Winter at Alzar School: A Chilly Embrace

Bright flames lick charred logs as heat seeps out from the stove like a warm encompassing blanket, heating you to the core. Outside, cotton balls of snow dance down from the night sky and transform the ground into a white sea. But behind this ideal wintery scene is the sweat that broke chopping wood, the aching muscles from shoveling back the encroaching tide and the responsibility of communal living. Living in an Idaho winter isn’t always as ideal as it may appear. However, at the Alzar School, we embrace these seemingly harsh conditions as an opportunity to grow and learn.

Students often come to the Alzar School with limited experience living in the depths of a snowy winter. Arriving in January, spring semesters, in particular, are often faced with a frigid reality. However, we work hard to equip students with the tools to survive and enjoy living in the snow. Almost immediately upon arrival, students are taught how to use their yurt wood stoves, chop firewood and proper snow removal techniques. These crucial chores serve to create a communal bond between students and offer a lesson in accountability. Students learn quickly that their personal and communal responsibilities have direct, and often cold, consequences. When someone isn’t designated or forgets to stoke the fire in the middle of the night, everyone will suffer a cold morning in the yurt. At the Alzar School, snow and winter are a part of life and offer valuable lessons for all.

Demonstrations of Learning

As each semester comes to a close, we take time to reflect upon our growth. Last week, students contemplated their personal growth over the semester by writing a Demonstration of Learning (or DOL) essay as their English final. Students then presented their essay in front of their peers, teachers, and staff. This culminating academic event is, for some, the highlight of the semester and offers validation to the power of an Alzar School experience.

Although very much personalized, many DOLs strike similar themes. Some focus on character growth like Grady’s entitled How to be an Adult. Others highlight increased confidence. Emma reflects, “Being LOD [leader of the day] and LOW [leader of the week] forced me to communicate with others and speak in front of the group. As the community encouraged me to do so, I became more comfortable and confident. I felt more willing to contribute to group discussions, both in and outside of class.” For others simply stepping out of their comfort zone catalyzed the most growth. Sam reveals, “Alzar has made me patient and comfortable out of my comfort zone, which has helped me become a strategic, resilient, and goal-oriented person.” Community is also a common theme as Katherine mentions, “learning how to interact with people is far more complicated than definitions on the back of a flash card.” Other students, like Duncan, find the most growth in their appreciation of the outdoors. Duncan states, “while I don’t expect myself to spend a hundred nights a year under a tarp, I do expect to spend a few.”

Demonstrations of Learning essays offer evidence to the undeniable growth students undergo at the Alzar School. These personal and powerful pieces often capture the intention behind the outdoor expeditions, rigorous academics and cultural experiences that define the Alzar School. As we look back on the experiences of the semester, we are so proud of each student, the goals they accomplished and the tremendous growth they demonstrated along the way.


Ski Days

Nestled in the heart of Idaho’s west-central mountains, the Alzar School’s unique location lends the opportunity to explore pristine and vast natural environments in a manner of ways. Our 100+ acre campus is located along the Payette River. Just 3 miles downstream from Kelly’s Whitewater Park and a geothermally heated pool, students can practice their kayaking skills almost year round. The Alzar School is also surrounded by the Payette and Boise National Forests which lends ample opportunities to hike high mountain trails and camp alongside backcountry lakes. This upcoming weekend students have the chance to explore a bit more of Idaho - not kayaking or backpacking, but on skis and snowboards!

There are two ski areas, Tamarack Ski Resort and Brundage Mountain Resort, located within an hour’s drive of the Alzar School. With an average annual snowfall of over 11 feet, this region provides amazing snow, diverse terrain and short lift lines that come with small-town mountain resorts. These factors combined, make Tamarack and Brundage ideal for students to learn on and explore a few times each semester. On ski days, all Alzar School students, regardless of skill level, take a short lesson. Whether it is linking turns on the beginner hill or finding a powder stash in the trees, students of all abilities tend to have a blast on these family-friendly mountains. Skiing and snowboarding with the Alzar School provides students with the chance to try a new sport or hone existing skills, sliding along with teachers and peers amidst the beauty of Idaho’s winter.

