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.
In English B, students read What is the What by Dave Eggers. In this unit, they learned about and took responsibility for the cycle and roots of violence and prejudice in their own lives. They also learned how to critically read, analyze and discuss the text in a harkness format (similar to socratic seminar) connecting evidence from their own experience to the characters’ experiences in the novel. The final assessment and skill-building exercise of this unit was an analytical essay about the aspects of leadership in this book. In this introductory paragraph a student gives context to the reader and identifies leadership lessons it teaches.
The Lost Boys of Sudan is the name given to the groups of over 20,000 boys of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups who were displaced and/or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005); about 2.5 million were killed and millions were displaced. In this book What is the What, by David Eggers he tells the story of a young boy named Achak Valentino Deng, growing up in the southern Sudan conflict and how he manages to survive. Achak overcomes his experiences and develops his character by applying aspects of leadership. While walking with the Lost Boys he fosters an inspiring vision and when in Kakuma he relies on good communication skills to become a leader of the drama group. He also utilizes the Dinka value of "guier" throughout the book, that means to improve unity, harmony, and prosperity within a group.~Neils, written in nonnative language
The students had to describe how these Lost Boys and Achak/Valentino Deng, in particular, used the aspects of leadership the students are currently learning at Alzar to overcome the challenges these refugees faced. The students extracted quotes from the book to provide evidence of the development and use of these leadership skills by Achak/Valentino Deng as exhibited in the following paragraph:
Even when Achak was struggling with hunger and fatigue, he continued to help the rest of the lost boys through community membership. Achak’s kind and helpful spirit allows him to show community membership through his daily tasks. Achak was given the job of burying the dead in a refugee camp which was one of the hardest jobs. He was also one of the youngest boys who was completing this job at hand so he had a great deal of initiative and humility to complete it. “I had gotten accustomed to the burials, and was helping to bury at least one body each day.” (Eggers, pg 267) In many instances, Achak showed his strong community membership through tasks his mentors and protectors had given him. Achak felt a certain sense of ownership in “paying back” the people who helped him in times of his struggle. “There is a man inside who has died, he said. -I want you to help carry him and then we’ll bury him. I could not object, I owed Dut my life.” (Eggers, pg 265) Achak also helped out around the communities with smaller daily tasks that benefited the group such as collecting water for the other boys. “I retrieved the water twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon, carrying the six-liter jerry can back to camp. The weight was significant for an insect like me, I had to rest every ten steps, small steps I hurried together.” (Eggers, pg 261) Achak was able to help the community better as a whole even when he was facing his own personal struggles and problems. ~Kelsey
In the conclusion, students reflected on their own experiences with leadership and how those experiences are informed by or support the story of the book. This reflection is represented in the following paragraph:
What is the What is an example of how using leadership ideals can help people through difficult situations in their life. For Valentino, his difficult time lasted the majority of his childhood, which is obliviously more intense than the hardships I experience, but he showed that no matter how challenging someone's life can become, the basic concepts of leadership can always improve someone's situation. Valentino's entire journey was a challenging experience that lasted several years, and throughout his experience by using personal leadership, community membership, and the concept of Ceing, he was able to survive and find a better life outside of Africa. ~Parker
Studying leadership in this way creates an opportunity for students to apply leadership concepts the Alzar School covers in a more supported and "safe" environment to the real life experiences of others. The acquisition and practice of these skills helps us all to develop critical, collaborative-living skills that become our greatest resources when times get tough.
The common theme lately has been, wherever I work is where I live. It started in college, living in a big house with repurposed rooms and too many friends. This was followed by summer camps where campers always felt the need to hang out on your bed and not theirs. Then interning on organic farms with potlucks and adults in bunk beds. Most recently the forest service where we find our campsite together each night all week and when that’s over we both go home to the same trailer on that one dirt road past the last campsite. And now I find myself here at the Alzar school, where I’m again a part of small community. Part of the ruffled feathers and expedited growth of friendships that come with an assortment of people spending all their time together. Except this time my fellow members are just now learning what it’s like to leave their homes and share space with staff and students. They’ve already started to take ownership in their new home and more quickly than that they’ve created a sense that they’re all connected. The connection became real and apparent during the first expedition. When a raft wasn’t loaded, we couldn’t move on; when a person was struggling, we all struggled; when dinner wasn’t cooked, we didn’t eat. The importance of the whole community being on the same page became evident. So in what seems to be a tradition, the students created a set of guidelines in their own words to define what they need to make it possible. This community contract now sits above the fireplace, to remind us of what we all value and need to thrive in such an intimate community. Although, we all know this is going to be a challenge, that’s exactly why we are here.
