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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.

When in ROAM: Summer Students Teach Their Passions

As a part of our three-week ROAM Summer program last month, Kori Richards, our Director of Expeditions and Risk Management, wanted to design an activity that related directly to students’ lives and the places around them. So, we asked students to lead a short lesson on a topic about which they were passionate. Instructors provided example lessons that were brief, experiential, and informative. We provided a mobile library and offered ourselves as resources. The students filled in the rest.

Students and Instructors take a closer look at a trailside wildflower. Photo Credit: Kori Richards

Challis, a student from nearby McCall, approached me with the idea to co-teach a lesson on fire in the West. Fire fascinates me because it invokes ideas of ecosystem regeneration and the role that humans play in the environment. Challis views fire from a different lens: her father and brother spend their summers traveling around the West fighting infernos, often uncomfortably close to home. In our lesson, I provided the ecological background and Challis followed up with stories of fire and the role that it plays in small Western towns like ours. It was the first time many of our East Coast students had considered wildfires, let alone the direct role fire plays in their new friend’s life.

Darcy, our lone New Englander, drew upon past research into the ethical and ecological considerations of factory farms. She began her lesson without preface by forcing the expedition to don heavy backpacks and cram themselves into a small rope corral. Darcy proceeded to walk us up and down the beach until we cracked. When she informed the group of the topic of her lesson--factory farming--the group’s anger turned to appreciation of the ethical demonstration. The group spent the afternoon discussing Darcy’s decision to eat vegan, and I caught more than one student sneaking a taste of the tofu we brought for Darcy.

Each student taught their peers about something they are passionate about: everything from a lifelong connection to salmon (the fish) to the igneous rocks on Salmon (the river). These lessons represent a small part of a much larger learning experience, but they demonstrate that learning doesn’t need 4 walls, a textbook, or a teacher at the head of the class: just a group of people with an interest in the world around them.

Spanish and Service Learning in Valley County

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.

Ceilidh teaching Cascade fifth and sixth graders new Spanish phrases.

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.

Davis giving high-fives to his students as they master new Spanish vocabulary.

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.

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! 

Magical Realism – an Exploration in Creative Writing

During this Unit in all of our English classes, we've been exploring the value of a literary movement that is widely accepted as having begun in South America. The most famous female author from this movement is Isabel Allende, the niece of Chilean President Salvador Allende. It seems fitting we'd explore her style of literature while also exploring her homeland.

In our AP English Language & Composition course, the students spend their time analyzing and debating the greater meanings found in these incredibly poetic and complex pieces of literature. Ultimately, they write an analytical essay arguing for what they believe the greater meaning of one of these texts to be and supporting it with textual evidence. It is one of the more challenging essays they'll write this semester.

In our Honors 10th & 11th grade English courses, the students are also expected to analyze and discuss the major themes of these and other Magical Realism short stories or excerpts, but afterward, they are asked to employ those elements in their own writings. In class everyday, I have my students analyze "visual texts" and then write Magical Realism pieces telling their stories. These smaller, in-class activities allow them to develop these complex skills and then ultimately apply them to personal writings in which they expose their emotional experiences.

Because the purpose of Magical Realism was, and has always been, to communicate that which is tragically real in spite of the fact that it may have never truly happened. You say, "Uh... whuh?", and I understand the confusion, but I'll clear it up quickly. In the news, when reporters say that another hurricane hit Haiti, or when you read in your history textbook about lynchings in the post-Civil War South, you can't really comprehend what the emotional effect of those traumatic events was on the people that survived. Sometimes those experiences were so tragic and so disorienting for them that the way they felt was not at all the way they factually were. Anyone who has experienced this kind of helplessness, fear, or trauma understands. There are myriad examples of this style of writing in the American canon; The Things They Carried  by Tim O'Brien, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer are just a few of these types of famous, tragic, and beautiful stories. Maybe you read them and were so caught up in the web of their accounts, you didn't stop to ask yourself what of it was actually real? Maybe you knew, and you didn't really care?

So, out of respect for my students' privacy and creative genius, I'll allow them to share their pieces about their personal lives with whomever on their own time. Here, however, they've allowed me to share their in-class writings. So, suspend your desire for facts, and walk slowly through their web of truths.

Carrie Ann Baade's following painting was interpreted thus:

54587628dd5c8The butterfly lady was always a myth my mother would tell me when I was a child. She was a beautiful woman who wore a magnificent green dress and walked around the woods followed by butterflies of every species...I always dreamed of meeting this butterfly woman... as I grew up my childish ambitions died and I joined the real world. Got a job as a photographer... after returning from Japan my boss next sent me to Mexico to photograph the annual monarch migration. When I arrived the number of butterflies was insane. I got beautiful pictures but then all of a suddent time seemed to freeze and from the middle of the grove a multitude of different species of butterflies appeared and I went bak to that little girl. I saw the womand was so captivated I forgot I had a camera to take a picture... when I returned home, no one believed me but I knew I had seen the butterfly lady." - Jake V.

About this painting by Carrie Ann Baade, Amparo M. wrote:

carrie-ann-baade-18"It was Fall in the small town. The trees were dressed in their most fiery coats and the hunter's wife was weeping. Over the course of the year, after the hunter's immense success selling rabbits, he had found in a reality constructed by liquor, the most intense pleasure in beating his wife... Even though she tried to hide it, her sorrow was palpable in the air around her. And the town's people ceased to buy the hunter's rabbits in an act of empathy to the poor wife. But the man was full of rage, and the abundance of rabbits in the woods provided a source of output for his violence. The Hunter's house began to fill up with carcasses..."

 

 

 

Sebastian C. was inspired by this painting from Carrie Ann Baade's collections. He wrote:

c51f49be8ac981c5489afe3874d463a0"I try to control my mind as much as possible. But my thoughts are not my own, at least not completely. I don't understand what I am. I speak and hear my voice, but I think and hear two. Deciphering what thoughts are my own drives me crazy.... My sister and I have grown up with this our whole lives. She used to yell when the roaring voice came into our heads. She fought it so much, never calming down. She grew so tired, loosing sleep at nights with the roars in her head. She became so weak that she stopped fighting. She let the roars overpower her own thoughts..."