Shan: Ghost of the Outdoor Classroom

It was a typical Friday morning in the Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust (SLC-IT) office. Most of the staff was out attending weddings and baby showers, as it is the Ladakhi season for festivities, and all who remained in the office were myself, a fellow volunteer, our Himalayan brown bear expert, and our education director. I was puttering away at my project proposal, in between savoring sips of my steaming chai and frequent trips to the space heater in the corner. My education colleague, Thinless, receives a call and proceeds to have a casual conversation in Ladakhi. Thinking little of it, I continue to hash out my project timeline while wondering what I might do that weekend. Go for a hike with my host family? Relax in a chai shop and read? Do laundry or (maybe) shower? Before I can weigh these critical life decisions, Thinless hangs up the phone. She looks at each of us, eyes wide and excited. We almost know without her having to say. With a sly smile, she exhales the word we are waiting for: “Shan.” Before she can finish telling us how a fresh kill has been discovered near Ulle village, we are all out the door, bags in hand and hearts racing.

Himalayan Homestay sign
SLC-IT works with rural communities to invite environmentally friendly, culturally-geared eco-tourism.

Within the ensuing 5 hours, I managed to scarf down a plate of veg chowmein, shove a sleeping bag, zoom lens, and jar of peanut butter in my pack, catch a bus, pick up our snow leopard expert Jigmet Dadul, rollercoaster our way up the Ladakhi mountain roads, receive an aggressive revisit of the aforementioned chowmein, and finally arrive in Ulle at dusk. We are warmly greeted by our hosts, a family who runs one of the acclaimed Himalayan Homestays established by SLC-IT. “Warmly greeted” are key words, as we have now ascended to 4,200 meters (13,779 ft.) and the icy winds make me wish I had brought an extra jacket in lieu of the peanut butter.

Himalayan Homestay house
Our cozy, welcoming Himalayan Homestay.

As we huddle around the bokhari (wood stove) and clutch our chai, a young boy of about 16 bursts in exclaiming “Chu! Chu! Chu!” – the equivalent of “Brrr!” in American English. As he warms up next to us, he tells us about the freshly killed dzo (a cross-breed between a yak and a cow) that he scouted in the river valley uphill from the house. He has just returned from placing a camera trap near the kill, expecting a long night of snow leopard feasting activity. We draft our strategy: as the crepuscular snow leopards are most active at dawn and dusk, we plan to begin our hike at 5am. The boy, Stanzin, is listening intensely, and offering ideas and guidance for our journey. One of our party remarks that Stanzin is quite intelligent, and asked what he plans to study. Stanzin, blushing a bit, admits that he has recently dropped out of school. An animated discussion commenced on the importance of education, yet the various reasons why Ladakhi students end up dropping out.

Stanzin and the roadkill
Stanzin proudly posing with the snow leopard’s dinner!

In recent years, more and more rural families have been shifting to Leh to provide their children with a private, more globally-geared education. As a result, enrollment in rural government schools has been dwindling, and many village schools have been forced to shut down. My project through SLC-IT not only seeks to protect Ladakhi ecosystems through education, but also to foster an invested love and excitement for learning in nature in a local context. Rather than relying on methods of rote memorization and preparing students for work environments they may have no interest in, my project will allow educators to offer “place-based education,” knowledge they can see, smell, hear, taste, and touch:

“Some critics of place-based education believe that the primary goal of schooling should be to prepare students to work and function in a highly technological and consumer-oriented society. In contrast, place-based educators believe that education should prepare people to live and work to sustain the cultural and ecological integrity of the places they inhabit. To do this, people must have knowledge of ecological patterns, systems of causation, and the long-term effects of human actions on those patterns. One of the most compelling reasons to adopt place-based education is to provide students with the knowledge and experiences needed to actively participate in their own contexts.” (Woodhouse and Knapp, 2000)

Ailin hiking on the rocky mountain
Afternoon hike with fellow volunteer, Ailin, as we wait for shan.

In a setting such as Ladakh, one of the world’s most unique and fragile ecosystems, it is imperative to provide students the opportunity to fall in love with the Earth beneath their very feet. What SLC-IT’s Biodiversity Park and related interactive lessons intend to do will be to combine existing classroom material with new, exciting, and relevant lessons to be learned outside, from their very own wild schoolyard. The hope is that by combining the two, students will internalize and identify with the things they learn, and develop a whole new attitude towards going to school each day:

“Application of environmental science concepts in experiential, real-life field contexts is extremely valuable. Scaffolding the learning from the classroom to the field and then back to the classroom results in memorable, comprehensive, and long-term learning. Although this type of learning holds immense benefits for all students, it is particularly valuable for students who struggle with traditional school tasks or have developed an apathetic stance toward school and learning.” (James and Williams, 2017)

Based on James’ and Williams’ assessment of experiential learning, students such as Stanzin, who remain in their local contexts rather than transferring to urban schools, should have the opportunity to experience context-relevant lessons and enjoy learning in the field.

Stanzin and Jigment looking through their cameras
Stanzin and Jigmet, tirelessly scanning from the break of dawn.

The following morning, eyes weary and ears cocked, I observed Stanzin’s vast knowledge and passion for his environment in action. His face remained glued to the binoculars, scanning the ridgelines for hours. He could name each living thing we came across, from Lammergier to Golden Eagle to the skittish hare that met a violent (and exciting) end. If SLC-IT can give more experiences like these to local schools scattered in the valleys of the Himalayas, perhaps more children will discover a similar passion lay dormant inside, for the incredible outdoor classroom, with all the elements of the breathing Earth as their teachers.

Alexandra looking through the camera
First snow leopard sighting! Credit: Ailin Mao

After hours of waiting, looking, hoping, and savoring bites of peanut butter, the elusive silhouette of a furry ghost was spotted peaking from the grey rocks, preparing to descend once again to its feast. It was a much more eventful weekend than I was expecting, and it gave me more insight to the importance of my project with SLC-IT and the potential for improving experiential, environmental education in Ladakh. I hope to continue working closely with Stanzin during future field visits, as well as be a part of designing programs that will encourage Ladakhi students to stay in school and love learning.

Snow leopard on mountain
Why we do what we do. (Snow leopard on top of a mountain) Credit: Jigmet Dadul


James, Joan K., Williams, Theresa. “School-Based Experiential Outdoor Education: A Neglected Necessity.” Journal of Experiential Education, Vol. 40.1 (2017): p. 58-71.

Woodhouse, Janice L., Knapp, Clifford E. “Place-Based Curriculum and Instruction: Outdoor and Environmental Education Approaches.” ERIC – Education Resources Information Center, 30 Nov. 2000.

Alexandra is honored to serve in the high mountains of Ladakh, combining her passion for religion and environmental science to help achieve the mission of SLC-IT. After studying in Varanasi through the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship, Alexandra participated in two summers of the Critical Language Scholarship in Jaipur while volunteering at a home for survivors of domestic violence. Alexandra also studied West African Islam and gender in Dakar, Senegal, while interning at an artist colony for at-risk youth of Dakar. She has facilitated asset-based community development in rural Kenya, volunteered in a mental health hospital in Guatemala, and was the Resident Director for the National Security Language Initiative for Youth in Pune. Prior to AIF, Alexandra taught outdoor environmental science in the alpine forests of Southern California. She is very eager to help SLC-IT create a biodiversity park to continue inspiring humans’ connection to nature and responsibility towards wildlife conservation.

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3 thoughts on “Shan: Ghost of the Outdoor Classroom

  1. Ahhh love it, Xan! Glad to see your transformation to resident snow leopard is progressing right on schedule. Also, your photos are amazing!

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