Category Archives: Director’s Notes

Director’s Notes

March 11, 2011

As the co-director of Finding the Good, it is my job to post on the blog semi-regularly under “Director’s Notes”. My posts are, in theory, to provide an overview and to offer the perspective of one who is part instructor, part organizer/leader, part curriculum developer, part seeker/student, part fellow adventurer, part mentor, and part….parent. With all those parts, it is sometimes challenging to be also the writer and scribe, though in many ways that is the exact flip side of my role here, equally important. So it is with some chagrin that here we are at the end of Week 7 and this is my first post.

It is not insignificant that I am writing this in our small trailer-classroom, at Campo Archelon, in Bahia de Los Angeles on the shores of the Gulf of California (sometimes referred to as the Sea of Cortez, though rarely by me) in Baja California, Mexico. Life at FtG has only just slowed down long enough for me to sit at the computer with something other than immediate and urgent business to take care of. It is a luxury and a joy to be focusing my attention on relating some of the learning that has taken place, and is at this very moment taking place, among our compact group of students, interns, and directors.

When writing, I do believe that it is best to start where one is, and go forward or back from there. We arrived at Campo Archelon this afternoon and were greeted by our good friend Antonio Resendiz, world-renowned sea turtle researcher and overall extraordinary human being. Somehow in a conversation that took no more than 40 minutes, over coffee in the beautiful stone house he built with his wife Bety, we covered the state of the world, the earthquake in Japan (first we’d heard of it), the US economy, he and Bety’s two children, our family; drugs and other consumer addictions, the students and FtG; the decline this year of the tourist industry and squid fishery that has resulted in hard times here in this land that depends heavily on tourism and fishing; and what we want to do while we are here in Bahia. Conversations with Antonio are always fast-paced and enlightening. We always learn something, usually a lot.

Backing up just a little, we left Synergia at about 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday evening. Driving well into the wee hours of Wednesday, we crammed ourselves into a room in a Motel 6 somewhere in the Central Valley for a few hours of sleep before getting back onto Hwy 5 and up and over the Grapevine into and then past LA. Crossed the border without incident (but not without personal impact) well before dark, and were on our way to Ensenada and the promise of our first Mexican tacos, always the first initiation. We mistakenly thought that “Tripa” meant tongue meat, when it actually means intestines. No one ordered Tripa but Tyler came close. We spent our first night near La Bufadora outside of Ensenada right by the ocean. Then the real fun began as we headed south on Hwy 1 – always an adventure. A stop in El Rosario for lunch (more tacos, no Tripa) and onto Catavina where we spent the night camped in the beautiful desert of Boojum trees and myriad species of cactus, including giant Cardon, endemic to Central Baja. The area surrounding Catavina is dotted everywhere with giant granite boulders and rock formations. It is a landscape unlike any other – ancient and wild and Dr. Suess-like all at the same time, it stretches beyond sight and beyond imagining; the highway cuts through and gives the traveler a glimpse on either side, but one dares not venture too far from the center line.

We hike into the boulders a short distance to see the small cave paintings left by earlier travelers an estimated 5,000 – 10,000 years ago. We sit in quiet reverence, paintings overhead as we crouch to fit under the rock overhang that is less a cave than a shelter from the bright sun. Back in the van to this place where will stay for almost a week. Untypically, it is a windless day here in Bahia, and warm, and the students and Tom test the waters and go for a swim. Annabelle, Britney and I decline. This may be Mexico, but it ain’t Acapulco.

Antonio has found Mauro, and has brought him back to say hello. Mauro is Italian but has lived here in Baja for who knows how many years. He greets us all with warm hugs and the uninhibited kisses-upon-cheeks that Latinos and Europeans seem to bestow so naturally and we Americans receive so awkwardly. We met Mauro and his wife Patty and their two young, adorable children just a year ago – they have a lovely super-adobe home perched on a hillside halfway up a large mountain overlooking the town of Bahia de Los Angeles, or Bay of LA as we like to shorthand it to. Mauro is as energetic and non-stop as Antonio – I am not sure what a conversation between the two of them would even sound like. Mauro heads a government funded project to clean up the trash that is pretty much everywhere; he created and runs the recycling center. He writes the grants that bring in the money, hires locals (mostly women supporting their families) to gather the trash and then teaches them to separate and process it so that it can be sold. He and his crews have created mountains of colored glass, separated by color, that they will next turn into art glass pieces, using a powerful and expensive furnace (also procured by grant funds) to melt the glass that 22 otherwise unemployed workers will transform into functional art. These pieces will be sold around the world, mostly in the US, I’m guessing. It’s an ambitious project and while it is moving into its current phase, Mauro and Patty are opening a little pizza and coffee place in town, for “something to do”. Amazing what one can accomplish when internet is not at one’s fingertips, iPhones are still a world away, and television is non-existent. There are ecosystems to preserve and sea turtles to protect, trash to re-direct and relationships to nurture. Even in this remotest of remote places on earth there are cottage industries to build, communities to support, art to be made, and cultures to mix.

