Walking With Elders

As part of developing the Global Service Learning program at Lakeside School, we took a group of middle school students to the Makah Indian Reservation in Neah Bay, Washington for a two week project. Because it was summer and many of the young people in the community were away visiting relatives, we mostly interacted and worked with tribal elders. We learned songs, stories and games, delved into the whaling controversy, helped transcribe language tapes, gathered medicinal plants, and prepared for their annual festival. Lovely connections arose between the students and their Makah teachers. During a reflection at the end of the trip, one of the boys looked up from his journal and said: “How come we don’t have elders? We just have old people!”

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First Nations Elders welcome us with song

I have thought of that moment and the ensuing conversation about what the difference is, and how we can change our perception and treatment of “old people” to honor them as elders in our community for the wisdom, experience, and lessons they have to teach us. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I traveled to Victoria, B.C. for ISEEN’s Winter institute with the theme Walking With Elders. Throughout the four days of learning, networking and celebrating, 150 educators explored what it means to have elders, to be elders, to mentor and to seek mentorship. First Nations elders told stories, sang songs, and introduced themselves by way of the land that is their mother. We learned from the students and faculty at St. Michaels University School who shared their experiential programs — from film making to salmon studies to coffee roasting to serving food to converting an automobile engine to making cedar bracelets. We took risks, shared stories about our school programs, practiced reflection techniques, and enjoyed the beautiful environment in and around Victoria.

The World According to Garv

The theme really resonated with me, as I move into elderhood and become more comfortable with standing in my own truth, claiming the life experience I have, and offering to share it with others. It was also very meaningful to be around the First Nations elders who speak at a different cadence, allow for silence and the stretching of time, and share their commitment to teaching young people the old ways. At the same time, there were particular people there who mentored me by example and story, and I loved gobbling up their wisdom. Dave Mochel, who works with people to manage stress, led us in a series of mindfulness practices, reminding us it only takes 15 seconds to change the energy in a room, get everyone grounded and ready for the next activity. James Toole, long a leader in the Service Learning movement, demonstrated his work with young people around the world to harness their “Superpowers” to solve problems that gnaw at them. And Dan Garvey, a guru in Experiential Education through his work at Prescott College and Semester at Sea, regaled us in a small group session with “The World According to Garv” which I took to heart and share with you here:

1. APPRECIATE YOUR STUDENTS

When we see them as co-creators of the learning, amazing things can happen.

2. ASSUME POSITIVE INTENT.

Understand that administrators are not your enemy, and you will have much better success if you see that they are on your side.

3. AVOID THE DRAMA.

Enough said.

4. PACE YOURSELF.

Decide what’s most important to you — People, Purpose, or Place, and make decisions accordingly to avoid burnout and/or resentment.

5. PLAN YOUR EXIT.

Know when it’s time to go, and recognize that “your competence is your tenure in life.”

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This network of Experiential Educators

It was a magical whirlwind of time among people who value experiential education and are committed to bringing it to students and schools. I felt equally inspired by people who were new to the work as by masters who have been living the pedagogy for decades. As we were challenged to bring one thing home we wanted more of in our life and commit to doing that thing, I chose singing and took the risk to lead a call and response chant I learned from one of my yoga teachers at the end of the institute: Lokaa Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu: May all beings everywhere be happy and free from suffering. It seemed a fitting way to end a magical time in a beautiful place, and I offer it to you now.

Partnerships

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” — an African proverb

I love this quote in spite of its unknown origins and somewhat vague reference to an entire continent rather than a specific person, country or culture. I like it because it is one of my core beliefs. People need each other. We hunger for connection. We do better when we work together. We are meant to exist in groups and can accomplish so much more in teams than we ever could on our own. For many of us, myself included, it is simply way more fun!

Purpose group in Peru

Purpose group in Peru

That is why, as a consultant, I am constantly seeking people with whom to partner. When I work with a school or other educational organization, I consider our time together co-creative and hopefully mutually beneficial. I look for organizations not only to hire me to add value to their work, but who truly want to share power, responsibility, and rewards. I serve on boards of organizations I believe in so I can feel part of something greater than my own individual company.

