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Decision-Making in a Snowy September

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?

Summer in Idaho

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.

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! 

Learning to Write a Breakup Letter…

Throughout the semester students receive peer and teacher feedback on their written work. As an instructor, I work hard to provide students with balanced, specific feedback through comments and consistent use of the same rubrics for writing assignments, annotations, and Harkness discussions. Through this consistency, students can - theoretically - track their growth in each skillset over the semester.

In my experience as a student in public high school, I would receive graded assignments from my teachers, go straight to looking at the letter grade, and then proceed to celebrate or mope - either way ignoring any productive feedback (the only hope for me to improve).  In efforts to combat this mentality, I created the Writing Progress Chart. This is a Google Excel sheet that students each have a copy of with names of writing assignments on the left column and then columns for score, reinforcing, and constructive feedback for each assignment (**See here for a sample) . After students receive feedback on assignments they then synthesize these notes and input them in their Writing Progress Charts (*Parents these should be in students' shared "Refrigerator Folders" at this point and should update automatically with wifi access so you can track your students' writing progress throughout the semester!) When they begin to write a new essay, they first start here as well - to review past feedback of what they need to continue working on - to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

One day, students took this metacognitive exercise a step further. They were tasked with picking just one element of constructive feedback and then writing a love or breakup letter. The idea was they would either write from the point of view of a positive element (such as specificity) and write a love letter proclaiming its importance to the essay OR they could pick a mistake (like repetition) and write a breakup letter to the essay explaining why they are not compatible. The goal? For students to synthesize feedback and also know WHY it is important to avoid or include these elements that are tugging at their grade. Plus, it was fun.

See below for a few entertaining examples:

Dear Citations,

Please take me back. I will do anything you want me to-I would even consider sacrificing like 5 minutes of sleep to have you again. You complete me, you show me that I'm not just making up random points with no factual basis. Without you I feel disorganized, incomplete,unfit for the scrutiny of other's eyes. I swear that next time I will put in the extra work to make sure you don't feel awkward around the rest of my friends.

Love,

Derek's Essays.

Dear Alice,

I am sorry to be writing you this letter. So sorry. I really am sorry. Just so extremely sorry. But the repetition's gotta stop. Didn't reading those first few sentences bore you to death just then with sorry being constantly repeated? It is just too much. You really need to stop, its getting unhealthy. Did those moments in your querencia feel like hours? That's great if it did but I do not need to know that 5 other times. Telling me that once will leave a much larger emphasis and it will make it stronger. Saying the same thing over and over again adds no effect, other then me falling asleep. I'm so happy for you that you found a connection with someone new. As you said about three times, you shared something with Dillard. I do not need to hear about that over and over again. I'm happy that you found someone new and had to tell the whole world about it. Obviously you were just too overjoyed to be leaving me that you just forgot about me and used repetition all wrong.

Sincerely,

Your Querencia Speech

WAFA- A Leadership Advancement Opportunity

This wonderful week our students have been taking a break from their normal lives here at Alzar School, and to get a little practice in the field of Wilderness Medicine. This week they are roaming around campus, covered in artificial blood and injuries (called “moulage”) and taking care of each other’s make-believe injuries as they take part in a Wilderness Advanced First Aid course, or WAFA. As the students learn new vocabulary like “intracranial pressure” and new skills like the “focused spine assessment” they are slowly adding to their repertoire of leadership abilities. The students are becoming better and better at many of the 10 Elements of Leadership as they learn and practice more elements in action (for a full list of the 10 Elements of Leadership check out this page: http://alzarschool.org/about/faq/).

Of course our students are becoming more technically proficient through this course through the vast number of new skills they are acquiring, but I would like to spend a moment to think about the other ways in which this course is helping them to develop as leaders. One way, is that this course helps them to develop and practice in the realms of “360˚ Thinking” and “Accurate Awareness” (two of the 10 Elements of Leadership). In each scenario, which generally follow some preparatory lecture, the students receive minimal help from the WAFA Instructor, and instead are asked to rely on what they have learned - and what they can glean by thinking about the whole picture (360 Thinking) - to provide the best possible care. They do not know if their “patient” in the scenario is diabetic, or has a broken back, or is even conscious before arriving to the scene; they must use their investigative skills to build a finely-tuned “Accurate Awareness” of the patient’s chief complaints. Only then can they figure out not only how to treat the patient, but if it is necessary (and how it would be possible), to “evacuate” the “patient” out of the field. They need to look around, at their situation, their location, the entirety of their patient, and need to do so in a timely manner. As the students go through this course, they are visibly becoming better and better at looking for more clues (and better clues) to offer up the best solution. The development in each student, day by day in “360˚ Thinking” and “Accurate Awareness” is impressive to watch as our students become better and better life-savers and leaders.

