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