ISEEN board retreat in New York

ISEEN board retreat in New York

I would like to highlight two particular partners in this post. The first is the board of the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN), an organization whose mission is “transformative teaching and learning in an interconnected world.” Chairing this board is a rich, rewarding, exciting endeavor, even when we are wrestling with challenging issues and moving into uncharted territory. All of the board members are engaged, hard-working people with full time jobs and busy lives, yet they volunteer their time to attend meetings, create strategic plans, work out minute details of budgeting and finance, and manage to have a good time doing it! I am so grateful to know each and every one of them, and to chair the board during this time of tremendous growth. Though I have a title, we function with a shared leadership model and as a true team. I look forward to the annual Winter Institute for program directors and administrators, Summer Institute for classroom teachers, and our new initiatives for regional meetings and an international institute. In all of these cases, we partner with local schools and community organizations to create our offerings.

Collaborating with Ross Wehner in Peru

Collaborating with Ross Wehner in Peru

The second is World Leadership School, an organization that seeks to “empower young leaders to find innovative solutions to the world’s pressing problems, by partnering with K-12 schools to make the shift to 21st century learning.” I have worked with them as a trip leader on both student and faculty trips, leader trainings, and other initiatives as they evolve such as TabLabs. I am currently partnered with Ross Wehner, World Leadership School Founder, on a project to create curriculum based on Purpose for schools. At the same time, I am working with Shayna Cooke, Director of Educator Development, on an excursion in the Peruvian Andes where teachers will explore innovative educational practices and create their own projects to bring home to their own schools. You can read more about it here: we’d love to have you join us!

On a student trip to Peru

On a student trip to Peru

Why do I love partnerships? Maybe growing up in a family of six children had something to do with it, maybe it’s my extroverted personality, maybe all those years of going to summer camp, and maybe a combination of all these things; it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I love working in teams and feel energized, fortunate and happy when I find people and organizations interested in these kinds of generative partnerships.

Student Journey Series: Lucienne Brown

unnamedEach 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 Lucienne Brown, who is currently working in the Global Real Estate & Facilities department at Amazon in Seattle.

I’ve been privileged to travel in the Chinese-speaking world many times during my life. When I was in elementary school, my family moved to Hong Kong for a few years. In high school, I was lucky enough to travel to mainland China as part of my school’s global education program. In university, I studied abroad in Beijing, spending half a year at Peking University and another month or so on my own. The last wasn’t planned, exactly, but happened for the simple reason that I’d fallen in love. It was messy, it was complicated, and you’d better believe it had its ups and downs. And the unlikely object of my affection was Beijing itself.

 I’ve always had a weakness for history and, as an American, my access to places with a real sense of history was very limited. Beijing was the first place with a deep, historical legacy that I was able to truly get to know.

Me at the Forbidden City. Note the clear blue skies. A+ air quality.

Me at the Forbidden City. Note the clear blue skies. A+ air quality.

Ask any taxi driver and they’ll tell you that China has 5,000 years of unbroken cultural heritage. They’ll also tell you that everything has changed; it’s a new China, and nothing is the same as it was. Both are true. Neither are true. It’s a city of over 21 million people, and each person has their own truth. No history lesson or guidebook could have prepared me for the simple, everyday complexity of everything I saw in Beijing.

There are many historical sites to see in Beijing, but the old gates are my favourite, not so much for what they are today as for the story they tell. City walls once encircled the imperial heart of Beijing, and every gate through these walls had a name and a particular significance. Xuanwumen was the “Gate Proclaiming Military Strength” through which imperial soldiers would march when setting out on campaign. Returning, their triumphal entrance would be through Deshengmen, the “Gate of Virtue Victorious”. All but three of these old gates were demolished in the modern era, many simply because of the history they symbolized. But Beijing’s modern subway still follows the line of the vanished walls, and the memory of the old gates lives on in the names of the subway stops. Every day, people bustle through the doors of these stops, just like the people who once passed through the now-vanished gates of the same name. The fate of the walls could be a metaphor for modern Beijing: empires rise and fall, leaders come and go, but Beijing endures.

 Me across the street from Tiananmen in the heart of Beijing winter.

Me across the street from Tiananmen in the heart of Beijing winter.

Against the backdrop of centuries-old history, modern innovation, families living in their ancestral courtyard houses or glitzy apartments, and a veritable sea of humanity, I was deeply struck by my own identity as a stranger. People commented (in the most well-intentioned, ways) on things I’d thought were utterly commonplace, universal aspects of everyday life. They questioned things I’d utterly taken for granted.

