I hold an adamant belief that travel can be an invaluable, life-altering experience. Families that have the means to travel often see it as a luxury, and take for granted the incredible learning that they and their children gain. I work in an alternative high school – most of my students are from families that do not have anywhere near those kinds of means. Their experiences have been, in large part, a struggle and the larger world is mostly an abstraction – including the potential wonder and hope that it can hold. Monteverde, Costa Rica epitomizes that kind of wonder and hope – blending the culture of indigenous inhabitants with that of the American Quaker settlers that arrived in the 1950’s, and balancing a model of conservation with becoming an international eco-tourism destination. The book, Walking With Wolf, tells this story in a remarkable way.
We are now in the midst of a year-long interdisciplinary class that will include Walking With Wolf, student blogs (which I hope you'll check out on the right), individual research projects, and a 10-day trip to Monteverde this Spring. The students are working hard and must fundraise their entire way there - they need your help. If you are willing to support their efforts,
checks can be made out to “Lister Academy – Costa Rica Class”, and mailed to: Robert J. Lister Academy, Attn: Bryan Mascio, 35 Sherburne Road, Portsmouth, NH 03801.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Developing Community

As I hear news reports about rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan after the wars, and rebuilding Haiti and New Orleans after natural disasters, I can't help but think about what I'm reading in Walking With Wolf about how they built the community in Monteverde, Costa Rica. To be fair, there may be a difference between building and rebuilding, but it seems to me that the central questions are the same. Most everyone seems starts with "what does the community need?", and "how do we build that?", but perhaps it should be "who is the community?", and "how do they make these decisions?"

Many times when "settlers" enter a new area the indigenous people see them as something else - "conquerors". This was not the case when Wolf and the other Quakers settled Monteverde, which speaks volumes of their vision of community. In chapter 4, a local Tico talks about the arrival of the Quakers, saying that,
"For us, it was a great thing when the Quakers came because they brought new ideas. But it was more than that..."
"It was like a new dawning and it was wonderful. Those of us who stayed became great friends with the Quakers. With them, peace came to our mountain."
The Quaker settlers were not only interested in creating a home for themselves - they saw themselves as becoming part of a community that included all those that lived there. Initially they created businesses that were centered on their needs and leadership, but they quickly incorporated the needs and voices of the larger community. This can specifically be shown in how they created a credit union to help the locals get loans, and then developed the Monteverde Cheese Factory as a co-op that eventually included far more Ticos than Quakers.

I find this all very inspiring and believe that a key part of its success is the Quaker belief in consensus. This is the practice of making decisions through unanimous agreement on the path forward, rather than being handed down from authority or even majority rule. It's an incredibly difficult and time consuming method, but has tremendous rewards. As I have been developing this Costa Rica Class, I have tended towards discussion and consensus-seeking when we have new problems and decisions to make. This has included grading criteria, structuring the class time, and fundraising. I have dictated very little, and the students have really stepped up to voice their opinions - and then own their decisions. I hope that you'll check out their blogs (links are on the right), and support their efforts.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why bring students to Monteverde, Costa Rica?

When my wife and I first went to Monteverde in the summer of 2009, we only spent a couple of days there as we toured different parts of Costa Rica, but that’s all it took to fall in love with the culture and the beauty of the surroundings. When I showed the pictures and told the stories to friends, family and colleagues, I mentioned that I would like to bring students there – and they smiled and nodded politely.

I hold an adamant belief that travel can be an invaluable, life-altering experience. Families that have the means to travel often see it as a luxury, and take for granted the incredible learning that they and their children gain. I work in an alternative high school – most of my students are from families that do not have anywhere near those kinds of means. Their experiences have been, in large part, a struggle and the larger world is mostly an abstraction – including the potential wonder and hope that it can hold. Monteverde epitomizes that kind of wonder and hope – blending the culture of indigenous inhabitants with that of the American Quaker settlers that arrived in the 1950’s, and balancing a model of conservation with becoming an international eco-tourism destination. The book, Walking With Wolf, tells this story in a remarkable way. When I went back to Monteverde during my next February vacation, I bought and devoured this book – changing my fanciful desire to my bring students there, into a passionate drive to do so.