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Grace gets her head taken care of in a medical simulation as one student applies a pressure dressing and the other holds her head to immobilize her spine.

Two other elements of leadership in these scenarios that our students also get to practice are “Communication Skills” and “Resiliency and Resourcefulness.” If they are on the rescue team they are asked to communicate not only amongst each other but with their patient. They need to be able to work together with their partners, and to do so efficiently, and may need to communicate in more ways than one. Often they would coordinate their patient care with few words, each student was able to recognize where in the process their co-rescuer was, and what was coming next. Other times they would exchange ideas on how to best treat their patient, and how to respond if their situation changes. Throughout WAFA they must be “Resilient and Resourceful” as they need to be able to adapt to changes as the patient expresses new issues that may not line up with their initial plan, and need to use only the limited resources they have to make the best fix. This has included cutting up t-shirts to use as bandages, using any sort of long and stiff implement to make a splint and sometimes even having the patient as a medical tool by having them use their hands to apply pressure or use one extremity to splint the other one.

WAFA is a course designed to teach students how to respond to medical emergencies in the wilderness by increasing technical skills and knowledge. Perhaps more importantly, however, our students build transferable leadership skills through learning to team-problem solve in high-stress environments. I feel that each student will walk away from WAFA with newfound leadership and medical confidence that will manifest itself in many ways, and that each student is capable of handling many wilderness emergencies that life may throw their way.

The Black Hole Chipmunks’ Major Leadership Experience: Flashback to Chile!

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Sean gives a tour of the native Chilean trees that are found on the Bierles' property in Chile

The last weekend in Chile, Ben, Estée, Jessica, and Kaylee (or the Black Hole Chipmunks, as they named their team) led the group in a huge weekend of travel from Choshuenco to Curicó, about an 8-hour drive.  The logistics involved in the weekend were complex—all of the group gear had to be packed up and left in the bodega in Choshuenco for the spring, and the remaining bags stacked high in the back of the truck.  Challenges arose when the truck’s tire were low, and uncertainty abounded, as the students discovered that Sunday was election day, and consequently everything would be closed.  The students faced this adversity with enthusiasm, and the resulting weekend involved not one, but two waterfall visits—the grandiose Salto Huilo Huilo in Choshuenco, and the more touristy but still intriguing Saltos del Laja north of Los Angeles.  The students also navigated the city streets of Chillán, visiting the market which was teeming with small stands, despite the otherwise shuttered shop fronts of the city.  There were heaping piles of olives, wooden souvenirs galore, colorful baggy pants, beautiful knit sweaters, and fresh fruit smoothies at their fingertips.  The drive continued, with many sleepy students in the back of the van.  The weekend concluded with a “gringo asado” as we grilled sausages, pineapple, and veggies at the Orchard College sporting fields.  The weekend concluded under a full moon. 

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Reflecting on leadership is an important component of the Sunday afternoon

Following are the leaders’ reflections on their leadership.  They addressed questions including: what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?  What did you learn from these challenges?  How could you take these skills back to your hometown to plan a weekend of adventure?  How have you improved since your first leader of the day experience here at Alzar School?  The students have certainly grown in confidence, and their ability to use the Alzar School’s language of leadership, and hence provide each other with helpful, constructive feedback on how to organize themselves as a group and effectively execute a plan.

Ben on “Big Picture” Leadership and the Importance of Communication

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The group admires the river at the Saltos del Laja

Some of the challenges of being the “Big Picture” person are bringing the group together and tying up all the small ends of the other groups (lodging, food, transportation, making sure we stay on time, and being able to know the whole plan).  Ben did an overall good job as “Big Picture.”  He could have had a better understanding of the overall plan, but he definitely succeeded in keeping the group together and united towards the main goal of getting to Curicó.

Ben learned that despite the simplistic looking role of “Big Picture,” there is a lot of work that must be put into properly doing the work.  He learned that a “Big Picture” person needs to be able to keep tabs on each other individual in the group, something he thinks he could have done better.  He also learned that it’s important to keep on time, and that it’s hard to motivate a group to keep moving forward.  Isaac learned from Ben that having a complete understanding of all aspects of the overall plan is very important in how the group views the leaders.  When the leader is someone that people can confidently go to for questions, they trust him or her, but when the leader is unsure about certain aspects, followers can start to loose confidence.

Ben believes his communication skills have grown [since the beginning of the semester and his first leadership experience].  He feels able to confidently address the group in various scenarios.  He believes, though, that he still needs to work on knowing where the group is, both physically and mentally, so that he can effectively work with them to get them excited about an idea.  Isaac has seen tremendous growth in Ben’s resiliency and resourcefulness.  He is very effectively able to adjust the plan when situations change and create a successful solution for everyone.