There’s an implicit assumption in the idea of travel that each experience happens in relation to you and your own perspective. You travel to see the world; you’re the observer. But the further you go from home the more you begin to realise that’s not quite right.

When you’re visibly of vaguely European descent, tourists from less metropolitan parts of China often ask to take photos with you. City people generally don’t, but you get used to a certain amount of staring and people commenting on you to their neighbours as you walk by. From dawn ‘til dusk, your personal identity is subsumed in your classification as “foreigner.” It’s not in any way ill-intentioned – humans are evolutionarily designed to notice patterns and, by extension, any deviations from that pattern. I was no exception. One day on the subway back to my apartment on the outskirts of Beijing, I noticed another white person further down the train. I didn’t realise until they met my eyes that I’d been staring. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen a white person before – I see one in the mirror every morning. My unknown fellow white person was such a conspicuous deviation from the norm that I was gawping like a carp.

For me, this incident drove home the real lesson of travel: you can start thinking that you’re going to see the world, but instead you’re travelling to let the world see you. You’re not an observer – you’re the outsider, and you stick out like a sore thumb.

Lijiang

Lijiang

Most of all, try as you might, you can’t hope to really understand the entirety of what you’re seeing. It’s like being at a restaurant when the next table over is singing “Happy Birthday;” you can extrapolate from experience what each person might be feeling, but you’re missing out on all the personal, private context that makes the event significant. The American myth of the melting pot tacitly assumes that we’re all the same, when you get down to it. Differences are assumed to be superficial. Travelling forces you to realise that, while we’re all human, it takes time, effort, and experience to understand people who are different from you. It is the single most rewarding and life-changing experience you can undertake, and it’s absolutely daunting.

All of this also puts you in your place with a vengeance. Everyone around you is living their normal, day-to-day lives. You, by contrast, are a stranger, more or less bumbling and incompetent, possessed of a Tarzan-like lack of both sophistication and manners, comical at best and an embarrassment at worst. It’s tough sometimes. And in a city like Beijing, you truly learn what it is to be alone in a crowd. The thing is, being vulnerable makes you appreciate each person who smiles at you and every local who extends a helping hand.

The middle-aged woman who took me under her wing when I was bewildered by the Beijing bus system probably doesn’t remember me; I only knew her for about four bus stops. She swooped in, unscrambled my confused account of where I was trying to go, cross-checked everything with the bus driver, and then sat with me to ensure I got off at the right stop. Did that matter in the big scheme of things? No. But I was a beached, directionally-challenged starfish, and she tossed me back into the sea. You’d better believe that mattered to me, and it’s that simultaneously personal and global perspective that gives travel its true value. When you see yourself from a global perspective you accept a challenge to be a better person than you were before. Once you realise you’re just one person in 7.6 billion, being kind is simultaneously the most insignificant yet profound thing you can do in your life.

Educator Journey Series: Adam Ross

Each month, the Educator Journeys Series features a guest blog post written by one of our colleagues. They write about how they got into their work, lessons they’ve learned, and their innovative approaches to shaping the future of education.  This week’s Student Journey post is written by Adam Ross. Adam works as Chinese Curriculum and Technology Specialist at the Chinese American International School (CAIS) in San Francisco. In addition to his curriculum work, he co-leads CAIS’s 7th grade Beijing Academy, and works to integrate CAIS’s middle school Chinese curriculum with 7th and 8th grade international programs via Project Based Language Learning. Vicki Weeks and Adam were colleagues for many years at Lakeside School in Seattle, and worked together to develop Lakeside’s Global Service Learning China program in its first four years.

NW Yunnan Map

NW Yunnan Map (Source)

Once again, I was in northwest Yunnan. The bus from Lijiang shot out of the darkness of the tunnel and suddenly sunlight suffused our bus once again. Though this tunnel through the mountain had just been completed in the past two years and the highway we were on was entirely new to me, I knew instinctively to look over to the right side of the road. And there it was – Lashi Lake, with Nanyao village perched above on the mountainside. After 12 years, I felt like I had come home.

