The Topographies of Our Lives – Semester XVII Edition

Alzar School | 26.08.20

Each semester, faculty and staff look forward to getting to know our cohort. We subtly (or, sometimes, not so subtly) poke and prod our new neighbors with inquiries to find out: what makes these teens tick? How do their unique identities and experiences contribute to the overall strength of our community? What challenges have members of our community faced that bring about resilience and deep reflection?

These tidbits and stories from our students are both fun to hear, as well as essential for setting a strong foundation on which to build an integrated community that moves forward with intention and momentum. Learning more about our students also enables us to personally tailor some of the experiences each will encounter throughout their time here at Alzar School.  

Towards the start of each semester, students are presented with an opportunity to highlight aspects of their unique identities in their Capstone Leadership Course. The assignment description reads as such:

Leaders understand the history, values, norms, values, policies, and protocols of the communities to which they belong. In order for us to understand those components of our community, we must get to know each other which we will do through the assignment, “Topography of My Life.” In this activity, you will map out your own life in a timeline/mountain range format. The goal is for us to see a little bit of where you come from and how you have gotten to this place. 

From the description, students are prompted to share personal experiences that have shaped them, the knowledge they have gained, and the most memorable events and people thus far along the way in their personal journeys. The culmination of these introspective art pieces results in a spectacular way of knowing the challenges and celebrations within our collective consciousness. 

The Fall 2020 students drew their lives’ topographies upon landscapes and cityscapes, bridges and skylines, along ridgelines and rivers, through forests and ski areas. Highs were measured as summits and beaming signal strengths, lows were shown as valleys, storms, and troughs. Students highlighted gaining and losing pets, traveling to places near and far, broken bones and injuries. They noted the highs and lows associated with attending new schools, as well as both finding and losing members of their families. Another common theme this semester included reflections on the lows of social isolation and the highs of schedule flexibility and independence during COVID-19 quarantine in their homes.

What makes this assignment particularly unique is the analogy of a topographic map. The “topo map” aspect parallels skills that students will learn on expedition, such as reading maps, navigating in the midst of geographical features, interpreting contour lines, and managing ascents and descents. A critical component of topographic map reading is being able to identify both the peaks and the valleys. The highs and the lows are integral. 

Our lives are punctuated by challenges and celebrations. A quote that our Spanish, biology, and backpacking instructor, Davis Cowles, referred to in a previous blog post feels fitting here as well:

You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.  — René Daumal

We look forward to continuing to know the intriguing and precious, amicable and feisty group of Alzar School students this Fall 2020. It is a very special time to be together in this wild world. 


About the author: Rachel Ackerman is a Science Teacher and a Blog Coordinator at Alzar School. Feel free to contact her at with comments, concerns, and interesting topics for future blog posts!