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.

 

Purpose and Reflection

It is June. School is out or almost out for the summer. Educators and students are looking forward to time off to reflect, refresh, and rejuvenate. We have different ways of doing so, but for all of us, it is crucial time away from school that allows us to return in the fall ready for more. Even if we work or attend school in the summer, there is simply an alternate pace to summer, more time outside, a rhythm that invites us to slow down and tune into something besides the busyness of school life.

Last year's ISEEN Summer Institute Crew

Last year’s ISEEN Summer Institute Crew

The first thing I am excited to delve deeply into this summer is the Independent Schools Experiential Education (ISEEN) teacher institute in Santa Fe in mid-June. Educators from various parts of the world will come together to explore what it means to bring experiential pedagogy into classroom practice. Working in small subject-area cohorts, educators will have the chance to share ideas, learn from experienced facilitators, and develop lesson plans that will enhance their classroom practice. All in the stunning Southwest setting. This is the third year of this institute, and if past years are any indication, it will be a wonderful time of conversation, regional exploration, deep dives into classroom practice, and a lot of laughter. I can’t wait!

Our Purpose Logo

Our Purpose Logo

In July I am thrilled to return to Andean Peru, one of my favorite spots on the planet, to spend 10 days with another group of educators from around the globe. This time I will co-facilitate a course on the subject of Purpose — how we discover and deepen our understanding of a significant goal outside of ourselves that motivates us to action. We will use the Sacred Valley of the Inca as our lab to explore our calling, our deepest reason for our vocation: as Frederick Buechner says, “where our greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”

As we examine our own sense of purpose, we will create ways to help students find theirs. I am looking forward to being with other courageous educators and my friend and collaborator Ross Wehner of World Leadership School, learning about life in the Andes, cultural and educational practices, and ourselves. I predict this experience will be as profound as the one I had last summer on an educator course in Nepal: I really love seeing the impact of this kind of work!

So, whatever your plans are for the summer, I wish you reflection, relaxation, time with loved ones, and whatever you need to re energize you for another year of learning! Take care of yourself, and enjoy every minute.

A Course on Immigration

In my ever-expanding effort to connect global education and local communities, I find the issue of immigration one I am currently quite interested in. First, because we owe it to ourselves to remember that the only non-immigrants are the native peoples who were on this land centuries before we came; all other families came from somewhere outside our borders. The United States of America was created by immigrants, coming in waves for over two hundred years. Recently, I had the opportunity to dive more deeply into the issue and learn about many different aspects of it, and I am quite inspired by what I found.

Bush student meeting with NWIRP staff

Bush student meeting with NWIRP staff

When Seattle made national news after an executive order called for a “Muslim ban” and our Attorney General filed a lawsuit calling it unconstitutional, flocks of lawyers flew to the airport to help those in danger of being detained or sent home because of the ban. One organization that has gotten involved and continued to work very hard since is the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP). NWIRP provides free legal services to those in need, challenges laws they find unconstitutional, and serves those who are protected under our laws but cannot afford attorneys. My associate Kaitlin and I visited their offices and were very impressed by what they do. We decided it would be great to create a course looking at a variety of aspects of immigration, similar to the one I participated in through Hawken School in Cleveland (to learn more about that experience, see my post about it here). After consulting a number of organizations and receiving a green light, we reached out to educators in the area to see if anyone wanted to collaborate with us. The Bush School expressed interest, and after a couple of months of co-creating a weeklong experiential course, the students and their two teachers are spending five days studying various aspects of immigration in Seattle and our state capital, Olympia.

Visiting the former Seattle detention center

Visiting the former Seattle detention center

Yesterday was the downtown day, and four different organizations within walking distance of each other provided the learning structure. We started in the NWIRP offices, where students had the chance to meet the Executive Director, the Director of Development and Communications, and three staff attorneys to learn about how they handle cases. Then we moved on to the Seattle Detention Center, a facility used from 1930 to 2004 to detain immigrants and refugees seeking asylum and assistance (the current center is in nearby Tacoma). The center now houses artist studios, but it still feels very much like a prison and has plaques denoting how different parts of it were used when people were detained there, including the third story yards where many wrote their names and countries in tar. After a self-guided exploration of the building, we walked to the Impact Hub for a meeting with a community liaison officer from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who spoke to us about the role ICE plays in Homeland Security, and how to distinguish rumors from facts about “roundups” and deportations. Our final stop, after a delicious Dominican lunch, was the office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to hear about the role they play vis a vis immigration — supporting protests, filing lawsuits, protecting the Bill of Rights, and educating the public.

