Wondering why and how…

Alzar School | 27.08.12

As students arrived on campus they may have been doing a lot of wondering why and how. Wondering why and how they have found themselves in the arid climes of southwestern Idaho, wondering how and why to roll a kayak. They might be wondering why and how to fit into our community here or how and why to become a better leader. All valid, thoughtful, stressful questions.

In Spanish 3/4, world history, and US history classes, we are wondering why and how as well. We’re wondering why there seem to be a million different ways to conjugate verbs in the past tense. We’re wondering how the Agricultural Revolution did or did not give rise to the earliest civilizations. We’re wondering why Christopher Columbus decided to exact the revenge he did on the island of Hispaniola after returning to find some of his errant soldiers retributively killed. Wondering seems a perfect place to start our semester.

Humility and cooperation characterize the cultures students are setting in class. There is no pressure or shame in not knowing; in fact, there seems to be a thrill in uncertainty. We’re piecing together the gaps in our Spanish vocabularies, recognizing that even our native speakers have something to learn. We’re embracing competing theories about why the accumulation of goods that followed the Agricultural Revolution created more inequality and tension rather than less. And we find ourselves discussing the origins of slavery, the importances of regional differences within the colonies, and asking how such different colonists ever united to declare independence from Great Britain. Creative critical thinking and impressive work ethics keep classes engaging for all.

Highlights from our United States history course include a dramatic reading of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which had students wide-eyed at 8:00 am, even despite short nights of sleep. A version of “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” redubbed “Pin the Colonist on the Map” had folks placing sticky notes on an HDTV and considering the varying demographics and motivations among English colonies. (Let’s call it a modern take on an old favorite.) A shared activity between the US and world history folks involved varying amounts of candy, designed to simulate the quest for resources and class struggles. As it turns out, these students make terrible slaveowners; they treat others too magnanimously and express too much concern for the well-being of others, even when it only relates to candy. Bummer. Spanish classes are still trying to puzzle out the details of a one-minute clip from their new favorite telenovela (soap opera) called Abismo de Pasión (Abyss of Passion). Not to worry, the scene was totally G-rated despite its title, though everyone’s heart did jump during one part of the clip. (It’s hard to tell if it came from one character’s sending a soup bowl crashing into pieces on the floor or from the quality of the acting they witnessed.) With our studies of the media in Spanish this unit, folks are gearing up to write their own newspaper articles, interviewing one another and reading about expired yogurt in “la epoca de las vacas flacas,” or the “time of skinny cows”–a Spanish expression that idiomatically connotes tough economic times. (As it turns out, the acidic environment of yogurt makes harmful bacterial proliferation unlikely, so go ahead and at least give it the ol’ smell test.) Our US history class is working toward the culminating essay this week for their first unit, which asks them to ask and to answer a “what if” question that could have huge implications for American history. (Examples might include the abovementioned retribution exacted by Columbus, or what if all Native Americans had formed alliances like that of the Iroquois Confederation?) Similarly, world history students are working toward crafting an essay outline that asks them to challenge a common assumption of early world history, explain chinks in the armor of its historical theory, and analyze how things might have proceeded differently in their alternate visions. Both assignments aim to illuminate the path of imagination and investigation that history treads carefully.

Students continue to impress me and each other with their insight, and they are creating an admirable culture of learning and acceptance that will provide the foundation for an awesome semester.