Student Journey Series: Zoe Schuler

first canoliEach month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Zoe Schuler. Zoe recently moved from Los Angeles back to her hometown of Seattle, Washington, where she is applying to local nonprofits that serve the community’s most vulnerable populations. 

I am emphatically grateful that travel has played a profound role in my life, and cannot overestimate its impact on the evolution of my character. My parental units have always been upfront about their investment in education —  education both in the classroom, and experiential education in the world at large. Thus my first departures from the country happened before I learned to ride a bike.

Me in Tuscany Catacomb, 2012

Me in Tuscany Catacomb, 2012

In the late 1990’s, my dad was invited to a conference in Milan, and we decided to make it a family affair. We visited the capital, Stockholm, and Umeå, a small town in Northern Sweden. There, we stayed with friends we had made the previous year when they had spent time in Seattle. To this day, I consider these Swedes an extension of my American family. I remember falling in love with Europe’s stately old buildings and picturesque fountains. I even remember getting canker sores from the candy I was given in exchange for my equanimity on the long flight. I remember these things decades later in more detail than I remember eating my breakfast this morning. Travel intensifies everything, because you are jolted into the reality of being alive by being firmly removed from your routine.  From the new scents, to new sights to new sounds, your senses struggle to function concurrently: The eyes competing with the nose, with the hands and the ears. It is overwhelming, and it is glorious.

I knew I was infected with the so-called travel bug, and the virus wouldn’t lie dormant for long. By middle school I was itching to go away again. When I learned about the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica for a short language immersion program through my school, I was desperate to go. My parents understood the impact such an experience would have on me at age 14, and made the sacrifice to accommodate my journey. I had been to sleepaway camp, but never away from my parents and country at same time. Costa Rica was not an altogether easy trip for me — marked by, among other misfortunes, an acute case of sun poisoning that left me sicker than I’d ever been in my life. My strength returned enough for me to zip line through the jungle a few days later, and by the time I returned to American soil, I wore a mantle of newfound independence which still defines my person some decade and a half later. This experience impelled me to travel more, to travel further, to travel longer; it impelled me and it prepared me.

Me & the Pups at my India Homestay

Me & the Pups at my India Homestay

When I traveled to India at age seventeen, it was my first understanding of something more akin to actually living abroad rather than traveling abroad. I spent a month there, volunteering for a Grassroots Cooperative that promoted economic self-sufficiency in rural Ranikhet. It was part of my high school’s Global Service Learning Program that would send small groups of students to countries all around the globe, where we had the pleasure of staying with local families and working with local organizations. We got to know our families, developed relationships replete with inside jokes and playful swatting. My Indian grandmother liked to see how close she could get to piercing my nose before her son would realize her intention and intervene, waving his hands wildly for her to stop. She would also spank me good-naturedly if she saw me around the homestead without my kurta. We did not speak even one word of the other’s language, but our interactions expressed a comfortable intimacy based on a mutual pluckiness. Even now, I can’t write about her without my lips instinctively stretching into a grin.

Jams & Spices

Jams & Spices

I got close to my fellow student travelers as well. The foreignness of it all bonded us, and we had daily check-ins to openly discuss the current state of our bowels and bowel movements. We ate dal for nearly every meal, and slept in shared rooms, in cots that felt small and hard compared to the plush beds that most of us had back home. We took showers in darkness, pouring buckets of cold water over our naked shivering bodies, scrubbing with a single bar of Dial soap. We saw poverty in forms darker than we could have imagined, and had to grapple with the recognition of our privilege and simultaneous present-moment powerlessness. Our volunteer work consisted mainly of helping the cooperative develop a website that featured their handmade clothing; we spent some time grinding spices and planting trees, but the true work was getting us to think bigger than ourselves, and think differently, less rigidly. Part of the work, I think, was to get us to understand just how much we don’t know about the world, and to transfer that realization to our everyday lives. How much do we really know about the struggles of our classmates, our neighbors, the refugees we see at the grocery store? What common interests or similar dreams might we share? Queries such as these tend to incite curiosity, and empathy, and a desire to connect more deeply to more people.  

