What does a coach do when half of her team is slam dunking and half is learning to dribble? What does a teacher do when one student understands a concept and another is still learning it? Anyone who has spent time teaching or coaching a group of learners will eventually confront this dilemma: How can we ensure that all students learn at high levels? Last week, the Alzar School teaching fellow class taught by Director of Studies, Laura Bechdel, sought to answer this perennial question.
In educational circles, adjusting instruction based on an individual’s needs is called differentiation. Laura sees differentiation as a natural response to wanting the best for each student: “We explore ideas of equity versus equality, and why doing what is 'equal' isn't necessarily fair.” In an effort to strive for equity, teachers might provide choices for assessments that allow students to express learning targets in a number of ways, or assign different angles of analysis according to a student’s interest. Laura noted that teachers at Alzar School often provide “personalized bookmarks to guide reflection in reading texts and guided notes to help some students access more difficult texts.” All in an effort to help each student access the class material.
The takeaway for teaching fellows? Spencer reflected, “Differentiation applies to all students, rather than just those at the very top or the very bottom of the class. Differentiation helps to motivate students by teaching them at their level and to their best ability rather than trying to get everyone to ‘make the same shoe fit.’”
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.
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!
Classes are in full swing as the school is in its third week of academics down in the Lake District of Chile. Coming off of our first two full-length expeditions in Patagonia, each student also came away from their first experience being a designated Leader of the Day (LOD) (more accurately - leader of two days). During this experience, students were supported by faculty to explore different leadership styles, self-reflect on what worked well and what they wish to work on, and take feedback from their peers and from staff in order to gain a clearer vision of the infinite ways that leading can look.
To start our weeks of Leadership classes here in the Lakes District, my co-teacher, Ned, and I asked students to write SMART goals for each of the four major components of their experience here at the Alzar School: Academics, Technical Proficiency, Leadership, and Cultural/Language. While we hope that all goals are thought out and intelligible, SMART goals stand for something more. To be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.
Academics and Technical Proficiency tend to be the easiest for students to articulate, for example:
"To have above a 90% in all classes by Parent's Weekend"
"To study for the ACT two nights a week (1 hour each) while in Chile, and four nights a week while in Idaho, until taking the exam this spring"
"To be able to roll a kayak 8 out of 10 times in flat water by the time we leave Chile".
Goals surrounding language acquisition and leadership skills tend to be more abstract and harder to measure. Some of the more articulate include the following:
"To be able to order a meal and ask what ingredients were used (in Spanish), and understand the response, by the time we leave Chile."
"In my next designated leadership role on expedition I will receive positive feedback from my peers and staff on my ability to communicate clearly with my co-LODs, and I will check-in with my co-LODs before announcing plans/ideas to the group as a whole."
"I will improve my personal leadership on expedition by waking up 20 minutes earlier than the designated time, and be ready at the time designated by the LODs."
Students have shared goals with one another, and peers and staff will help hold each other accountable. Many ask for feedback and an increased awareness of both the positive and detrimental impact we can have on one another in the community.
Many of the students set high standards for themselves and what they hope to see themselves accomplish during their semester and beyond. This culture of challenging one another to work hard, improve, increase awareness, and keep pushing, is one that inspires me to continue my own leadership progression and quest for growth. It is a culture that I feel fortunate to be apart of.
*I challenge you to write a SMART goal for your upcoming month.
In Spanish class this past Friday, both Spanish teachers decided to start their first class of the semester with a conversation about how languages can affect the way we think. This topic has been heavily debated in Linguistics for years, but now that Psychologists, Neuroscientists, Sociologists, and even Economists are getting involved, it's becoming more and more apparent just how huge the language(s) that one speaks can be in shaping the reality that they (the newly accepted singular, neutral pronoun recognized by the ADA as the Word of the Year in 2015) experience.
Where to begin?