This is our time of pilgrimage, when we step away from the familiar and comfortable and into the yet-to-be, the unpredicted and unpredictable, the unknown and unknowable. It is in the unfamiliar that we learn more of who we actually are and who we want to become, not in the sense of a professional or social persona, but rather in the deepest human sense. Today as we barreled down the peninsula, we listened to Lily Yeh describe her experience in the inner city of North Philadelphia as she faced her first large-scale city lot transformative art project.

“I was invited to create a park in an abandoned lot in inner city N Philadelphia. And I think that began my journey, but I actually was very scared, very reluctant, didn’t want to and almost chickened out. And then, at that moment, wanting to withdraw, my voice, my inner voice spoke to me in a very fragile, but very clear message: it said that if you don’t rise to the occasion then the best of you will die, and the rest will not amount to anything.”

Inner city Philadelphia or far down the Baja California peninsula, it is no different. Facing the unknown, feeling the fear, and hearing that inner voice tell you that if you back down now, the best of you will die. It is these crossroads that offer us no choice, and no relief. We walk into the void or we lose a vital part of ourselves. Hopefully, there is no choice to make.

March 12, 2011

The students are all out journaling on the beach. A light wind has kicked up, but the morning is still early and the sun still climbing. Soon I will walk over to the hotel where the internet is, and get this posted.

Learning in the way that we do here at FtG is so different that we find ourselves pointing out what we are learning along the way, over and over. It isn’t always obvious because the outcome basis is not what students are generally expected to produce, and is certainly not what they are accustomed to. This is the “hump” that one has to get over, or the veil that one has to pierce, and is perhaps the most difficult part of informal, or experiential learning. Part of the mind is conditioned to the old way – memorizing facts or concepts and then taking a test that “proves” you have learned something by regurgitating the facts in a prescribed manner that will result in a “grade” (A-F) that also somehow “proves” your intelligence, studiousness, and academic prowess. Or maybe it just proves how obedient and compliant you are.

Speaking with high school English teachers they tell me that there is no way they have the time to read every paper that they assign. They tell their students that they will read and correct a random sampling of the work they submit. The idea is that the students will produce consistently well-thought out and well-written papers in the assumption that the random selection of one will be of the same high standard as another. A kind of Russian Roulette. But anyone who writes knows that there are times when, as with any art, you hit a stream where language and thought and ideas and the very words themselves merge in an elegant confluence of currents and the stream becomes a mighty river and at the end of the process there is an essay worth reading. And what if there is no mentor, no professor at the receiving end to be moved by the sheer force of your passion and the breathtaking expansion of your thoughts? What if no one is there to give feedback and appreciation and offer suggestions? What happens to the (inner) writer in such a scenario?

She dies. Or goes dormant, or doesn’t care, or cheats or learns — not to write well, but to get by. To skirt the hard, laborious crafting of a great piece of writing and then miss the relationship of author to reader; of giver to received; of nourisher to the hungry.

It is time now to go in search of internet connection so that you can read this, sent miraculously through cyberspace from this remotest of remote places. Who knows what I will write about next but the plan is to tie in our lessons and incredible learning experience in Salt Lake City to what we are doing here. I will bookmark the Baja trajectory, and take us back two weeks to Salt Lake City, because there are dots to connect, or rather, stars to connect into constellations. Stay tuned.

Lessons

March 8, 2010

8 AM. The students are out field journaling. All but Forest, who is loping up the beach towards us, a little faster than usual. He hones in on the snorkeling gear and while choosing a mask and snorkel tells us that there is a school of dolphins about 30 feet off shore. He lopes off again a little faster than he came. We follow him through the binoculars. Andrew sites the dolphins – about eight of them, active and moving in what appears to be a circular pattern. We presume they are feeding.  A few moments later we spot Forest, in the water near the dolphins, but they have moved farther away from shore and it doesn’t look like he will catch up to them. Later, when Alex hears the story, he asks why the dolphins didn’t just swim with Forest.

