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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.

Saturday’s Discussion: Science + Communication

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:

  1. Lecture: Meg talked about what's happening in the atmosphere at a molecular level
  2. Visual Aids: graphs, diagrams, charts, infographics, etc.
  3. Photography: computer-generated and real-life
  4. Videos: ranging from An Inconvenient Truth to CNN films about the Marshall Islands
  5. Humor: comics, parody films, etc.
  6. Non-fictional Literature: news articles, personal accounts, etc.
  7. 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

Leadership in Literature

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.

Poetic Transitions

For any fifteen or sixteen year old, leaving home is a transition. When our students come here from schools across the US and Chile they leave behind cliques, best friends, soccer practices, saturday night sleepovers, and family dinners. They say farewell to familiarity and comfort and make a choice to step out to the edge of their skin, to push themselves --to be uncomfortable. It is a lot of new. New things are difficult for all of us and I believe poetry helps us process these transitions; it helps us to process the eternal change, growth, death, rebirth cycle that life is and celebrate the beauty of transformation that is at the same time both a personal and universal experience.

In the first two weeks of school, in English, the students were asked to write a poem about where they come from. The intimacy and beauty of these poems is remarkable and helps these students honor all they come to Alzar with, all the support they have at home and serves as a point of departure for their next adventure here at Alzar. Here is an example of the I am From poems...

I am From

I am from the red door down the street

running out, is a pair of striped tights.

I am from the name Bela,

A girl who hides while her brother seeks,

shy, she hides behind the thumb in her mouth.

Where's Isabela?

I am from the bath tub overflowing with bubbles

Curly haired, covered in bubble beards,

laughter overpowers the bruises from brother- sister fights.

I am from a place where competition brings out the worst in each other.

I am from the smell of pot roast on sundays,

tip toeing it's way around every corner of my house.

Followed by monday, the start of a new school day

filled with, unfamiliar faces and new places.

I am from the long hours of carpool,

singing and dancing with my best friends,

yelling and laughing with my family.

I am from a crazy, now split household.

I am from the number two,

two houses, two beds, and two christmases.

I am from a family that has made me, Isabela.

I.DOBBS

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After we learned more about poetic devices and the students had time to settle into Alzar, they began to transform. They were asked to write a poem that located them within the present moment, that identified where they were now in their development, in their thinking, and in their hopes and aspirations. These poems had to include a lesson/extended metaphor from nature and use symbolism to convey a key message. You can see how powerful these lessons from nature are and yet how simple they are too. Nature is always teaching us things if we open our eyes enough to see. Here are a few of these "I am here" poems...

I am Here

We come from a material world filled with the new iPhones and name brand clothes, based around our unreliable supply of nonrenewable resources.

I break my head through the concrete wall that encloses my world just enough to see the light surrounding me. 

I see canyons. Beautiful canyons.

Red, and orange, and yellow. Natural skyscrapers.

But skyscrapers are only that tall because of the billions of pieces that

Compose them, hold them up, support them.

One rock cannot form something so beautiful on its own,

They need to work together to create the postcard picture.

And only so many rocks can see the light, absorb the heat, appreciate the view.

But then rocks shift.

Each particle changes perspective.

One day they have a full view of what is in front of them,

The next they are completely in the dark, unaware of which direction is up.

But what will never go away

Is their responsibility to hold up the rest of the formation. 

We are the particles of rocks.

We hold each other up, support each other. 

Each story builds off of every page in a book, every word. It isn't complete without all the pages.

Did we end the story before it's over?

Are we supporting the rest of the canyon?

Once we leave the light,

It will still matter what we wrote on the pages,

How we altered the story.

And if we didn't do our part,

Then the canyon will crumble to the ground

Into a pile of rubble,

Erasing the postcard picture that took thousands of years to create.

People don't endure the blazing, scorching sun with limited water and a pack the weight of an elephant to see an ordinary mound of dirt that could have been something beautiful at some point. But it might just make it worth it to see the extraordinary canyon that has sustained itself for thousands of years.

 A.RATHBUN

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I am Here

I am in a place where I am able to be free

as free as the river

free to grow, and free to make mistakes

I am gaining new perspectives above ​and​ below the surface

Looking for the red tab to independently rescue myself

I am doing it alone,

and stand on the warm, stable sand, looking back at the crashing waves

I just flew out of

I see the previous day when I never thought I would kayak through a class 4 rapid,

I see back to a month before, when the thought of living over 2,000 miles away terrorized me

I am back, settling into the plastic shell

A shell that is on a one way route

I am ready to dig in and let the slow blue track take me away

Fighting with the white monster, the brisk liquid rushing over me, and I see calmness

I am still, I am the kayak, I am the river, progressing as one

Wondering if I will find myself once again soaked, not wanting to surrender

I am constantly on the gliding blue between the towering solid

Always reminded by the ripples and gurgles bouncing off of the walls

I am waiting to breathe again

Anticipating the ease that I will have later

I am on a journey fast paced, and cannot wait for the succeeding breath

I get submerged, and then I am on top

and the rapids will no longer phase me

I am in a place where the only way out is through

M.SHAPIRO

Isn't it amazing how they describe both where they come from and how they have changed up until this point? Don't you connect with their images? These students are living and breathing in each day, tasting the sunshine, and embracing their transformation. They are paying attention. They are here and now. This is why I am enjoying English this semester.

A Mi Me Gusta Expresarme – It pleases Me to Express Myself

As of 2012, over 38 million United States citizens spoke Spanish as their first language.
21 countries use Spanish as their official language.
And, in those 21 countries, there are over 440 million native, Spanish speakers.

If I weren't overwhelmingly passionate about languages already, my passion for people would make me interested in Spanish. The idea that there are at least 478 million individuals out there that each have their own opinions, thoughts, feelings, senses of humor, beliefs, and questions that I cannot truly attempt to understand without speaking their language, is enough to make me want to learn.

But, if my desire to learn stems from my hope to relate, then where do I actually begin? What is the most fundamental topic, or grammatical structure, or part of speech that'll get me connecting?

I say gustar - the verb that is often mis-understood as "to like" but literally means "to be pleasing". It's interesting, actually, because understanding how to use this verb requires a re-thinking of perspective all by itself. In English, the person/thing that does the enjoying is the subject (I like kayaking); whereas in Spanish, it's the opposite (kayaking is pleasing to me).

This is often a challenging change for students to wrap their brains around, but one we all certainly want to hone before leaving for Chile in a month. If we learn nothing else -which, don't worry, we will!- at least we'll know how to relate at the most basic level. We want to know what is at the root of peoples' preferences, their beliefs, and their values. We want to know what they like.

As practice, Spanish C & D students were asked to discuss their likes and dislikes from life on campus to life on expedition. Some gave rather straight-forward responses, and others went a little deeper. Some opted for the verb gustar, and others decided to use more emotive verbs such as "to enchant", "to bore", "to get along with", or to "to bother".

A mi me encanta Rowlie

A mi me encanta Rowlie - Parker

 Los precipicios eran muy bonitos, con rojo y amarillo en sus caras, y a mi me gustan mucho.


Los precipicios eran muy bonitos, con rojo y amarillo en sus caras, y a mi me gustan mucho. - Mahalie

A mí me gusta estudiar en la montaña y mirar el río bajo uds.

A mí me gusta estudiar en la montaña y mirar el río bajo uds. - Bella

Yo no pienso que es posible que me basta tiempo en alzar porque me encanta tanto.

Yo no pienso que es posible que me basta tiempo en alzar porque me encanta tanto. - Mahalie