Making Connections during an Exploratory Trip to New Orleans

Vicki ringing the Coast Guard bell at Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation

Vicki ringing the Coast Guard bell at Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation

Earlier this week, Vicki and I spent a whirlwind 48 hours on an exploratory trip in New Orleans. We met with service providers and scoped out potential excursions (don’t worry, our recon included beignet testing at the famous Cafe Du Monde) for a weeklong service-learning program we’re planning for high school seniors from an independent school in New York City.

We have been working on this program design over the past couple of months – researching the city, contacting various organizations, and gathering information from people who formerly lived or currently live in the Big Easy. We have seemingly endless notes from phone calls, meetings, and email chains with people kind enough to impart their knowledge and share their experiences with us. In theory, we had enough information to plan a meaningful experience for this group of students without actually going to New Orleans.

While successful programs have certainly been designed without visiting the program site – I have been involved in the planning of some such experiences myself – there is an undeniable advantage to doing an exploratory trip. Having the opportunity to experience a place firsthand allows us to establish a sense of place, talk with locals, and vet potential activities to ensure they line up with the program’s goals and learning outcomes.

Exploring the French Quarter -- endless opportunities for scavenger hunts!

Exploring the French Quarter — endless opportunities for scavenger hunts!

During our visit to New Orleans, Vicki and I met with three organizations about service opportunities: Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, Groundwork New Orleans, and Jericho Road Housing Initiative. I went into the trip expecting that once we learned more about each organization’s current projects, we would settle on one to work with for duration of the week. What I hadn’t realized before being in New Orleans, though, is how connected members of the larger community are to one another. Everyone we met with knew and had worked with everyone else we met with, and each of them is working toward one common goal: protecting New Orleans as a whole – its residents, its environment, and its line of defense against future natural disasters. In realizing this interconnectedness, our thinking around the service component of this program has shifted. We often plan service-learning around one project, allowing students to really immerse in it. Given the collaborative nature of nonprofits in NOLA,  we’re now working on coordinating projects with all three organizations in order to deepen the students’ understanding of the ongoing challenges and successes in New Orleans post-Katrina.


One of many beautiful murals we saw in NOLA. This one is on the wall of the New Orleans Healing Center.

Without meeting face-to-face with the passionate individuals behind these projects, we would have had no way to distinguish real commitment from lip service; no way to know that one of the most important takeaways for students is to understand how united New Orleans is as a community. After merely two days in New Orleans, I feel the connection to the city. I am thrilled to be able to work with the people I met there because I know they are as excited as we are about using service as a vehicle for learning.

I believe exploratory trips are crucial to designing effective programs. Building connections and developing mutual understanding across cultures are at the core of why I work in global education, and being able to make those connections personally allows me to develop more meaningful experiences for my students.

Design Thinking and Collaboration

This fall, my Program Development Associate Kaitlin Fisher and I took the opportunity to participate in a class called Human Centered Design. It was run by a non-profit called Acumen and grew out of Stanford University’s IDEO project. I learned about the course through my association with the coworking community I joined a year ago, Impact Hub Seattle.

Impact Hub Seattle

Impact Hub Seattle

The Hub is part of a worldwide network of co-working spaces for people creating impact in their local and global communities. It was started in Amsterdam and growing rapidly – there are currently 63 Impact Hub locations open around the world and 20+ in the process of opening. By joining, people like me who work for themselves can meet others, access a listserv full of opportunities, participate in weekly member lunches, and attend panel discussions along with any number of other interesting events. Members choose from a number of membership options, from two days a month to full time, with a couple of options in between. While there are many kinds of co-working spaces (such as WeWork and The Collaborative Space Alliance), the Impact Hub sets itself apart with its focus on community. Besides the coffee, tea, and snacks that come with membership, we get fun professional development invitations such as a recent one to join a design thinking team.


The ideation phase

Design thinking is something I have been aware of for some time, along with many people in education, as illustrated in this U.S. map of K12 schools using the concept in their curriculum. It grew out of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (known as the, where they realized that the principles of design in fields like business and architecture could also be applied to make successful contributions to human-centered problems. Acumen has offered the course free of charge every couple of months since 2013 (sidenote: it’s not too late, the next course begins February 9th). The coursework happens online, and groups must meet in person once a week to work on their design challenges. Although I was familiar with design thinking, I decided to take the course to become more familiar with the process and potentially use it in my work. We ended up with two Hub teams of five people each working over a 2 month period, and at the end we unanimously agreed it was a very worthwhile experience.

Sticky notes: imperative to the human-centered design process

Sticky notes: imperative to the human-centered design process

Our group consisted of three people working in global education, one in global microfinance, one in organizational consulting, and one in public relations. After doing some ice breakers and self-reflection, naming our group and creating our online presence, we selected one of three design challenges offered. Our group chose to tackle the question “How might we provide healthier food options to people in need?” Each week we completed class readings, watched videos, followed a study guide, and met in person for two hours to move through the three stages of the project: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. We had the opportunity to upload our assignments, see what the other 15,000+ people taking the course all over the globe (including several other groups in Seattle) were doing, join chat rooms, and learn from a variety of methods.

 After choosing our challenge, we spent some time researching the issue, interviewing consumers, and immersing ourselves in locations where people might need healthier food options or in organizations working on providing them. Our exploration included food banks, a middle school class working on an urban farm, and a grocery store. Ultimately we were moved by the suggestion that healthy food needs to be more “fun,” so we chose a 14 year old boy as our target audience and resolved to create an app, a game, and a contest for healthy eating that would be enjoyable to his demographic. We took our concept, the “FoodBit,” through the prototyping phase, involving celebrity endorsers in the sports and music world, and then had a great time testing it out on our family members and friends. Of course, when we finished, uploaded our prototype, and viewed others online, we realized there were many flaws in our design and it would require a good deal more work to actually bring to market. Probably not unlike the process for any other invention.

Our group with our “FoodBit” presentation

One important outcome of our participation in the course was that we learned how to use the valuable tool of design thinking in our work. Another was our increased awareness of food issues and those working to solve them. We all agreed the best part of the course was getting to know each other and working together. Online classes can be great, but having real people, in real time, counting on us was the single greatest motivating factor. Some groups who took the course clearly devoted more time to it than we did, but given other commitments in our work life, we were proud of what we accomplished, felt we learned a lot and benefitted greatly by working together.

I recommend checking out Acumen — they offer a variety of courses, many of them free — as well as Stanford’s IDEO platform and MakerSpace to get people in any field working together to solve problems that affect all of us. It’s instructive, productive, and fun!

Press Release for Global Education: A Roadmap to Program Development eBook!

I am excited to announce the release of Global Education: A Roadmap to Program Development, an ebook book I co-edited with my colleague Willy Fluharty. It can be previewed and purchased for download on iTunes! Check out the press release below for more details:

GEBG Press Release

Press Release for Global Education: A Roadmap to Program Development

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Wrapping up the Global Leadership Summer Institute

Last week, 24 teacher leaders from 5 states, from public, independent and religious schools, representing all levels and many disciplines of K-12 education came together to learn the philosophies and strategies which will facilitate 21st Century competencies in our youth. It was an exciting, engaging, challenging and fun week, and the beginning of creating a community of educators to support one another in this important work! I was honored to co-facilitate with Chris Fontana, Global Visionaries co-founder and Executive Director; and Noah Zeichner, teacher at Chief Sealth International High School and recipient of the World Affairs Council Global Educator Award. We practiced the 4c’s: collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking as we led participants through exercises to create more democratic classrooms. I am inspired by the work and can’t wait to help create what comes next!