Far Beyond the Western Mountains

Deerfield Magazine Fall 2011

Introduction by Jessica Day

Photographs by Peter Nilsson (Turkey, China) and Lydia Hemphill (Africa)

Deerfield is beautiful, comfortable, and safe. And sometimes, for those very reasons, faculty need to leave. Not forever, of course, but long enough to have the opportunity to see outside “the bubble,” experientially expand their knowledge of global issues and culture, and sample the academic climate on continents other than North America. Then, bursting with new knowledge, they return to campus—ready to share their experiences in the classroom.

As of this year, Deerfield students come from 39 different states and 31 foreign countries. Many are savvy, worldly-wise young men and women who are equally comfortable at home and abroad; even on campus, they literally have the world at their fingertips thanks to today’s technology. It is becoming increasingly clear that in order to remain relevant to these sophisticated young people, Deerfield’s faculty must also be exposed to a more transcontinental life.

Summer 2011 was a season of prolific faculty travel, thanks to generous donations from Deerfield families and friends, including a grant from the Chen family, the Cisneros Fund, and others. All together, over 20 faculty members took advantage of the opportunity for foreign travel—some attended conferences, some explored tropical environs, and some literally went to the other side of the world.

They returned with diverse experiences as souvenirs, but everyone agreed that it was their perspective that had been shifted in some meaningful way. Whether it was history teacher Mary Ellen Friends who wrote, “In addition to helping me remain current with courses I already teach, this summer’s faculty trip to China fueled my work on two new courses I hope to teach beginning in the fall of 2012 . . .” or English teacher and Assistant Dean of Faculty Karinne Heise who commented, “My time in Costa Rica reinforced my plan to include in my classes more creative nonfiction writing projects, calling upon students to experiment with nature writing and to write profiles about local people they don’t know—maybe even the student from Africa who lives down the hall!” And science teacher Heidi Valk added, “Having the opportunity to work and travel with my colleagues was another benefit of this experience.”

What follows are three reflections from three faculty members who went on extraordinarily different excursions but returned to Deerfield equally inspired . . .

Costa Rica

By Cheri Karbon / Spanish

We landed in Costa Rica during a typical mid-afternoon deluge to begin a week of building—not with hammers and nails as one might guess—but armed with our imaginations and experience, we had come to help build a curriculum.

DSCN6704After a brief commute through Alajuela, fellow Deerfield teachers Karinne Heise, Mike Schloat, Heidi Valk, Mark Teutsch, and I arrived at Deerfield alumna (Class of ’99) Caroline Grew’s family coffee farm in Santa Barbara de Heredia; we were joined by Phillips Exeter Academy science teacher Sydnee Goddard and Lissa Eidelman of the Island School. Lush green grass and shade-grown coffee contrasted beautifully with the blooming red birds of paradise. With each breeze, the smell of rain and wet soil was overpowered by the sweet aroma of over-ripe mangoes.

The next morning, after filling our bellies with a traditional Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto, we made our way by land and by sea to our final destination: the CIRENAS (Centro de Investigación de Recursos Naturales y Sociales—Center of Investigation for Natural and Social Resources) campus on the Caletas-Arío Nature Reserve on the Nicoya Peninsula. The Reserve is both publicly and privately owned and managed by MINAET (Costa Rica’s ministry of the environment) and the Grew family.  The collaboration between the two entities has encouraged conservation, preservation, and environmental awareness in that area.

On our tour of the CIRENAS campus we were introduced to composting worms, a towering Guanacaste tree in which Caroline’s husband Tucker and his father were building a tree house, and a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean, which can be enjoyed from each of the three dwellings on the ranch. We also toured the ranch’s vegetable and herb garden, and the rancho—a huge palm and teak hut that Caroline and Tucker built themselves along with a handful of volunteers.

Tucker, Caroline, and two CIRENAS employees then explained the house rules and CIRENAS’s mission: “CIRENAS exists to build transformative connections between people and the environment through education, research, integration, and innovation,” they said, and went on to demonstrate how our living quarters were self-sustaining and completely off the grid. The sun would be our only energy source, and when it got dark at six p.m., we would rely on candlelight. Our “Navy” showers would be cold, and we would only flush when absolutely necessary. We were then assigned chores to be completed after every meal—the chore of choice being “put away food . . . ” which, given our hearty appetites, we preferred to interpret in the colloquial sense.