CAIS students with kindergarten students

CAIS students with kindergarten students

These were pretty much my thoughts in the moment this past April, when I had arrived in Yunnan with about 30 eighth grade students in tow. Our arrival marked nearly 12 years since I came to this northwest corner of Yunnan with my first group of upper school Lakeside School students in the inaugural year of our GSL (Global Service Learning) trip…and nearly 30 years since the first time I came here as a junior in college. Looking back, it’s amazing to see the changes in China over the years. This area truly felt like the end of the earth in the late 80s, and there were probably no more more than a dozen or more foreigners traveling in the area around Lijiang at the time, myself included. Coming back in 2005 to Lijiang was to see a city transformed – much of Lijiang had been destroyed in a huge earthquake in 1996, and the old town rebuilt, for better or for worse, as a tourist town. However, Lakeside took the road less traveled in developing our program, and while we stayed in Lijiang for a couple days, we opted to have our students spend the majority of our time there in the small Naxi village of Nanyao on the other side of the mountains at Lashi Lake to the west of town. Even back in the mid 2000s, it took quite a bit of time to get across along unpaved roads of the mountain pass to reach the village. Our stay living with local Naxi families was to experience a very different rural world than any of us had kNeblett before – no TVs, only a few electric lights and the occasional refrigerator in some homes, wood-fired stoves, animals in the courtyard just outside the building doors…and, of course, none of the conveniences of home.

What I loved about our first years developing the Lakeside China GSL program in Yunnan was how organic it was. We had a partner organization set up homestays for us, and they also arranged for us to teach English to a small number of younger students in the local school as a service learning project. Our Lakeside high school students, of course, were not trained English teachers, but they worked hard to make lessons that engaged elementary school students in songs, games and activities where they were actually using English. To our amazement that first year, each day more and more students showed up to our classes, so that while we started with only about a dozen students, we ended up with more than 50 after a week of teaching, along with a number of local teachers from other villages who also came to see what these American students were doing in Nanyao school.

With Naxi Women

With Naxi Women

We also befriended one of the local elders, a woman whom we called Li Nainai – “Grandma Li” in Mandarin. Li Nainai was barely over four feet in height, and my recollection was that she was in her 80s at the time. Also, to our benefit, she was one of the few members of the older generation who actually spoke Chinese, and she was outgoing and extroverted, welcoming our students into her home for snacks and tea. Toward the end of our visit, she organized an afternoon of Naxi dancing with the local women, who dressed in their finest Naxi outfits and engaged our group with food, singing and dancing. I still treasure this picture. Here I am – with Li Nainai just above my shoulder – sharing a postcard book of scenes of Seattle to her and the local women who surely were learning for the first time about my home in the U.S.

Fast forward twelve years later, and I am back in northwestern Yunnan with students. This time, however, I am traveling with middle school students from where I work now, Chinese American International School (CAIS) in San Francisco. Our school is a pre-K – 8th grade dual immersion school, and our kids have been studying Chinese since they were little. By the time they reach 8th grade, they already have had a wide variety of experiences in China and Taiwan, having done a homestay exchange with students in Taipei, Taiwan in the 5th grade, and a three-week intensive study program, also with homestays, in Beijing in the 7th grade. Our 8th grade program is a mix of adventure, culture and service, partnering students in rural Tibetan minority homestays outside the city of Shangri-La.

Songzanlin arrival

Songzanlin arrival

I find it amazing that the field of global education has grown so much in the past 15 years that not only is it the norm for high school students to engage in service learning and language study abroad, but experiences for middle school students and even elementary students continue to grow. In our 8th grade Yunnan trip, CAIS’s international and experiential learning coordinator Emma Loizeaux has arranged a terrific mix of hikes, cultural and environmental learning, and service learning activities for our two-week trip. Our daily schedules are pretty packed, and included a daylong hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge, visits to the Songzanlin Buddhist monastery in the outskirts of Shangri-La, making pottery with masters from a local village, planting potatoes in our local village, and working with Kindergarten students over two visits to their school.

Planting potatoes

Planting potatoes

 Our curriculum has developed such that we are now incorporating Project Based Learning in a lot of our international programming. In a nod to Brandon Stratton’s Humans of New York website, our 7th grade students interview people on the street and in their homestay families in their three week Beijing study trip –  they create reports of these “Humans of Beijing” to share online. Similarly, we are working to have our 8th grade students this year produce children’s stories in Mandarin so that the Tibetan Kindergarten students we work with will have Chinese readers – these younger students too are second-language learners of Chinese. I often feel incredibly envious of our students at CAIS to be able to experience so much of China and interact with these communities abroad while they are so young – I also envy them for their foreign language skills, as many CAIS graduates reach pre-advanced or fully advanced levels of proficiency in Mandarin.