“It’s like this, Alex,” Andrew offers, “You haven’t had breakfast, and your eggs are running down the street away from you. You start to run after them, and just at that moment, Deb says, “Hey, Alex, can we have a little chat now?” And there are your eggs, getting further and further away every second. What would you do, go talk to Deb or go after your eggs?”

By: Debra Weistar

Director’s notes 3.9.10


Megan and I have been keeping a daily log chronicling the main events of our days. One of us (occasionally both of us together) ends our day with the daily log-recording ritual. These past three-plus weeks have been incredibly full, and I am going to attempt to translate from our daily log and put it all into a kind of travelogue-blog. This part of the semester is so much more than simply traveling, though. Work on a larger piece occupies me when I steal a few minutes to myself. In it I document the work we doing in terms of the pedagogic foundation of Finding the Good, taking it out of the conceptual, where it has been up until this semester, and bringing it into the realm of in-life learning. I will share that when it is in a form fit for sharing.

In the meantime, I can provide a context for everyone else’s contributions, at least up through Feb 26. By the next post I should be up to date. Note: the following tidbits are just that – they in no way represent a full accounting of our days. They are a taste, a sliver, a slice…….

The beginning

February 12, 2010

The preparations for the big trip to Baja are almost complete. All day, the energy has been buzzing around here. Everyone is so ready to hit the road. At around 5:00 they actually pulled out. I write “they”, not “we” because I am staying behind, taking the weekend to pack, get the house ready for Clarity, our new-found housesitter, and tie up loose ends.

February 13, 2010

UCSC. Food Convergence Conference. Our group attended workshops on permaculture, urban homesteading, student run co-ops, animal rights and sustainable food, psychology for effective activist messaging, growing a campus garden, to name just a few. They slept on the floor of the grange hall with 50 other students (mostly UC students), shared food, and danced, and ended the night with sleeping bag races across the hardwood floor.

February 14, 2010

Day 2 of the conference. The Finding the Good crew attended a panel discussion on food issues, conducted a few interviews, climbed a 110-foot Douglas fir, named Tree 9, and ended the day with a swim in the Pacific. Our dear friend Susan Sanford drove me all the way to Santa Cruz to meet up with my crew that night.

February 15, 2010

It feels good to be back with my tribe. After breakfast in the grange hall parking lot, we hit the road for San Diego. For the first time, we take hwy 101 instead of hwy 5 and what a difference! Didn’t count on the holiday traffic north of L.A. though and we finally roll into the campground outside of San Diego at around 11:00 p.m., pretty road weary.

February 16, 2010

A packed day in So. Cal. Our main reason for staying a whole day here is our interview with the WildCoast people – executive director Serge Dedina, and Zach Plopper, whose title has escaped me. But that is hardly all we did today. Natasha and I spent about an hour in the clinic – her cough is just not improving and we don’t want to take a chance going into Mexico unless she’s been seen by a doctor. Hopefully the antibiotics will do the trick and she’ll feel better soon. We got our tourist visas at Discover Baja; shopped for last minute items; and had a great discussion on the food convergence before that becomes ancient history.  We returned to the campground in time to make fajitas, have a discussion about cultural differences and sensitivity, and take what may be our last truly hot shower for weeks.

Note: the interview with Serge and Zach went very well. They invited us to San Ignacio lagoon at the end of the month for a gathering of the conservationists, scientists, and local people who were responsible for stopping Mitsubishi from putting a salt plant operation in the lagoon 10 years ago.

February 17, 2010

Today we crossed the border. Stopped in San Isidro first to exchange our dollars for pesos. No incidents at the border getting our passports stamped and visas validated. Easy border crossing physically, not so easy emotionally. Everyone was pretty quiet as we passed the shacks of Tijuana, the border fence, and in the distance, but still visible, the opulence of Southern California. We stopped in Ensenada at the tortillaria to stock up on fresh corn tortillas and enjoy our first tacos. We head south and after a quick stop for fruit and veggies, drive and drive and drive. We camped beside the ocean in San Quintin, at Camp Pabellon.