Traveling forces you to ask questions about everything, including yourself, to dig deeper, to become a more self-sufficient human being—even when that means asking for help. Global education speaks to the importance of collaboration with people from other backgrounds, helps you learn how to reach creative solutions even in the face of unfamiliar, sometimes uncomfortable situations. I believe I am a more capable, kind, and dynamic human being because of my global travel experiences.

india2I always had the feeling that there was a big world out there, but my India exchange was my first realization that the rest of the world might be truly accessible to me, and I to it. Travel was not simply an exhilarating tear into the unknown, but a representation of how I would lead my life. Not only would I go on to spend a month in China, to write travel blogs in multiple European countries and study abroad in Rome, but I would forge my own ever-evolving, unfurling path according to my own moral compass. For me, this wasn’t so much a profound shift as it was a profound cementation of who I was.

Since entering the workforce, I have been working people-centric jobs, ones that require deep empathy, innovative thinking, and a commitment to societal change. I have taken risks, moved to new cities, said yes to opportunities that intimidated me. And yes, I am daydreaming about my next big trip abroad.

Washington State Charter Schools

Last week Vicki and I went to an Educators’ Night put on by an organization called Washington State Charter Schools Association (WA Charters for short).  To be honest, when we signed up for the event we had little idea what to expect. We both knew that there has been an ongoing legal battle over whether or not Charter Schools are constitutional — just under two weeks ago supporters of the schools won a huge victory when a King County Superior Court judge ruled in their favor. We went in excited to learn more and see what was already happening the the eight existing Charter Schools that are open across Washington State.

The event opened with mingling followed by opening remarks by Steve Mullen, president of the Washington Roundtable and one of the original board members of WA Charters. Steve advocated in Olympia for charter legislation from the mid-1990s to 2004, culminating in the successful passage of a charter law that ultimately was overturned via referendum. While he knows the previous legal battles well, his opening focused on the future of Charter Schools in Washington and the importance of reaching students who are underrepresented and/or underperforming in their existing public schools.

16708446_1429702317074801_326630255262463517_nAfter the talk, the group of educators in attendance divided into breakout sessions focusing on various topics. Vicki and I went to a session to learn about what it takes to start a new Charter. We heard from visionary leaders who had participated in WA Charter’s School Incubation Program as well as those currently running schools. The conversation was fruitful, and I left daydreaming about what a fully experiential Charter School in Seattle might look like.

After the session, we had a bit more time to mingle and we spent that time chatting with Dan Calzaretta, the founder of Willow Public School in Walla Walla. Dan’s school will open in the 2017-2018 school year and it will fulfill three goals: Provide a rigorous, personalized education to all students, ensure that all students finish middle school with the skills necessary to excel in advanced high school courses and create an engaging, innovative school where all students find joy and purpose. While his vision for the school is impressive, I was struck by his process of getting the school to inception. To gauge what parents truly cared about in their children’s school, Dan and his team went door to door to talk to people in person. Because of the high population of Spanish speakers in Walla Walla, they made sure that in all of their interviews. community meetings, and marketing materials were in both English and Spanish. His passion for his students was clear, as was his dedication to moving away from a “one size fits all” model of public education.

In the days after the event I have grown increasingly excited about the future of WA Charters and the education reform taking place in these schools. Educators’ Night gave me just the nudge I needed to learn more and get involved, and Vicki and I plan to go volunteer at Rainier Prep in Seattle where one of her former students is the Special Education teacher. Stay tuned, we’ll post an account of that experience in the coming months! In the meantime, check out this video of reflections from the WA Charter’s Incubator Program.

Experiential Education School Models

Last week I had the great pleasure of visiting four different schools modeling experiential education in action. I came away so inspired about what is possible and all the different ways this kind of learning serves students. I was in Washington, DC with my friend Madhu Sudan who is exploring ways to encourage experiential education in India, so we set out to connect with educators I know and look at a few schools.

unnamedWe started with Mysa School, a micro school in Bethesda, Maryland started by my friend Siri Fiske last fall. Eighth and ninth graders spend mornings on a menu of individualized lessons depending on their needs; some may be advancing algebra skills while others work with a writing tutor, take a martial arts class nearby, or explore scientific concepts with an NIH researcher. In the afternoons and for one full day a week, they engage in project-based learning using Washington DC and the surrounding area as their classroom. Combining individual skill-building with group learning and an emphasis on community makes for a lively and engaged student body. The school has done so well even in its first year that they are planning to add an elementary campus in Georgetown.

