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.
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.
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.
While in Choshuenco, we eat at a wonderful local restaurant called El Rucapillán. Though the meals are filling and flavorful, my favorite part of dinner in Choshuenco is always the pebre. Pebre is a traditional Chilean salsa, often spicy and always delicious. Each night in Choshuenco, we find a different pebre on the table. Sometimes it’s mild and bright red; other nights, garlic-filled and salmon-colored, others still, spicy and pale pink. It complements every meal wonderfully, from simple bread and butter to sausage and bean stew. Since we first arrived in Choshuenco, I’ve been determined to learn how to make it. A stilted but successful conversation with the owners of the restaurant settled the plan for Sunday evening, just before dinner.
After a sun-filled afternoon on the beach of Lago Panguipulli, Emily and Allison decided to join me on my culinary adventure. We eagerly made our way to the restaurant, where Veronica ushered us into the kitchen. She was delighted to have three new American pupils, and immediately washed and organized the ingredients: seven or eight plump tomatoes, a handful of yellow ají peppers, a couple small green hot peppers, and two bell peppers. As Veronica sliced up the vegetables, she chatted with Emily, Allison, and I about our hometowns. We discovered that Veronica has a childhood friend who lives in Emily’s home state of New Jersey, and that TV shows have led Veronica to some strange assumptions about Allison’s home state of Texas. As we learned about each others’ hometowns, Veronica tossed the ingredients into a blender with half a cup of water, and pulsed the veggies into the rose-hued salsa that we all adore. She poured the fresh salsa into a large glass jar, and as our conversation drew to a close, we thought our simple lesson might be over.
But we still needed to add salt and the critically important ingredient, cilantro. Veronica hurried off, and I assumed she would return with a handful of cilantro from the fridge. Instead, she beckoned for us to follow her. Out of the kitchen and through the laundry room, we followed her into an alcove behind the restaurant, where we found ourselves surrounded by raised beds. She bent down and plucked a few leaves off of a plant, brought them to her nose, then ours – fresh oregano!
We proceeded to follow her on a tour of the garden. Inside a small greenhouse, cucumbers and tomatoes climbed towards the ceiling and basil grew steadily; beside the greenhouse, squash and zucchini plants flowered. Veronica pointed out the herbs in the raised beds lining the restaurant wall: cilantro, oregano, a local variety of rosemary, and many more. She picked a handful of cilantro and a pinch of rosemary. We munched on a freshly plucked cucumber as she told us that the restaurant uses herbs and vegetables from their garden as much as possible – especially when they make fresh pebre.
Back in the kitchen, Veronica briskly chopped up the herbs and added them to jar. After a heaping spoonful of salt, the pebre was complete. We each tasted a small spoonful, oohing and aahing over the perfect freshness and spiciness. Veronica was delighted, and we left the restaurant a small bowl of pebre all for ourselves – as well as a great new friend!
At dinner, with bowls of our freshly prepared pebre on the table, Emily and Allison chatted with their friends about the recipe, making plans to prepare it at home for their families. “We should make it in the cabanas!” said one of their housemates. Everyone was excited to practice the new recipe, in Chile and back at home. It was a fabulous end to our weekend of paddling and roll practice, a wonderful moment of cross-cultural learning to conclude our final weekend in the Lakes District.
Written by: Angelica Calabrese