When I returned from my second visit and spoke about my intentions to share this experience with my students, I no longer received simple smiles and nods – I was met with excitement, doubts of my sanity, and lots of questions:
  • What will students learn? They’ll learn everything from ecology to economics, history to agriculture, and community development to world affairs. Most of all, they’ll learn what wonders the world can hold and what role they are capable of having in that world.
  • What will the class look like? It is a yearlong, interdisciplinary class that will include a significant amount of experiential education. We'll spend the fall reading Walking With Wolf and blogging about the learning adventures it sparks – I hope you keep checking back and follow the student blogs (links are on the right sidebar). In the spring, students will pick an area of personal interest and create an individual research project that compares some aspect of our home to that of Monteverde. Mid-spring, we’ll go to Monteverde for 10 days and students will determine the itinerary to meet the needs of their projects. When we get back, they'll be producing a culminating product to represent their learning. If all this sounds vague, that's because I'm not arbitrarily dictating the outcome - this is student-centered and student-driven.
  • Am I crazy? Well, certainly not because of this. It is a challenge to do international travel with any group of students and plenty of people wouldn't dare do it with students that have struggled - but aren't those the very students that we should be doing this kind of inspiring thing with?! The students that I have in this class have made a commitment to working hard and they deserve a chance to prove themselves. They are turning their lives around and if I can be a part of that then I'll do whatever it takes - crazy or not.
  • How will we pay for it? Hopefully, with your help. The students have already been working hard (even during the summer before the class started) and we’ll be including future fundraising information here, but we’d also really appreciate a check for any amount you can offer – we have to raise $15,000 by January. Checks can be made out to “Lister Academy – Costa Rica Class”, and mailed to: Robert J. Lister Academy, Attn: Bryan Mascio, 35 Sherburne Road, Portsmouth, NH 03801.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Walking With Wolf - Chapter 3

Making connections is what I love about teaching, what I do in everyday life, and why I decided to use Walking With Wolf for this class. When I read about history, I think about the world today. When I read about a foreign culture, I think about personal relationships. These things aren't that far apart, and that was what I was thinking about while reading this chapter.

More of the modern history of Costa Rica is revealed in this chapter, explaining how it developed following it's revolution in 1948. As a country renews itself, there are a lot of choices to make and each of them could hugely alter the future trajectory of its people (this is just as true during transitional times for individuals). Costa Rica is located in a part of the world that is notoriously unstable - yet it has been quite stable for more than a half-century. Is that because of the decision to have no military? When my wife and I were traveling there, tour guides said that the money which would have gone towards an army was spent on hospitals and schools - and now virtually every town, no matter how small, has adequate services. This has to impact the stability of a country. The lack of a military is certainly a major factor in why Wolf and the other American Quakers decided to go there - how many others chose to go or stay there because of that, and helped make the country what it is today?

On page 27, Wolf is recounting the little he knew about Costa Rica before he went there. A main feature is that the revolutionary hero Pepe Figueres "...invited people from developed countries to come and invest in Costa Rica." On the face of it, this seems like a natural thing to do during a time of transition - to bring in people that can help - but I believe that this kind of openness and tolerance was a courageous act. This act resisted two major tendencies that people follow, especially during times of difficulty and uncertainty: people tend to want to project power and confidence, and people tend to shift into an "us" and "them" mentality. It is rare to see a modern leader have the courage to admit that they need the help of outsiders. It is far more common for a leader to vilify outsiders or "them" so that people will come together and bond over a common fear. This kind of mentality can be seen throughout the world, or even here at home - but Costa Rica took a different path and opened themselves up. Monteverde is still largely influenced by the Americans that settled there and their children, as well as people from all over the world that come to appreciate what has been created.

This kind of openness made for a perfect home for Wolf and the rest of the Quakers. I was particularly moved by the group dynamics during the difficulty of finding the best location to settle. It had taken a long time and each new site turned out to have a major flaw, so the group considered splitting up to cover more ground. On page 31 we learn that they decided to stay together because, "...the more financially able members of the group remained committed to helping the younger members. Of equal importance was the group's belief that staying together for worship and schooling was essential to their future as a community." This value of the community and putting a greater good before your personal comfort, seems so rare now but it is precisely what we try to instill at our school. In a society that can appear so "me" centered, it can feel like an impossible task to teach people to be kind and giving - but I've already seen it from the students at our school and in this class. It was such a vital quality for Wolf and his community, and I think it will be of equal importance for us to be successful.