unnamedOur next stop was Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA where my friend Jeremy Goldstein runs the Washington program. Episcopal is a very traditional school with a sprawling campus and beautiful buildings, excellent teachers and engaged students. The program Jeremy runs gets students into DC every Wednesday afternoon to add an experiential component to classroom learning by engaging with political leaders, NGOs, museum educators, and service learning providers. They even managed to continue a tradition of taking the whole school to the Presidential inauguration this year, adding an alternative experience at an elder care facility watching the Kennedy inauguration and interviewing residents who were present at his. Faculty members have the opportunity to create connections with what they are currently teaching, and students are exposed to real world issues more challenging to encounter from their campus. Many find summer opportunities based on their experiences, and when it comes time to plan their senior spring month long “externship,” they are well informed and eager to commit to an area of interest.

Our third stop was a meeting with Noah Bopp who created and runs a semester program for high school juniors called the School for Ethics and Global Leadership. Noah is from Seattle and went to Lakeside School, my alma mater, so I had heard about the school for a long time and wanted to learn more about it. Most other semester schools are in remote locations and focus on wilderness experiences, but these 24 students each term spend time engaging with issues on all sides of the political spectrum, examining the concepts of ethics and leadership in depth, meeting with high level officials and wrestling with complex and fascinating topics. After being exposed to a number of people and issues, each student has the chance to work independently on one specific thing and create a policy brief which they actually present to a panel of experts. They end the term with both a broader and deeper understanding of how government works and their role as citizens.

unnamedFinally, we visited a public elementary school called School Within School. My friend Marla McLean is an art teacher and one of the originators of what started as a program in a school 23 years ago, and is now a full-fledged Pre-K to Grade 5 school in southeast DC. At the beginning, four classrooms began collaborating and used an Italian educational model called Reggio-Emilia which is teacher-run, relies heavily on art, reflection and documentation of student work, and has ties to the world beyond the classroom. The program was so successful they eventually moved into their own building, agreeing to add medically-fragile students and those on the autism spectrum to their ranks. The school is a lively learning center and you can feel the loving community the minute you walk in the door. There are two art studios, each staffed by an Atelierista who connects art to everything happening in and out of their classes and engages the students in deeply meaningful and enjoyable learning. I had the opportunity to observe one of their other programs more closely, as a volunteer in the kitchen classroom. Here a master chef runs Foodprints, essentially a farm to table experience each class gets to participate in on a weekly basis. The day we were there, second graders tested the soil in the school garden beds for nutrients, created pictures of seeds, tubers and bulbs to learn the difference, and, in small groups, made a delicious lunch of four vegetarian dishes which were eagerly consumed by the class (and volunteers!) at the end. The school partners with organic farmers for the produce they can’t grow themselves, and teaches environmental stewardship along with cooking and dining etiquette. The teachers, parents, and students work hard to find funding for what is not covered by the district; it was incredibly inspiring to see what is possible in a public school when values are aligned with action and everyone is committed to what is best for children.

I came away from the visit convinced more than ever that experiential education is the most transformative form of learning, as it engages the whole self, involves reflection, connects to the world outside the classroom, and is so much fun! It was great to see a variety of examples of it, led by committed educators making a difference, one students, one classroom, one school at a time.

Taking an Experiential Leap Forward

Delivering the opening remarks at the 2017 ISEEN Winter Institute

Delivering the opening remarks at the 2017 ISEEN Winter Institute

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) Winter Institute, hosted by Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio. It was exhilarating, inspiring, and challenging in all the right ways. (Full disclosure: I am ISEEN’s board chair). The organization has been around for over a decade, and it has never been content with the status quo: this is a group of people who are moving forward, seeking connections between members and also looking outside the independent school bubble to learn from and contribute to progressive education everywhere.

Last year we were in Honolulu and focused our place-based education theme on a variety of  cultural influences, in particular the love for the islands and sea expressed through native Hawaiian lore and practice.