While I am envious, I also feel incredibly lucky. Lucky to be able to keep returning to this incredibly beautiful part of China in Yunnan, and lucky to live vicariously through the eyes of my students as they experience the welcoming and friendly people here, the gorgeous mountain scenery, as well as an increasingly fleeting taste of a remoteness of a part of the world that is quickly being connected to the rest of the world – and hence forever changed – in China’s ongoing quest for modernization.

Mountain view at Tiger Leaping Gorge

Mountain view at Tiger Leaping Gorge

Educator Development Rocks!

Welcome back to school everyone! As we dive into a new year, it is important to reflect on summer learning experiences we want to use in our work. Middle school history teacher Kelsea Turner joined Ross Wehner and me on the WLS/Global Weeks educator course Exploring Purpose in the Peruvian Andes in July 2017. These are her reflections…

I went rogue after college when my backpack and I set out for Western Europe and ended up in Damascus. After a couple of years, I folded up my map, put my pack in the attic, and hunkered down in the American Midwest (where I grew up) to recover a bit from all of the journeying, sitting out on the big adventures for a while. But a couple of years ago, I discovered the beauty of the summer educator course – experiential and global education for teachers. If you’ve never had the good fortune of going on an epic adventure in a magical part of the world with a motley crew of teachers you’ve never seen before, I highly recommend it. Seek out an opportunity and GO.

Spinning lesson

Spinning lesson

But don’t just go; go with your eyes wide open, your ears on, and your heart exposed. Feel the connections that develop along the way, respond to them, and commit to extending yourself far beyond the point where you thought you would. Open doors, follow someone, go it alone, be still, resist the urge to flee from discomfort, embrace the role of other; play, take part in a ceremony, listen; suspend disbelief. Allow someone to inspire you. Allow yourself to inspire someone else. Take someone in. Cause a storm and then refuse to take shelter when it hits. Let down your guard; dismiss your loyal soldier. Laugh. Cry. Feel. Take. It. All. In. Don’t take the journey; let the journey take you. Let the journey take you.

I wish I had learned this lesson sooner. A few years ago when my daughter Azra was nine, she asked me what she needed to do to get into a world class university. Stunned and concerned, I think I made some bold declaration that she should engage with life without regard for her college resume. Not bad, but if I had known then what I know now, I would’ve added that it’s all about the intersections.

With my homestay family

With my homestay family

If the philosophers are correct that purpose resides at the intersection of your gifts and the world’s greatest need, the most radical personal metamorphoses happen at the intersection of your greatest need and the world’s gifts, and if you don’t seize opportunities to engage with the world, you may never reach those intersections. 

For me, the World Leadership School and Global Weeks Educator Course Exploring Purpose in the Peruvian Andes was all about intersections. I needed to rewrite my story; so Vicki and Tiffani arrived to transform my perspective. I needed to uncover my purpose, so Ross came along to ask the right questions. I needed to be inspired, so the world brought me Ana, Aima, and an impossibly starry night high in the Andes. I needed to let go of some old demons, so I found myself at Machu Picchu. I needed to change the chip, and there was Vidal.

Our group with our homestay families

Our group with our homestay families

I have since returned home and been stunned out of my Peruvian summer reverie by the abrupt and violent “transition” back into the beautiful chaos that is the school year. A little to my surprise I find that I have to actively battle my reluctance to share the full glory of my experience in Peru with my students – because it means so much to me that sharing it broadly feels too vulnerable. But if there’s one thing I learned in Peru it’s that part of leading students to their intersections is showing them my roadmap. And so I force myself to unfold it once again. 

I embarked on this journey hoping to develop some clarity of personal purpose and to learn how to facilitate this exploration with my students. As I sit here in my kitchen just two months after the start of that big adventure, I marvel at the depth of the transformation it inspired in me, tremble at the idea that (for a moment) I considered sitting this one out, and feel overwhelmed by my gratitude for all of the intersections I encountered along the way.