One of the things I love the most about Kay Chornook's writing style is how she weaves her story with that of the main character, Wolf Guindon, and that of the broader topic - be it the country of Costa Rica or the development of Quakerism. This is a writing technique that I remember first coming across in another one of my favorite books - Into The Wild, by Jon Krakauer. On its surface, blending all of this information together could seem confusing, and I suspect that some readers find it such, but I love how it shines a bright light on the connections that exist all around us. Kay and Wolf are of different generations from different countries and different family traditions, but their stories are connected - and not just because of their time spent together or their love of Costa Rica. Their stories are connected in the spirit of their lives and in the message that they can tell us - and through this book, it's now connected to our story. When we travel to Costa Rica this spring, we will then be connected to all of that broader history that both shaped their decisions and was shaped by their actions.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Chapter 2

Having already read the book once, it is hard for me to remember what information was delivered in a single chapter and what was an accumulation over the course of the entire book. This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that I read the book in only three days last February (an unusually fast reading for an otherwise slow reader). The reason that I mention this is because I was particularly struck by the incredible amount of information that Kay Chornook packs into very few pages - and she does it in a way that I find engaging rather than overwhelming.

In chapter 2, we get a great overview of what it is to be Quaker - including a brief historical context, an overview of their beliefs and practices, and a glimpse at the pedagogy of Quaker schools. When I returned home from Monteverde last February, I told my brother a bit about this book and was surprised to hear of his familiarity with Quakers. Corey has spent much of the last decade working as an activist for a variety of causes, and cited the Quakers as a major supporter of peace rallies. That conversation helped me understand that the impression I was getting of Quakers in the past, is not just in the past.

The other area of information that struck me was all of the historical references. This may be overwhelming for the students - in large part because of how much of it will be unfamiliar. I believe that it was while first reading this chapter that I became confident that the book could be used as the basis of an interdisciplinary course. So often, people see history as theoretical and distant, but this shows how it is alive and relevant. The world events that Wolf and his friends were following in their early adulthood changed the way that they saw the world, which then influenced the decisions that they made. They went off and helped settle Monteverde (which the book hasn't quite gotten to yet), which has become a major ecotourism destination. When we go there, we should appreciate the fact that it didn't happen randomly or spontaneously - it was a result of ethical and courageous people in the past taking control of their lives and destinies, and thus altering the present world for all of us. Any one of these historical events would make a great research topic.

Speaking of taking control, there were several other passages that relate directly to locus of control. This is an area of particular interest to me, and I consider it to be the centerpiece of the work I do at the Lister Academy and at Great Bay Community College. Locus of Control is whether you see life as in your control or or not. It's whether you see yourself as a victim or creator, whether you are a leaf in the wind or a bird flying in the air. I believe that taking control and having an internal locus of control is the central most important factor in becoming successful. On page 22, Wolf's Aunt Mary takes control of segregation in her home. Too often, people excuse historical wrong-doing because of what the societal norms were of the time - but not Aunt Mary. Her solution to a house guest that "...wouldn't feel comfortable sitting at the table with Negroes.", was to "...fix him a place at a table in the utility room." This is a woman that was a creator of her destiny - and so is Wolf.

Wolf showed tremendous locus of control through the telling of all his hardships - he grew up with a mentally ill mother, was jailed for following his religious beliefs and resisting the draft, and then lost his father and needed to take over the family farm. Despite all of this, his voice is never that of a victim. He identifies that it was difficult, but never blames others for the difficulty. These events and others certainly have an influence on his life, but he is clearly always taking ownership for the course that he steers. I am constantly teaching about locus of control - perhaps Wolf's story will serve as a powerful guest speaker in these lessons.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Chapter 1

While I have been blogging my travels all summer (BryanSummerTravels.blogspot.com), and had posted here about the fundraising we have done, this is my first blog about the book, Walking With Wolf - the text that forms the foundation for our year-long class. The students are going to be reading a chapter each week and then using their own blogs to post responses and reflections as well as updates on the research that each chapter has inspired them to pursue that week. I have decided to blog along with them this semester, and have given a lot of thought to what my posts should look like.