February 18, 2010

Our first morning in Mexico! After a delicious fruit breakfast, the students head off into the dunes and beside the sea to journal. We continue to head south. We pass, as is the norm, the intermittent military checkpoints. Heading south, they generally wave us through after they find out we are just a band of estudiantes heading to Ojo de Liebre to study ballenas. The terrain changes radically as we head inland. Coastal farmland gives way to desert landscapes and we view for the first time the boojum trees, Joshua trees, cardon cactus and ocatillo. The desert is green and alive, thanks to El Nino. We stop in El Rosario for a delicious and filling lunch of pescado and carne tacos. Alex orders a hamburger (hamburguesa) and Tom teases him. Catavina is our destination for the night and just before we get there we pull off the road at the site of the cave paintings, and hike through the rock and cactus garden to the ancient site. We all sit in the rock overhang and marvel at the artwork left by distant relatives.

February 19, 2010

Upon Megan’s urging, we are up at first light. After breakfast we hike across the wash to the cactus garden to photograph, identify, and enjoy the beauty of this unfamiliar land. Then back in the van to Guerrero Negro. We cross the border between Baja California and Baja California Sur and lose an hour. In Guerrero Negro we get our first taste of shopping and resupply in Mexico. One group heads to the Mercado, another to the fruiteria, three of us track down internet. We get gas, and tortillas, and aqua pura. Finally we are ready to head out to the lagoon. We stop briefly at the visitor’s center and Tom makes the unhappy discovery that we have broken a leaf spring on the trailer. He and Jon gerry rig  solution that gets us to our campsite without causing any further damage. We set up camp and Andrew sees his first whale spout, and then a breach. I don’t think Charles Scammon was as excited. We are camped right beside the lagoon and there is no one else around.

February 20, 2010

Laguna Ojo de Liebre. Waking up at this lagoon, where gray whales migrate to breed and calve, is a privilege few enjoy. We are one of the few. We spend the day settling in, and walking along the dunes, as well as in council and one-on-one meetings, building our community. Tom headed back to Guerrero Negro to see about fixing the broken leaf spring and he was successful! Later that afternoon, Sirena and Adrian arrive. We have known Sirena since she was four years old. We met Sirena and her mother, Shari, at this very lagoon the very first time we came here. She is now twenty.  She and her boyfriend Adrian are joining our clan to help with interpreting, Spanish lessons and cooking. Tonight a coyote snatched their little dog. He narrowly escaped becoming a tasty midnight snack. Adrian ran after the coyote and little Pepper was spared. Tom put his WFR training to good use and did a little kitchen table first aid.

February 21, 2010

Today we went out whale watching. They are extraordinary creatures, the gray whale, and the only whales known to freely interact with humans. Our group went out in two fishing boats, or pangas. The whale count is way down this year (possibly due to high surf from El Nino), still, whales surrounded us, and several came up to our boat to cavort around it. I am sure that someone will write a full report on this experience, so I will leave it at that. Later, a few students went back to the visitor center and interviewed our two lancheros, or panga drivers, Leopoldo and Jose Luis.

February 22, 2010

Today we began serious media instruction. We also started our field journals. While the students were out journaling, Shari arrived. Later, we went back to the visitor’s center to film a presentation with her. She talked about how she got involved with gray whale study; conservation biology; international conservation efforts; politics and wildlife. Back at our campsite we began work on storytelling and student’s individual media projects.

February 23, 2010

Today was a beautiful day on the lagoon. Annabelle has been getting up every morning (before me!) to photograph the sunrise and early morning light. She’s out there with camera and tripod and hundreds of shore birds. The students start each day with personal and field journaling; observation, drawing and recording. Sometimes we follow it with a short yoga or stretching session. Today the whole day was spent in various forms of study – media making; story development; the history of whale hunting in the lagoon. We took a break at one point for a rousing game of Ultimate Frisbee. Sirena and Adrian gave our first Spanish lesson and established “Spanish only in the kitchen”, which means that when we are preparing a meal, only Spanish may be spoken.

February 24, 2010

We were long overdue for resupply, email, laundry and showers, so this afternoon after a full morning of work/study, we headed into Guerrero Negro for a day on the town. I’m impressed with everyone’s ability to navigate the language and culture and have so much fun doing it. We topped the day off with a delicious meal of – you guessed it – tacos.

February 25, 2010

Adrian’s twenty-fourth birthday. Another morning of study and instruction (including photo composition) after journaling and an authentic breakfast of chilequilas ala Sirena and Adrian. Then off to Guerrero Negro again, this time to tour the salt plant. The Exportadora Sal salt plant is the largest solar salt operation in the world. Very interesting tour.

