Educator Journey Series: Donald Anselmi

Donald Peru Honeymoon 2012Each 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 Educator Journey post is written by Donald Anselmi. Donald currently teaches Spanish and is the incoming Director of Pro Vita at Berkshire School, a 9th-12th college preparatory and boarding school in southwestern Massachusetts.  He lives on campus with his wife, Dana, who works in admissions, his son, Hudson, and his dog, Pancho.

Donald With Students On The Camino 2017 (first on right, bottom row)

Donald With Students On The Camino 2017 (first on right, bottom row)

As a father, husband, and educator, I don’t have to look far to realize that there is always room for growth in my quest to become a better global citizen.  On a recent trip to walk the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain with students, I came to the realization that both my passion for teaching and the Spanish language originated in the same country almost eighteen years earlier. This sudden nostalgia inspired me to reflect on all my adventures since my first trip abroad in high school, nearly twenty years ago. So many of these experiences equipped me with the skills and education to ultimately lead others on similar journeys.

Valle de Los Caidos, Spain, 1999

Valle de Los Caidos, Spain, 1999

In 1999, I was first exposed to a unique way of living on an abroad trip to Spain that was offered through my high school. I had been to Mexico a few times growing up and had come to know many Hispanics who lived in my hometown, but I lacked the tools and the language skills to really understand our cultural differences. During my homestay and school time in Valencia, I was fully immersed. While this experience was daunting and overwhelming at times, it forced me to adapt. I realized very early on that I would need to step outside of my comfort zone in order to understand both the language and culture. Because of this time spent abroad and many inspiring teachers, I ultimately decided to major in these subjects in college.

Northern Spain Galicia Santiago, 2003

Northern Spain Galicia Santiago, 2003

For the first couple years, I took a smorgasbord of classes in the liberal arts curriculum that my college offered. With each Spanish and History class I took, the more my passion grew in these areas. I loved all the stories and characters in history, and I kept referring back to my own experience in Spain. My parents urged me to go abroad for a full academic year. My nine months in Spain were even richer the second time there, with Madrid and the rest of the country as my playground. It was during that time that my love of Spanish and culture truly blossomed. All the while, I began to consider teaching by starting an internship at a local school.

Before I knew it, I was back in the United States working at a summer school teaching study skills. As my senior year came to an end, I was fortunate to land a wonderful job in California that launched my teaching career, and I have never looked back. During my first four years of teaching, I was mentored by great role models and taught thoughtful adolescents. I enjoyed having a lot of freedom with my teaching while getting my feet wet with experience. During my time in California and later at a middle school in Connecticut, I came to value the teaching of practical and life skills by trying to implement real-life scenarios both in and out of the classroom.  It was also during this time that I had the flexibility of traveling through new territories in the United States, Europe, and South America.

In the winter of 2009, about half way through this eighteen year period, I decided to pursue an advanced degree in Spanish. I took classes domestically and abroad, in Argentina and Mexico, where I was exposed to many global issues. During this Masters program, I also came to the realization that I was a visual and experiential learner. Living abroad in the summers of 2011 and 2012 was the best classroom that I could have asked for as I felt that I learned the most while I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

Where There Be Dragon's Nepal Group, 2016 (third from left, back row)

Where There Be Dragons Nepal Group, 2016

Because of my own global experiences, both as a student and an independent traveler, I knew that I would eventually want to provide trips for students of my own. I knew where I wanted to take them, but I still didn’t really know how to design a course. With recommendations from colleagues, I attended several conferences that gave me the confidence to pursue this passion.  I took two courses offered by Where There Be Dragons that helped me better understand how to safely push students out of their comfort zones to make them more globally competent in an experiential learning setting.  I also attended the Gardner Carney Leadership Institute that exposed me to many teachable moments and strategies to empower students.  

Donald With Students In Argentina, 2014

Donald With Students In Argentina, 2014

Since 2014, I have taken students to Argentina, California, and Spain. I have come to recognize the value of meetings and orientations before the actual trip to cover risks, cultural competence, team building, and student leadership. During the trips, I have found it extremely important to empower participants and to make sure each activity is intentional in pushing students to become more aware. With all of this “doing,” my hope is that students come away with both something for themselves and to offer the world. On my recent trip to Spain, students were assigned days to lead, and everyone kept an art journal where they wrote, drew, pasted Kodak photos and made collages about their experience that they would later share with the community. It was also awesome learning from my co-leader, an art teacher and former NOLS instructor, who was instrumental in designing this experience. I have found it truly helpful, inspirational and important to work alongside my colleagues. Both of these trips that I have offered have further highlighted the values of education and travel, and they constitute my most sacred moments of experiential learning. Leading these trips has helped me realize that I can continue to grow alongside my students as we push each other beyond what is comfortable and familiar to explore the unknown. 

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.

Slowing Down as the World Speeds Up

Last night, I had the privilege of attending a lecture given by Thomas Friedman on the topic of his recent book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. I have been a fan of Friedman since I read The World is Flat, and I have continued to read his columns in The New York Times. While I don’t always agree with him, I find his work informative and provocative. Last night’s talk was no exception.

Thank you for Being Late

Thank you for Being Late

In this book (which I have not yet read but plan to very soon), Friedman outlines a framework for understanding why it feels like everything is moving exponentially faster all the time: because it is. I was struck by his description of all the technological innovations that happened in 2007 — the launching of the iPhone, the founding of Airbnb, and the beginning of fracking, just to name a few — the significance of which were lost in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. I appreciate the way he can describe complex phenomena in relatively simple terms non social-scientists like most of us can grasp. For example, since the rate of technological growth far outpaces the rate of human adaptation to change, it is no wonder we feel behind all the time.

