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.
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.
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.