February 26, 2010

Packed up and left Ojo de Liebre today, for San Ignacio lagoon. This was not on our original itinerary and in fact Tom and I have never been all the way to San Ignacio lagoon before. Ten years ago the lagoon, part of the biosphere reserve, was in danger of severe impact from a proposed salt plant operation – the largest in the world. A group of conservationists, activists, NGOs, and local citizens formed a coalition and ultimately were successful in stopping the proposal. The 10th anniversary celebration takes place this weekend at the lagoon. We plan on documenting as much as we can, and perhaps interviewing some of the people who were involved back then.

We stop in the town of San Ignacio — a mission town built in a beautiful desert oasis. The church and its beautiful gardens of bougainvillea and date palms sit on the west side of the town square. Then onto the lagoon – bumping over 40 kilometers of washboard took us two and half hours. We arrived at Pachico’s Camp just as the sun was going down. We were greeted by Jesus (sorry mom, but that’s “Hey-sus”) who showed us to our camp area on the edge of the lagoon. We are exhausted but happy to be in this mysterious new place.

To be continued………..

Baja Beach

March 8 2010

Three of us sit here in our in our mini mobile classroom trailer, eleven feet long, filled with our luggage as we travel; when we are camped it transforms into a mobile media center. An eighty-watt solar panel is on the roof wired into two six volt 105 amp hour batteries and a 1000-watt inverter. The students put the system together back at base camp before we left. Ohms law meets the Baja California sun and we have about 600 watt-hours of power each day. We now sit 50 yards from the breaking waves in San Roque, Baja California Sur, two students beside me with their computers happily humming away on the day’s store of solar energy. The view out the trailer is five miles of deserted beach with pelicans diving after fish that are trying to escape the patrolling lobos Marinas (sea lions).

San Roque is an abandoned fishing village about half way down the peninsula on the Pacific side. The village once supported about 20 families. Just off shore is Isla San Roque, the whole area is one of the Nuclear Core Zones of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. The island supports a large colony of harbor seals and many species of birds. Twelve kilometers to the south is the small town of Bahia Asuncion; it also has an island just off shore with its own colony of sea lions. The town is not a tourist destination, so our presence here has a much different feel than our other haunts. We have been bringing students here for a number of years and many people in the town know us and greet us warmly. The local young people come to our beach camp for boogieando (boogie boarding) to play music, dance, practice English/Spanish and share food.

One of the reasons San Roque is abandoned is because there is no fresh water here. We bring what we need from town and the twelve of us subsist on less than 10 gallons a day. We wash our dishes and bodies with agua del mar, a very hands on lesson in conservation and appreciation for what we take for granted, and the magic of this place rubs off on the students just as planned.

By: Tom Weistar

Intrinsic Motivation

It’s a hard concept to get, it takes a while; some of the students are just now starting to come around after six weeks. This idea, this notion of self-directed learning, intrinsic motivation, life long learning, the world is your classroom, that learning is a luxury to take joy in.  I am a fortunate product of the alternative school movement of the late sixties and early seventies.  About 60 of us were chosen to form a school within a school. Thirty were the brainiac kids that were bored with the standard fair, and the other 30 were, well, us, the ones that might tarnish the schools prestigious image.  We designed our own curriculum.  I got exposed early to learning outside of the classroom, and I remember it hit me like a ton of bricks one day that I was learning so much away from school. Even seasoned teachers we have trained have had a hard time with self-directed learning; they want the (false) security of the textbooks, the lesson plans, and the summative assessment tools (tests). We steel our resolve, exercise our patience, strategize and nudge.

We made some big strides the other day.  We had just told the students that we wanted them to think of the people we were meeting as their teachers, to engage them, to learn from them and to ask questions. Unscheduled and unknown to us Paul walks in, right on queue. A semi-retired professor, and an ornithologist with a PHD from Cornell, and a fantastic human being. He is down with a group of researchers working on conservation issues. He took us for most of the day on a walk to the edge of the mangroves, where he wove birding and conservation with literature and… Zen and the art of living?  At the end of our walk he excused himself, he came prepared with his bathing suit under his clothes, to float on the outgoing tide along the Mangroves out into the lagoon. A few students followed his lead. I hope our paths cross again.

So the students work at shedding their Pavlovian conditioning, some still waiting for the bell to ring, for the subject to change, for someone to tell them what to do, when to do it, and how many points it will be worth. Meanwhile we wait, for self-direction, knowing it is the only reward to attach to learning.

By: Tom Weistar