IMG_0266-1024x767Finally, we embarked in earnest on our mission: to assist Tucker and Caroline in designing the curriculum for their semester school, which is slated to open on Arío Ranch in January 2012. The school (yet to be named) will host Costa Rican and American high school students each year from the beginning of January to the end of March. With a strong focus on environmental and community awareness, the hope is to engage these students in real work, with outcomes that they can see and feel.

There are few endeavors more exciting to high school teachers than the opportunity to build a curriculum from scratch. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Tucker and Caroline wanted teachers of all disciplines to be active participants in the planning of each of the courses to be offered at their school. This was both exciting and challenging, as it forced us to think like students and teachers of subjects other than our own areas of expertise.

As the week unfolded, we discussed the importance of bringing everyday life and concerns on the Reserve into the classroom, and focusing on hands-on, experiential learning. Essential components of this included sustainable and even self-sufficient living on the CIRENAS campus, community outreach and education, design/build projects, Spanish immersion, and applied/action research. Due to the pressing concerns that are faced by the Reserve, teaching thematically across the curriculum not only seemed possible, it seemed like the perfect approach. Students of the semester school will be living their education at every moment, and the larger focus—whether solving watershed issues, preserving native peninsular heritage and culture, or creating alternative energy systems on the campus—will become the focus in each academic class, creating a close relationship and an organic flow among all classes, while bearing in mind the school’s primary focus.

Between the productive, collegial atmosphere and the beautiful, lush scenery, it was an exhilarating week: A morning horseback ride introduced us to the biodiversity that exists and flourishes on the Reserve. We also learned that half of it was once a cattle pasture, and over the last ten years it has been left to regenerate naturally. Amazingly, after a mere decade, it looks as dense and as lush as any other protected area of the ranch. A trip down the gravel road from the CIRENAS campus led us to another morning activity: beach clean-up. We were happy to help and enjoyed being on the beach, but it was incredibly troubling to see just how much plastic we picked up along a quarter-mile stretch of shoreline.

Costa-RicaA morning outing to a local elementary school was both eye-opening and inspirational. Over the past several years, Caroline has dedicated time, energy, and love to the kids at this school. Their one-room schoolhouse was colorful, yet simple, and nine students from first through sixth grade sat at their desks, working diligently when we entered the building. They were shy and soft-spoken as they introduced themselves, but a bilingual game of animal charades soon broke the ice! They shared with us their art, a statement on why their school was meaningful to them, and their dreams of what they will become when they grow up. I was happy to learn that semester school students will also have the opportunity to work and play with the children at this school—and that they will be witnesses to the learning taking place in this little, one-room schoolhouse, as I was.

My week on the ranch was relaxing and exhausting and invigorating. My time there inspired self-reflection and made me realize that here or there, the seemingly insignificant and mundane decisions that I make can have a real effect on the lives and the habitat of other living creatures . . .

I also find myself thinking more deeply about what I teach, and how to make what I teach meaningful to my students. “Teaching across the curriculum” has become a mantra since I entered the world of pedagogy 15 years ago, and conversely, “Teaching autonomy” has been another. At Deerfield we understand the importance of each, but it is challenging to achieve both simultaneously. After a week of focusing on teaching across the curriculum in Costa Rica, I began to wonder how a school Deerfield’s size could accomplish what seems so natural and simple for a school of 16. Honestly, it’s an extraordinarily involved endeavor, and I’ve yet to come up with any solutions. In the meantime, though, I have established a new goal for my teaching: make it real, make it applicable, make it meaningful. Pura vida! ••

Read about Peter Nilsson’s experience in Turkey


By Peter Nilsson / Assistant Academic Dean, Study Skills Coordinator, English Teacher

Right in Ankara, the heart and capital of Turkey, Bilkent University is pushing into the future of education. The first private university in the country, Bilkent includes a graduate school of education and a laboratory K-12 school that partners with the university to provide an environment for research and development.

Recently, I attended the ninth international conference at the school of education, which brought graduate students from Bilkent together with teachers and administrators from the US, the UK, and across Turkey. The theme of the conference was “Critical Thinking and Creativity: Learning Outside the Box,” and what I found there was a crucible for ideas, new and old.