A History of Parque Patagonia

As the students enjoy the last few days of their expeditions in Patagonia, Anita thought it would be nice to share a bit about the history and creation of the National Park our students explore.  

Spanning from the eastern beech forests of the Andes Mountains to the western arid grasslands of the Patagonian steppe, Valle Chacabuco is a transitional ecosystem that forms the heart of the newly formed Parque Patagonia. Students at the Alzar School spend two weeks in this area. They explore the vast wilderness of Patagonia’s iconic granite spires and the meandering glacial waters of the Rio Baker. Located deep in southern Chile, Valle Chacabuco remained largely unexplored throughout Spanish colonization. As late 19th century explorers trekked steadily south, the resources of these remote areas were documented and soon exploited. As early as 1908, large-scale sheep and cattle ranching operations were established in Valle Chacabuco. Despite government re-appropriation of lands to agricultural elite and the steady degeneration of grazing lands, ranching remained a driving force in the area’s economy up until the early 2000’s.  

In 1995, Doug and Kris Tompkins, founders of Patagonia clothing brand and avid conservationists, visited Valle Chacabuco hearing stories of how the rich habitats of this area naturally support a high level of biodiversity. Kris recalls her visit in a blog post, A History of Valle Chacabuco:

"When I drove through the Chacabuco Valley for the first time, I saw the extra-high ‘guanaco fences’ designed to keep these first-rate jumpers out of the best bottom grasslands, which were reserved for the cattle on the estancia. My eyes glazed over looking out on the tens of thousands of sheep grazing the bunch grasses up and down the valley. The grasses looked patchy and dead. Nothing left for wildlife."

The guanaco, a llama relative, is a keystone species in the region and have adapted to the harsh conditions of the high steppe. They roam freely, revitalizing native vegetation and providing food for predators. This area is also home to some of South America’s most endangered species such as giant anteaters, culpeo fox, pumas, and hairy armadillos. Realizing the ecological significance and the conservation potential of the region, Kris founded Conservacion Patagonica in 2000 with a mission, according to their website, of “building new national parks in compelling, ecologically critical areas of Patagonia.”

Since it’s inception, Conservacion Patagonica has acquired large swaths of formerly ranched land and are working to restore and link contiguous natural habitats in Argentinean and Chilean Patagonia. Once complete, Parque Patagonia will become a Chilean national park and span an area roughly the size of Oregon State. Through the acquisition of former ranching lands, extensive ecological restoration efforts and the eventual donation of these areas back to government states, Conservacion Patagonica is making an impact and setting precedent for large-scale land conservation across the globe.  Read more about Conservacion Patagonica and the history of Parque Patagonia. Photos courtesy of Parque Patagonia website. 

Teaching Fellow Differentiation

Apart from providing quality and high-achieving academics to our students, the Alzar School lends a unique opportunity for young instructors to learn hands-on about becoming an education professional. Each semester we invite up to six Teaching Fellows to join our program. Over the course of the semester, they attend six, hour-long classes a week focusing on academic instruction, outdoor technical leadership, and residential life training. From helping running study hall to checking students into their yurts at night, Teaching Fellows are fully immersed in student life. Each Teaching Fellow is also hired based upon their academic strengths and is paired with an Alzar School mentor teacher who shares the same subject interests.

As the semester progresses, Teaching Fellows take on more responsibility in the classroom. They help plan lessons, exercise labs and get to implement and test teaching strategies they have learned. Recently, Teaching Fellows tested out various differentiation techniques in their classes. In education, differentiation is when teachers change the content, process or product that students create, based on their readiness, interest, and/or learning profile. In his two-person pre-calculus class, Jeffrey experimented with flexible grouping and teaching individually and collectively. In Environmental Science, Nadia adapted ecology readings based upon student interest and language levels. Hayley implemented differentiated processes for learning in her Spanish A class through writing, speech, and problem-solving. Finally, in biology, Jack utilized various hooks to introduce topics, like having students hold their breath to launch a discussion about aerobic respiration.  

With an average class size of seven, these types of individualization and differentiation are not only possible but highly encouraged and even necessary to provide the quality of education we strive for at the Alzar School. We are so happy to see these young teachers help accommodate the various learning styles of our students. They have new ideas, are not timid to try alternate routes and bring a fresh perspective to academics at the Alzar School.