Every semester in English class, students read Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild, which follows the fatal journey of a young protagonist rebelling against society and family to explore western wilderness frontiers. Students debate the protagonist's (Chris McCandless) character, and the elements of authorial bias that color the book's tone. They then write an argumentative essay about whether Chris McCandless was heroic or foolish. Each semester students get fired up about this young man. Discussions are heated and the jury is split - hero vs. fool. Whether it is his lust for adventure or his fight for independence, there is always something that resonates deeply with this adolescent age group. Regardless of which side of the fence students fall on, the story never fails to spark excitement for our next expedition: backpacking in the Owyhee desert of Oregon and Idaho.
The Owyhee expedition was our culminating backpacking expedition this Spring 2015 semester. Students planned the gear and individual packing lists, prepared all the equipment, and student leaders planned campsites based on topographical maps. It is a 27 mile expedition that requires map and compass navigation - completely off-trail. Student leader teams guide our group over mountains and through red rock gulches. Students really get the sense that, like Chris McCandless, they are walking into the wild.
The trip offers an opportunity to pull together many different ideas and subjects we've been tackling in English class as well. Students discuss Joseph Campbell's hero's journey monomyth in analyzing Chris McCandless' odyssey, and then chart their own journey for this expedition and the semester.
They use the same 10 Elements of Leadership with which they analyze student designated leadership performances throughout the semester, and apply it to Chris McCandless to identify whether he was heroic or foolish.
They also get the chance to chat with a contemporary adventurer: Andrew Forsthoefel. Post-college, Andrew set out on an odyssey of his own to walk across America. His mission: listen to people's stories. We listen to his This American Life radio story and then Andrew Skypes into our class and students get the opportunity to ask him questions about his journey, or even advice for their own journeys ahead.
In his beautiful story, Andrew discusses what it feels like to walk over 30miles in a day alone. He identifies all the types of walking he felt along the way: Fear Walking. Trudge Walking. Float Walking. Weep Walking. Students were so enamored with him and his tale, that they have kept in touch to seek his advice on all manner of challenges from Culminating Leadership Project planning to seeking encouragement for the next "big walk." (Don't worry, he hasn't encouraged anyone to ditch home and set out across the country.)
For English class on the Owyhee expedition, students keep a walking journal. Every day they have to write one sentence that mimics the epic tone Chris McCandless uses when he wrote about his own adventures. Chris McCandless' journal uses the pseudonym "Alexander Supertramp"- and so students must choose their own trail name, and write from this perspective. They then have to title each day - like Andrew Forsthoefel - the type of walking they did that day.
Some excerpts form the wild wanderers of Sp'15:
Alton Wiggers: "Slide walking"
The Riddler takes two steps up, and one slip down going to the top; he needs to reach the summit of a mountain of falling sand.
Becca Cerra: "Wild Walking"
The sweat beaded on her forehead as Painted Rocket stopped to catch her breath midway up the hill, she gazed down at the wild horses and wish she could join them and feel the wind in her hair.
Skye Ellison: A.k.a. "Three Terrible Toots"
On our second to last day in the desert, we declared our types of walking to the echoing red rock of a dry oxbow canyon... followed by a war cry harnessing the epic adventurer within each of us. See below to share in the ceremony:
Thanks for following our journey!
Alton Wiggers (aka "The Riddler") as Chris McCandless: Portrait in front of Alzar School "Magic School Bus"
This past week, nine Alzar students formed the school’s first group to trek into the narrow Bullileo Valley in the Bío Bío Region of Chile. The trip provided opportunities for personal growth, leadership development, service to the land and our adopted backcountry community and some grade-A stargazing and lake swimming. Being our inaugural visit to this corner of Chile, students got a lesson in creative trip planning and Leave No Trace principles with the addition of a service component. Upon our arrival to Chile we were informed that the Sendero Bullileo (Bullileo Trail) had been closed due to excessive trash left by visitors. As a condition of our access, we agreed to do a bit of clean-up around the lake in order to earn our visit to this spectacular location. Students spent the afternoon lounging and designing science experiments by Laguna de Plata, and rounded off our stay with a trash pick up. On our final night together in the Andean wilderness we reflected on community service: what it is and why it is important.
“A community is any group of people, anywhere, working together and supporting each other,” reflected Lily Leebern, a student from Atlanta, GA. “Service is a responsibility that enables a community to thrive. If we are going to take experiences and use resources in a place [Chile, Bullileo], it is important we give back and leave that place better than we found it.”