Keynote addresses by graduate program directors from Cambridge University and Teachers College started two mornings of the conference, and teachers and school heads followed with presentations and discussions on topics from professional development to education theory to strategies for fostering critical thinking and creativity in the classroom. Talks were impassioned, and the discussions that followed were often vigorous. Conversation spilled over into meals, and by the end of two and a half days, the conference had offered not only a few lenses through which to see ourselves, but also a palette of ideas to draw from upon return to our own schools.

TurkeyThe history of Turkey provided an appropriate backdrop to the deliberations we engaged in in Ankara. In 1922, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk took the reins of the newly reborn Republic of Turkey, he had to mediate between the thousands of years of Anatolian history and the new secular and independent national identity he sought to carve out for Turkey.

He had to decide, for example, what to do with the Ayasofya (known, in Greek, as the Hagia Sofia). Christians constructed the famously domed and mosaic-filled church in the 500s. Vikings visited it in the 800s, and Europeans reinforced and expanded it during the Crusades. When the Ottomans swept through Turkey in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque, which it functioned as for over 450 years. And so, when Ataturk founded the new Turkey, he found himself caught between conflicting interests. To whom should the Ayasofya belong? The Christians argued that it had been built as a church and should be returned to its original owners. The Muslims protested that it had served as a mosque for four and half centuries. Who had the greater claim? Perhaps there was no better choice than the one Ataturk pursued—declaring the Ayasofya a museum so it would be open to all.

This is the complex past of Turkey. At the intersection of continents, it has changed hands and identities time and again over thousands of years. A visit to the Anatolian museum reveals figurines from the ancient Hittites (c. 1600 BCE), artwork from the Egyptian rule of southern Anatolia (c. 300 BCE), Roman structures (100AD), and artifacts from dozens of other civilizations and ages. And now, for nearly 90 years, it has become a secular, capitalist, and democratic nation.

Sharing borders with Iraq, Iran, and Syria, Turkey is often held as one of several models for modernization in the Middle East. In it, past and present conflate into a complex mix. Stone carvings of spear-wielding Mesopotamian warriors are displayed at the Anatolian Museum right underneath spattered paintings of UN soldiers in Afghanistan. Ancient stone tablets bearing hieroglyphs stand adjacent to modern day stone tablets wrapped in painted images on paper and golden aluminum foil. Turkey is a melting pot surrounded by and immersed in an ancient past. It is a mashup of history, but its 20th century declaration of independence gives it a newness that is cooked and heated over that melting pot, rather than being smelted and molded out of the material it contains.

Best-of-Turkey-074Of chief interest to me among the ideas put forth at Bilkent was the intersection between the conference’s main themes, that shared space in the Venn diagram made by the circles of critical thinking and creativity. What motivates many of us in the field of education is the understanding that the world our students are entering is more complex and more demanding of our attention than it ever has been. We know that students need greater and greater critical thinking and creative skills than ever before. At elections, for example, voters make critical decisions about complex issues like tax policy, campaign finance reform, and more. In courts, juries of citizens measure and evaluate the intricate subtleties of DNA evidence, financial systems, and statistical analyses. Navigating these turbulent waters of civic life today challenges our critical thinking skills more and more as we sift, sort through, engage, evaluate, and prioritize the rising tide of information.

But if our critical thinking skills are what allow us to understand the world around us, our creative skills are what enable us to respond to it, to develop equally novel solutions to the novelty of our challenges. How do we renovate urban and suburban infrastructure as population grows to unprecedented levels? How do we refine our food supplies and harness new energy sources to match this population growth? Or, more personally, how do we raise children when they can access the world’s information—and increasingly, the world’s population—from their desktops, or even from their pockets? These new challenges require not only the ability to critically review problems, but also the ability to create new solutions to resolve them.