Our warm welcome from the Hawken mascot

Our warm welcome from the Hawken mascot

This year we continued to explore place-based education, but in an urban setting with a particular emphasis on social justice issues. As we learned about some of the innovative initiatives at Hawken School, we got a taste of the student experience as we fanned out into the city to discover its rich history, current challenges, and solutions in action. I participated in the workshop We the People: The Immigrant Experience, examining Cleveland’s rich immigration history past and present by doing original research using census data and the treasure that is the Western Reserve Archive. Another workshop, Experiencing Homelessness, explored the topic by visiting a local shelter, meeting with an advocacy group, and talking to people experiencing homelessness in the community. Another group participated in a workshop called In Pursuit of Justice, examining the justice system through the eyes of a judge, parole hearings in a courtroom, and a conversation with a US Marshall. Other seminars in printmaking, design, and digital fabrication took advantage of the rich visual art landscape in the city, and teams went out to interview residents and wrote narrative nonfiction based on their discoveries. Everything we did could be done in any kind of school, and experiencing it ourselves rather than just hearing about it, gave us such good ideas about where to take it.

Sharing ideas

Sharing ideas

We created the time to reflect on our experience and examine how to integrate more of this kind of learning at our own schools. We took on challenging topics like how to make meaningful connections with public schools in our area and be part of the change that needs to happen in our communities. I am especially excited by the way the institute dovetails into the course for educators I am co-leading this summer in Peru on examining Purpose.

We deepened our connections to one another and celebrated our work together at local restaurants and a renovated hotel that represent the revitalization that is happening in this rust belt city. It was a deeply moving and enjoyable week, and we are all returning home not only reenergized, but recommitted to using the flexibility and privilege that we have in our schools to take a leap forward to better education for all.

The whole ISEEN gang!

The whole ISEEN gang (being goofy!)

Considering Higher Education?

12715823_1145288665504402_762337878648045399_oWhether you work in the education field or not, you have undoubtedly heard the constant buzz about higher education reform. People are asking questions like “is a college degree worth it in 2016?” and “is the amount of debt I’ll graduate with manageable?” Free tuition to public universities is one of the cornerstones of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Experts are diving into how exactly colleges set their prices and debating what “affordable” really means. New research indicates that our collective student loan debt has reached $1.2 trillion dollars, yet it’s becoming increasingly harder for recent college grads to find employment. The “underemployment rate” for the highly educated millennial generation is believed to be around 44 percent – which means they are either unemployed or working in jobs that do not require the degree they have received.

Purpose_for_kids

Find your purpose.

So what are we to make of this crisis? How do we advise young people on the decision of whether or not the typical trajectory from high school to college is right for them? Having recently graduated with my Master’s in International Education from SIT Graduate Institute and a healthy amount of debt, I find myself feeling torn.

I believe the most important thing we can do is encourage students to make their decisions about higher education intentionally. A college education is not right for everyone, and even those who decide to pursue an advanced degree do not have to do it in the standard timeframe. Here is some food for thought if you or someone you know is considering a path to higher education.

  1. Consider taking a gap year between high school and college. Of the many benefits to taking a gap year, studies show that universities are “reporting an increase in GPA, greater engagement in campus life, and of course greater clarity with career ambitions” (American Gap Association).
  1. Ask yourself these 10 questions to start a college search. My favorite: “How have you done your best learning?” For me, an experiential approach to education was non-negotiable. I landed at Warren Wilson College for my undergraduate studies because of their unique Triad approach to education: a balance of academics, work, and service-learning. What type of environment will best support your learning style?
  1. Look into opportunities to really explore your passions before you decide. Sure, college is a time for exploration – but how are you supposed to decide on an area of study without taking your passions for a test drive? I love this video of Allan Watts’ “What if Money was no Object?” Ask yourself what you really love to do and seek out opportunities to explore those passions.
  1. Research alternative models. If you think a traditional college might not be right for you, you’re not the only one. New and innovative alternatives are popping up all the time. My friends and colleagues in Portland, Oregon, for example, are starting a new type of affordable college called the Wayfinding Academy. Students will be on an individualized quest to complete a comprehensive portfolio of experiences, not a set degree program. Similar innovations exist at the graduate level as well. Open Master’s is a community of self-directed learners who want to pursue higher-level studies without paying for graduate school. I highly recommend listening to Blake Boles’ Real Education Podcast in which he covers many ways in which we all can be self-directed learners.
The Wayfinding Academy Creed.

The Wayfinding Academy Creed.

The bottom line: do your research, then choose your own educational adventure. Despite the current system, there is no “one size fits all.”

What advice would you give young people considering higher education? Tell us in the comments below!

What If Money Was No Object ~ Alan Watts from Edgar Alves on Vimeo.