
On day three of our backpacking trip, instructors woke to an icy tarp hugging their faces. The culprit: three inches of wet snow and a blown grommet. A nearby student tent lay flat, its occupants exposed to a wintery mix. The date was September 20th, and one thing was clear: summer in Idaho had come to an abrupt end.
As instructors, we faced a difficult situation. Countless days spent in backcountry situations prove over and over again that challenge is often the greatest source of growth: it’s easy for students to lead their peers under warm, blue skies, quite another to do so at 34° and pouring rain. Such situations are central to our educational philosophy: learning happens when you step outside of your comfort zone. On the other hand, as our students had learned not two days prior in their Wilderness First Aid course, hypothermia and other cold-related injuries presented a serious risk in such cold, wet conditions. Continue onward or double back and regroup in better conditions?
My co-instructors and I debated back and forth about the merits and risks of adjusting our course itinerary. Try as we might, we knew that the crucial element of the decision was how our students felt about confronting the challenge ahead. Moreover, this was their course, not ours. So, as rain turned to sleet turned to snow turned back to rain, we voiced our concerns and turned over the reigns to our students. Afterall, they had everything they needed to make the decision: knowledge of cold injuries and the risk they posed; an acute awareness of each other’s abilities and struggles; and an appreciation for the goals of our time in the backcountry.
Students began discussing the situation, noting each other’s comfort level, speaking to their own goals and anxieties, and weighing risk versus reward. Each student shared organically, and instructors served as little more than autonomous maps, detailing various trail options and mileages. After 10 minutes, students reached a strong consensus: the risk of continued winter conditions was too great for our novice group. We would turn back.
As the group began walking back in the direction we came, I turned to my co-instructor, Meredith, who was slated to teach a lesson on decision-making that evening. We quickly agreed that the lesson was no longer necessary: experience had taught our students far better than we ever could.