Getting education just right today means developing solutions that balance and satisfy the competing demands facing our students. This is a tall order for any school environment, even that of the rich and varied landscape of a boarding school. But while among international peers, I quickly found that here at Deerfield we are cutting a bold trail. Where many schools find it difficult to squeeze critical thinking and creativity into their curriculum as a result of decades or even centuries of rote learning, at Deerfield one need only peek into any classroom to see the seamless integration of thoughtful and generative work. The expectation of excellence and the room to explore it together go a long way in our independent academic setting—and our faculty, like Ataturk, bridge the gap between the pressures of the waiting world and the practices of the classrooms that are among its best preparation. ••

Read about Nick Albertson’s travels to Africa


By Nick Albertson / College Advisor, History Teacher

One of the first things I discovered upon arrival in Africa was that no van trip to a Deerfield athletic contest could hold a candle to the pandemonium that seemed to reign on the roads of Kenya. 

The streets of Nairobi were filled with throngs of people, some waiting for public transportation, some walking, and some dodging traffic in what appeared to be a lawless free-for-all on busy streets that were under construction. It was definitely a change from the quiet streets of Historic Deerfield and Greenfield!

As we climbed up to the Laikipia plateau we saw subsistence farms intermingled with agribusiness operations that harvested pineapples, mangoes, and other fruits. In every farming community there were roadside stands selling everything from bananas to potatoes to charcoal, the main source of heat for cooking in the countryside. Big diesel trucks edged around carts pulled by triads of donkeys, and every few yards there were lone goats and cows tethered perilously close to the highway, where the grass was a bit thicker.

IMG_2450-767x1024Where were my colleagues and I headed? To the 90,000-acre, self-contained Ol Pejeta Conservancy in the Laikipia District on the western slope of Mt. Kenya, the second highest peak in Africa. Our task would be to perform data collection on the health of the Acacia drepanolobium, more commonly known as the whistling thorn tree, the primary food source for the black rhino, elephants, and giraffes, and to look at animal density in the preserve. The purpose of our project was to help conservancy directors as they try to calculate the best way to sustain and maximize a suitable habitat for the black rhino population while at the same time ensuring their safety—not an easy goal to accomplish, as we were to find out.

The conservancy is virtually contained by a high electrical fence, and there are incredible ecological pressures to find the right balance of food sources without destroying the vegetation and degrading the environment, as well as the right balance of predator and prey species, all while trying to maximize the breeding rates of the critically endangered black rhinos. The black rhino, a browser with a prehensile upper lip, is under incredible population pressure and Kenyan authorities are proud of the fact that they’ve boosted the population in the country to 539 or thereabouts over the past 20 years.However, even without human “help” it appears that the black rhino has been heading for extinction for thousands of years. Why? They just aren’t very well adapted in evolutionary terms so the question really is: Will humans bring about the abrupt extinction of this unique species or will they go out of existence on their own terms?

We spent our mornings out in the field in five different research teams, measuring the Acacia drep trees in various plots that have been monitored continuously since 1999. When we weren’t doing that, we marched on prescribed eight-kilometer transects, measuring elephant dung, and performing animal counts, hand-held GPS systems firmly in hand, and always with our armed guard alongside. Associate Academic Dean and Registrar Lydia Hemphill and her group had a black rhino mother and calf charge by them . . . close enough so that their guard had to discharge his weapon to scare them off!

Away from the bush we saw extremes of wealth and poverty: from the beautiful Fairview Hotel, an oasis in the city of Nairobi, to dirt-floor country schoolrooms where uniformed students proudly recited their lessons in a building that didn’t look as if it was fit for farm animals. Their school motto, “Succeed we can, because we must,” certainly looked like it was being fulfilled, despite the conditions. Young Kenyans spoke candidly about the political corruption that seems endemic to their political system, yet they are optimistic that democratic reforms will lead to change. However, with over 40 languages spoken within the borders of Kenya and dozens of tribal groups, national political unity has been an elusive goal for most of Kenya’s young history, and, according to some of the young people we spoke with, tribal identity still trumps national identity.

facultytravel3As a US History teacher, my own horizons and vision were expanded in Kenya, as I thought about individual choice in the modern world and the ways in which history often continues to influence the present. Whether the issues are freedom and democracy in a post-colonial reality or the role and responsibility of the United States in a rapidly changing world, my perspective was altered as we saw Kenya in all its magnificence and diversity—from beautiful, modern Nairobi to the natural splendor of Ol Pejeta. We witnessed the challenges facing this developing country, (not the least of which is the tension between the needs of a burgeoning human population and the desire to preserve Kenya’s unique natural environments), and felt privileged to be a part of progress, and yet, we came away knowing there are miles to go. ••