First and foremost, I hope that my posts can act as a model for theirs - especially right now in the beginning while they are learning the new technology and format. They're probably not sure what I'm looking for so I'll try to pick possible responses out of the chapter and record them here as potential examples. Recognizing that my background knowledge may be a bit broader and deeper than theirs, plus I have been to Costa Rica twice and I have already read the book once, creating a "model" for their posts is a bit more complicated. Of great importance is that I want to be authentic in my posts - the relationship I nurture with the students demands it. I am not going to pretend to be surprised by things that I am accustomed to, or question things that I already understand. The last thing I want to do is parody what a student post would look like.

I re-read the first chapter today while waiting at the barber shop. I'm not a fast reader, but I do find this to be a quick read. I jotted down some notes so that I could have some structure to this post - this is what I have asked the students to do as well. The first thing that struck me as I opened the book up was how much I enjoy the opening quotes that begin each chapter. I've read other books that start chapters with famous or important quotes, and I like how it provided a framework for the reading of the chapter - but this is different. These quotes are from Wolf Guidon - the central character of the book. The author, Kay Chornook, provided Wolf with a tape recorder and turned 17 years of his story telling into this book. These beginning quotes certainly don't summarize the chapter, and I'd even question whether they represent the central idea of the chapter, but they do adjust my mind in such a way that it has a wonderful impact on how I read the chapter.

As I continued reading, I was struck by all of the names of places. I'm a little familiar after having read the rest of the book - and I can even match a few up to what I saw when I was there - but I find myself flipping to the map inside of the front cover, pretty regularly. I've noticed the students doing the same thing, and even asking questions about it. I suspect we'll be including a similar map on our website - some of the students may even want it on their individual blogs. That might also help with some of the unfamiliar measurements that the book uses - kilometers, hectares, and even meters of elevation. In a society that doesn't use the metric system, it's difficult to really conceptualize these things - the book uses them a lot, so I may need to figure out an activity to help students connect with it. (On an aside, I couldn't help notice that the author uses the phrase, "... he has walked countless miles..." - it just struck me as odd since everything is in metric.)

The students will be doing research each week on the ideas and topics that they find interesting in the chapter. This kind of give-and-take with a text is essential to making it real and I hope that it will inspire greater curiosity and inquiry. There were several terms and ideas in this chapter that I clearly remember wondering about when I read the book the first time - and I did look into many of them. The term "Quaker" was the first one - and it's a central one to the book. I didn't know anything about Quakers other than that picture on the oatmeal container. The book taught me quite a bit and I've done some additional research on Quakerism since. The more I learned about it, the better I understood my feelings for Monteverde. There were plenty of new plants and animals that I found fascinating, but the Bairds's tapir particularly stood out as a name that I wanted to know more about. I also remain interested in the Pink Impatiens mentioned on page 4. The author, Kay, explains that they came from Europe and are wide spread along the sides of the trails. Here, environmentalists call plants like these "invasive" and lament their existence, but Kay doesn't seem to assign any negative status. This is a topic that I find very interesting - in the environmental education courses that I've been involved in, I always asked when an "invader" becomes an accepted addition to an environment ("wild" horses in America?).

My wife, Carmela, and I traveled this summer out west, and I found several passages in this chapter had new meaning for me because of those experiences. On page 4, Kay describes how amazed she is by the giant trees in the rain forest, and I immediately thought about the redwoods in northern California - it's hard to imagine the size and scope of these titans. On pages 4 and 5 Kay talks about the change in elevation as she's hiking in Monteverde, and the significant change that makes in temperature, sounds and sights. While we were traveling we ranged from approximately 10,000 feet elevation (Brian Head, Utah and Tualomne Meadow in Yosemite National Park) to 282 feet below sea level (Death Valley). As I wrote about on my blog, the difference was astounding.

On page 3, Kay makes the comparison of her hike to the "convoluted" path that the settlers in Monteverde were on as they developed and conserved the area. I love the imagery and analogy of this paragraph and understand it quite well, having read the whole book. I wonder if it even registered with me the first time I read it - or whether the students will even notice it. This relation between the evolution of their community and the natural surroundings - both literally and figuratively - is why I am drawn to Monteverde and so dedicated to bringing my students there. This book is what made that visible to me, giving structure and clarity to what I had felt the moment I first visited. I am thrilled to be sharing it all with my students.