Well, in an article titled "How Languages Can Affect the Way We Think", Jessica Gross explains that languages can be understood as "futured languages" and "futureless languages". English is a "futured language", and what that means is that for native English-speakers, we unconsciously make a distinction between our reality now and our reality later. And, although that may not seem like a big deal, research shows that, "... futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year than futured language speakers... [because] when we speak about the future as more distinct from the present, it feels more distant — and we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of monetary comfort years down the line." How do you think a futureless language would affect the way relationships are conducted? On the flip-side, though, how much better do you think a futured language-speaker would be at recognizing that this is a hard day or week or month, but that things will change?
Nearly all the articles the students read cited the difference between geographically and egocentrically directional languages. An aboriginal community from Australia speak a language called Pormpuraaw, and it is considered geographically directional. English is not. When I give a friend directions to my house, I say, "Drive three streets down, take a right, and my house with be on the left". This information would likely be confusing and useless for a Pormpuraawan because they read the land using North, South, East, and West exclusively. This has such a huge affect on their ability to stay oriented that a test was conducted in which geographically directional language-speakers were put in an unknown room with no windows and spun around many times. When they were stopped and asked what direction they were facing, they were almost always correct. Could you do that?
Some language nerds might cringe at hearing the pronoun they refer to only one person -as used in the first paragraph-, and others might consider it to be too general, but the reality is that other languages actually don't have gendered pronouns at all. In Finnish, as our students read last week, there are no gender markers. No 'he's, 'she's, 'him's, or 'her's. A Spanish B students, Liam, explained that one of his good friends is Finnish. Liam said that he's never met anyone his age more comfortable with the opposite sex. Can you imagine all teen-aged American... people feeling that way?
True, we haven't even mentioned Spanish, and this is a Spanish class, right? The most obvious affect that Spanish has on its speakers is through its use of gendered, inanimate objects. In another article entitled "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?", Guy Deutscher cites Russian, Spanish, and German as languages that refer to things as 'her' and 'him'. What is fascinating about this is that the words that are feminine in one gendered languages aren't necessarily so in another which allows researchers to determine if people generally perceive them differently merely due to their assigned gender in that language. The answer is yes. For example, the word for bridge is die Brücke - a feminine noun - whereas in Spanish, it's masculine; Germans used words such as "slender" and "elegant" to describe a bridge. Spanish-speakers, on the other hand used adjectives having to do with strength (typically understood as a masculine characteristic). This ultimately lead Guy Deutscher to ask, "Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life?"
As our AP English Teaching Fellow, Megan, has said, "I'm more interested in questions than I am answers", and as far as this topic is concerned, I absolutely have to agree. Our students left that class asking themselves questions they'd never considered before. My hope is that every day's lesson obliges our students to ask even more questions - I think we're off to a good start.
At Alzar, we venture into remote settings. We ski and paddle and hike and as faculty and staff we often ask the question "What If?". What if my friend trips over a rock on a hike and breaks their ankle? What if we get caught in a lightning storm while on a hike? What if someone goes into cardiac arrest? Wilderness medicine training is one step in learning to think about and be prepared to deal with the unexpected.
After returning to campus from our time in Chile , students spent 5 days before classes resumed participating in and ultimately becoming certified as Wilderness Advanced First Responders (WAFA). During WAFA students attended lectures on stings, bites, allergies, trauma injuries, and many other medical topics. Along with class lectures, everyone spent at least half of the days in simulations learning how to assess patients in a wilderness setting and then treat and evacuate them.
In simulations some students were patients and were given symptoms, a history, and possibly even fake bruises or lacerations for the the other students, the "responders" to treat. On our final day of the course, we were given a final scenario. Here's what we were told:
A group was rafting down a river and flipped going over a waterfall. There are five patients, each with different problems. After being given this information ,students were challenged to go and assess, treat, and evacuate the patients. Some of the injuries, a broken ankle, for example, needed to be splinted. Others- non-breathing- needed CPR and also assessment for other injuries. One of the patients was hypothermic and ultimately needed to be put into a hypo-wrap and transported back to "base" (the barn on campus) with the help of the whole team.
It was a challenging, exhilarating, and rewarding experience for all of the participants here. On day 5, after completing the written exam and the river rafting scenario, everyone was awarded with official WAFA certification cards!