The first thing I loved about his talk was the way he started it, by explaining the title: Thank You for Being Late. Friedman loves people and spends a lot of time over coffee and meals with them. He began to notice a pattern when people would arrive late for meetings, apologizing profusely, describing the reasons, etc. He realized that rather than being annoyed, he was actually grateful. Their being late gave him a chance to observe a room, eavesdrop on a nearby conversation, stare out the window and sometimes make a new connection between two seemingly disparate thoughts he was having. So he began to thank them for being late, and relish those moments even more. I was impressed he didn’t use the time to check his Twitter and Facebook accounts; clearly he saw the beauty in reflecting instead.

In the middle of his talk, he got my attention when he spoke about advice he gives his daughters as they engage in the world of work which has changed so much in the span of one generation. Friedman is roughly the same age as I am, so I really resonated with this part. He said he asks them to “always think like an immigrant (stay hungry – he called it being a “paranoid optimist”), like an artisan (take pride), like a startup (always be in beta), and like an entrepreneur (what is your value added?). Where we had to find jobs, young people today have to invent them.

Finally, I really enjoyed the way he ended his talk. He described the suburban town near Minneapolis where he grew up, how the Jewish families became integrated with the Scandinavian families to create a tight-knit community that looked out for each other. We all need to protect, respect and connect with each other. If we are to get along and work to solve the massive problems facing our world today, we need to build and then rely on our families and our wonderfully diverse communities. Family and community have always been powerful foundations in our country, and maybe if we learn to relish the moments when people arrive late to meetings we can use the time to pause and enhance the connections that make them strong.

If you’re interested in watching his Friedman’s entire talk, Town Hall Seattle has made it available!

So Long for the Summer

17690_10153812215937796_914245462119184470_nHappy Summer! We are in the time of the Full Moon and the Summer Solstice, and it is time to take a break from blogging.

I just returned from the second annual ISEEN Teacher Training Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This year we worked with educators from the math, sciences and arts disciplines, all of whom left rejuvenated and inspired to use experiential pedagogies and practices in their classrooms.

Starting next week I will be participating in a Where There Be Dragons Educator Course in Nepal, followed by a week of unscheduled time that scares me in all the best ways. August brings family visits and reflection; enjoyment of the Pacific Northwest when it is most glorious.

I will have stories to share on the blog in September. Until then, have a wonderful summer of experiencing life unconnected to technology!

Finding Digital Balance

technology44-743413Most people I know have a love-hate relationship with the internet (I wrote another post about unplugging a few months ago), especially on our cell phones. We love that there is so much information at our fingertips, and the way we can stay connected to people who are not in our immediate vicinity. But we also resent our reliance on these same devices, and recognize that they can make us feel more alienated than connected to each other. I admire Louis C.K for shutting off the internet on his phone, and I love that he had his 10-year old daughter set up the restriction for him (watch the video where he talks about it here).

neden-yurtdisi-egitim-danismanlik-hizmeti-almaliyim-7961In education, digital tools are increasing in importance, and one of the most important access issues in global education has become narrowing the digital divide. Schools like the Global Online Academy, the Online School for Girls, and the Stanford Online High School develop courses that allow people around the world to connect and learn together. Students who do not have the financial means to travel, or deem the risks too high, or are concerned about carbon footprint can develop global citizenship through engagement with people across the globe. Although online learning has been around some years now, schools are still working to figure out the best ways to enhance education using available tools. I am encouraged by the efforts of schools like High Tech High, Big Picture Learning, and Mysa School, which are experimenting with a blended learning approach: part of the day in project-based, student-driven group projects, and part of the day using technology to address individual needs.

bitcoinI have been exposed to a number of tools designed to help us connect online and I’ve found that none of them offer quite what I’m looking for. The technology is still evolving, and so is the Internet connection in different parts of the world. I have participated in webinars for professional development, some of which are highly interactive and allow for connections that continue after the class. Others have been somewhat stilted and not conducive to innovation. Platforms like Webex, Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts seem to work sometimes but not always. I recently had the opportunity to try a relatively new online platform for all kinds of asynchronous connecting called Bundle that was quite promising. Using social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and subscribing to blogs of interest are other ways to stay informed and connect, but only if the people with whom you want to connect use the same platforms.

Mobile technology that bypasses the Internet and works off cell towers is another promising option, and many communities in the developing world are finding great success in joining the digital revolution in this way. Programs like TabLab and One Laptop Per Child are working to develop programs in rural villages to close the gap.

IMG_9926I am visiting Austin, Texas for the first time this week, and as I stroll around unfamiliar neighborhoods, I am both grateful for and aware of the downside of smartphone technology. I love that I can find coffee shops, yoga studios, live music venues and the most efficient way to get somewhere. I also miss when I used to go to a new city and relished getting lost so I could enjoy the adventure of finding my way back. Of course, I can still do that, I reminded myself today. I put away the phone and aimlessly wandered. Before I knew it, I had struck up great conversations with people: I discovered new ways to get around, places to visit that only locals know about, and even found two people who had moved here from Seattle to share some love for our home town. So today, I appreciate technology, and I vow to remember to shut it off more often so I can better connect with others and with my surroundings.