Estée Avows the Importance of Contacting Resources

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Admiring the scenery at Salto Huilo Huilo

The biggest challenge of the role of lodging was finding a campsite that was under the budget that we had.  A lot of the more popular campsites were much too expensive, so Estée had to go into more detail to find one that worked.  However, she overcame this challenge because she found an on-budget but reliable campsite described by another student as “a great campsite” through her extensive research and email contact with the owners of the campsite.

From this role, Estée learned that it is very useful to contact resources for the campsite prior to arriving.  Isaac commented, “I could tell you were well-prepared because you started speaking to the owner as soon as we arrived.”  This sense of preparedness was due to her thoroughness of emailing the owners.  By emailing them, she learned that the price was reasonable, the site was reliable, and satisfactory, and she even obtained directions from the main highway.  Through observing Estée as a leader, Elena learned that contacting people ahead of time can provide reliability to a plan.  Next time Estée is in a similar leadership position, she will make sure to get in contact with reliable resources ahead of time because of how well it paid off in this particular expedition.

Estée has noticed how she has grown through each LOD experience.  The main way in which she has exhibited growth is through her confidence in making decisions.  From watching Estée as a leader, Elena has observed that Estée’s flexibility and 360o thinking when making decisions has improved.  She now takes into consideration all of the necessary details as well as the thoughts and desires of the group when attempting to choose the path to success.

Jessica Versus Stove Battle Results in Stubbornly Broken Cooking Utensil, Yet Unfailingly Delicious Food

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Jessica and Elena play on the fiercely debated playground equipment--is it a seesaw? a teeter-totter? Undisputedly, the volcano Mocho-Choshuenco, the namesake of one of the Alzar School classrooms, rises in the background.

Jess had to plan the food for the group for the weekend.  Upon arriving at the campsite the first night, she and Ben discovered that the stove burners leaked, which made it an impossibility to use the stove to cook the soup that they were planning on making for dinner.  Luckily, the campsite owner was sympathetic and offered to let Ben and her cook dinner in his kitchen.  After dinner, Dawn and Ian took Jess to a local store where they bought food for the next day that they would be able to cook on the grill that they knew would be present at the Orchard College field [where we would be camping that night.]

From taking on this leadership role, Jess learned to constantly plan ahead.  She learned that even when you think you’ve planned ahead, you should keep planning because you never know when something unforeseen could happen.  What she a Kate both ultimately took away from the weekend is that it is very important to be resilient and to have a Plan B.  During debrief, Elena perceived this and state that Jessica “dealt with the problems we faced well but she could have gone into the situation with more organization.”

Over the course of the semester, Jessica’s confidence in her communication with the group and relaying plans to everyone has improved.  In addition to this, she is more time-oriented and always has her constantly beeping watch with her.

Kaylee Navigates Both the Route and the 10 Elements of Leadership

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Navigating the trails around Salto Huilo Huilo with Kaylee in the lead

As a team leader of the weekend, the major challenge that Kaylee faced as transportation [coordinator] was navigating through cities and around the country of Chile in a foreign language on a schedule.  Kaylee met this challenge by safely navigating using maps and other resources from Choshuenco to Curicó.  Kate agrees when she says, “Kaylee, we did not get lost this weekend.”

From watching Kaylee lead, Rutledge learned that navigating doesn’t need to be stressful.  If a person has a good plan ahead of time, it makes the day go a lot smoother.  Kaylee learned that planning ahead by looking at maps ahead of time really pays off.  She also learned that communication with other leaders of the weekend ahead of time is a good idea so that a complete plan can be made.  Estée also realized this and shared, “write things down before your weekend because it’s helpful to have something to look at and refer to.”  At home, Kaylee will continue to make plans ahead of time, accounting for and writing down directions to stores and campsites from the main road.

Kaylee has seen herself grow in her communication skills, resiliency and resourcefulness, and accurate awareness since her first leadership expedition on the Salmon.  She feels much more confident in her ability to communicate a plan and deal with plans changing.  As Elena said, “#flexibility! There was a lot of uncertainty with our plans, but the leaders made some really good decisions about the weekend.”  Kaylee also found that it is easier for her to consider all the logistics that go into planning an activity, and how to take the group’s opinion into consideration.  From Kaylee’s last leadership experience, Rutledge has seen tremendous growth.  She has become a much more assertive leader and her communication skills have improved.  For example, on the river, she wasn’t quite sure where the campsite was, but navigating through Chile she knew exactly where the team was and where they were going.