It was a full and fascinating day, and I am inspired to continue the work. I would love for every high school student have a field trip like this, and I don’t see why they can’t. I plan to continue to reach out to educators in Seattle and help them create ways to learn more about immigration and how it affects our community. I want to hear about the rest of the Bush School week, and I already have a lot of ideas of other areas of immigration that would be great to explore.

Tell us: have you engaged your students in issues regarding immigrants and refugees? We would love to hear about it!

Bittersweet Transitions

WLS Instructors

WLS Instructors

A couple of weekends ago, Vicki and I attended a World Leadership School (WLS) Instructor Training in beautiful Buena Vista, Colorado. It was inspiring and thought-provoking in many ways (which I’ll get into momentarily), but it also marked the beginning of a big transition for our working relationship. For nearly three years, we’ve traveled to conferences and trainings as a Global Weeks duo. We’ve developed business systems and workflow patterns. We’ve logged countless miles during walking meetings and held each other accountable in our mostly-remote work with schools scattered across North America. We’ve learned each other’s strengths and challenges. We have counted on each other for support not only in our professional lives, but in our personal lives as well.

This trip was different. We went to the WLS training for separate reasons – Vicki to prepare for an Educator Course on Purpose she and WLS founder Ross Wehner are offering in Peru this summer, and me to prepare to instruct my first Collaborative Leadership Program for middle school girls in Belize. The real kicker, however, is that directly after training I started a new job managing women’s global programs for REI Adventures — a decision Vicki fully supported. It probably goes without saying why this transition feels so bittersweet.

Though our work life is transitioning, the GW duo will always remain strong

Though our work life is changing, the GW duo will always remain strong

As we flew to Denver, I was a mixed bag of emotions – hopeful, anxious, sad, excited and the list goes on. The 3.5 hour drive from Denver to Buena Vista was grey and rainy and I couldn’t help but curse the irony of a rainy day in usually sunny Colorado after the wettest February and March in Seattle in 120 years. Immediately upon arriving at the Fountain Valley School’s mountain campus, we were greeted with hugs and surrounded by passionate global educators. For those few days, my worries about the future and my sadness to be leaving Global Weeks in my existing capacity faded and I felt present and connected to the present moment.

IMG_0120

Transition

Fast forward a week and a half and I’m waist-deep in a new job, figuring out new routines and overwhelmed by learning new processes. There are moments each day when I wonder if I made the right call. I already miss our coworking space, our walks around the lake, our understanding of one another. As I was reminded during the training, our comfort zone isn’t where we grow. It’s only when we stretch by putting ourselves in unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations that we learn new skills and capabilities.

During an exercise at the WLS training, a colleague read the following passage as an example of a way to adjourn student programs. I think it’s appropriate to include here, and I hope it helps you as much as it does for me in difficult times. Here’s to learning to fly.


Fear of Transformation

Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar or swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars. Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar- of-the-moment. It carries me along a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in a while, as I’m merrily (or not so merrily) swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance, and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty, and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart- of-hearts, I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on the present, well-know bar to move to the new one.

Each time it happens to me, I hope (no, I pray) that I won’t have to grab the new one. But in my knowing place, I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moment in time, I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars. But I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantee, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow, to keep hanging onto that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. And so for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.” Its called transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get punched.

I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as “nothing”, a no-place between places. Sure the old trapeze-bar was real, and that new coming towards me, I hope, that’s real, too. But the void in between? That’s just a scary, confusing, disorienting “nowhere” that must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible. What a waste! I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing, and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void, where the real change, the real growth occurs for us. Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out-of-control that can (but necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.

And so, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to hang out” in the transition between the trapeze bars. Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can be enlightening, in the true sense of the word. Hurtling through the void, we just may learn how to fly.”