In the Amazon, Looking Inward and Serving Outward

By Brian Smith

In February, 14 students from Colorado flew to the Peruvian Amazon.

A week later they came back with a broader worldview, a deeper understanding of themselves, and in some cases a clearer direction for their future.

We sat down with those students – who attend Polaris Expeditionary Learning School – to hear about their experience and what made it special for them. In some cases it was connecting with locals who’ve had few interactions with outsiders; in others it was overcoming barriers such as crossing a canopy walk suspended 150 feet above the jungle floor.

It was the first time Lezette, an 11th grader, had ever been out of the country. As an introvert, she said she felt it was a tangible barrier for her to leave home and make new friends. Her No Barriers Youth experience in Peru helped her do that.

“We went to a small community called Lita and we got to go and paint their school and make recycling receptacles and paint pictures for their school, and that was really cool because afterward we got to play with all of the kids,” she said.

Since returning, Cayce said he’s been feeling more social. Self-described as the kid who spends hours playing video games alone, Cayce has been coming out of his shell more. Part of the reason was doing something out of his comfort zone: walking across the canopy walk, which he described as “cool and terrifying.”

“After that trip I definitely want to be traveling a bit more,” he said. “I didn’t realize how cool it was to be out there and I like all of the different cultures. I would absolutely love to go again.”

Polaris 4As an expeditionary learning school, Polaris focuses on hands-on learning. Science teacher Sarah Bayer said the school’s NBY expedition will inform the work students are doing studying the impacts of climate change.

She said it was special to see students learn in the moment and come home with a broader perspective.

“It spoke to some of my core philosophies as a teacher, especially as an expeditionary learning teacher,” she said. “We want to grow their worldview, whether it be through science or through language arts, and to see that when they step outside of the four walls of the classroom they can see what they’ve learned come together — but also as a person and broadening their general sense of the world altogether was really powerful to see.”

Social Studies Teacher Liz Melahn said she also loved to see her students grow in the moment.

“My job is all about helping kids figure out who they are and that’s why I love high school kids — because they are weird. They don’t know who they are, they’re trying to find an identity, they’re struggling in a lot of ways,” she said.

“So I think experiences like this help them find themselves and I think that’s really, really important.”

Listen to our full conversation with Polaris below: