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:
The 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:
"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:
"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..."
Our Spanish C Teaching Fellow, Melissa, took it upon herself to contact the local museum. She thought that perhaps we could bring our students there. The curator was overjoyed.
The kids were asked to record information about Neltume they hadn’t know yet while also searching through the plaques for the grammar they’ve been learning. They talked about the worker revolutions that began here. They learned about how artisanal woodworking has at once torn the forest down while lifting its people up. And from talking to the curator, they learned about the pride these people feel for their history and their land.
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:
- Lecture: Meg talked about what's happening in the atmosphere at a molecular level
- Visual Aids: graphs, diagrams, charts, infographics, etc.
- Photography: computer-generated and real-life
- Videos: ranging from An Inconvenient Truth to CNN films about the Marshall Islands
- Humor: comics, parody films, etc.
- Non-fictional Literature: news articles, personal accounts, etc.
- 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
Every Thursday, the Science teachers have an opportunity to take their students out of lecture and put them into a lab.
This week in Ned's Chemistry class, he had his students create their own lab project for another group of students to complete. Each lab imagined up by the students was required to include chemistry concepts covered throughout the unit thus far. Some of them are named below:
- Sig Figs
- Scientific Notation (if applicable)
- Metric calculation
- Metric conversions (if applicable)
And beyond creating a lab that applied the topics they'd been discussing for the past couple weeks, the students also had to come up with the lab's introduction, its testable questions, materials, and procedures.
What I love about this assignment is that students are bought into their learning in a way that could have never been achieved if Ned had just given them a sheet of paper with instructions on it. They now know metric calculations in a way they didn't have to before. They understand the challenge of formulating expectations that lead others to outcomes they'd intended. Their ability to process the information in all these different ways will make it impossible for them to forget.
Check out the end-product of a lab the students created on densities:
Pretty crazy, huh!?
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?