Taking an Experiential Leap Forward

Delivering the opening remarks at the 2017 ISEEN Winter Institute

Delivering the opening remarks at the 2017 ISEEN Winter Institute

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.

Our warm welcome from the Hawken mascot

Our warm welcome from the Hawken mascot

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.

Sharing ideas

Sharing ideas

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.

The whole ISEEN gang!

The whole ISEEN gang (being goofy!)

Global Education in Unexpected Places

My mother-in-law at 91!

My mother-in-law at 91!

When we decided to visit my mother-in-law in Fayetteville, Arkansa on the occasion of her 90th birthday, I didn’t imagine I would be dropped into a global education classroom, but I was wrong. As part of her celebration, she wanted us to take her to Big Cedar Lodge in the Ozark mountains, just across the border into Missouri. Big Cedar is a beautiful wooded tumble of lodges, golf courses, docks, and other outdoor activities on the shores of Table Rock Lake. We spent two days there taking advantage of mini-golf, swimming, paddle-boating, hiking, a self-guided tour of the area including a waterfall cavern and eating at several of the many fine restaurants on the property.

"End of the Trail" sculpture

“End of the Trail” sculpture

The resort’s initial buildings were lavish homes built in the 1920s by railroad executives and business tycoons. When the Great Depression hit, the property went into disarray, and was revived in 1947 by real estate developer Dan Norris. It wasn’t until the property was acquired in 1987 by Johnny Morris, owner of Bass Pro Shops, that the resort began to take shape as a world class destination. At first, I found the notion of a business tycoon in the hunting and fishing industry with a global perspective to be an oxymoron, but I became intrigued and impressed. One of Johnny’s mottos is “We all live downstream,” and he is committed to doing his part to protect the earth. The resort employs a myriad of conservation measures, including recycling, water treatment and usage, composting and wildlife preservation. Apparently, although hunters and fishermen are often at odds with other environmental groups there is a huge and powerful movement amongst game hunters to protect the natural world. Even if it is simply to preserve wild lands for hunting and fishing, the end result is good for the planet. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense; I would like to learn more and expand my horizons on this issue.

The Three Chiefs photograph by Edward Curtis

The Three Chiefs photograph by Edward Curtis

Equally surprising, and in fact, mind-blowing, was the Ozarks Natural History Museum on the property. Situated right next to a world class golf course, driving range, pro shop and a bar housed in Arnold Palmer’s family barn (relocated there) is the most extensive and impressive collection of Western United States Indian artifacts I have seen. The thousands of square footage in room after room, of arrowheads, axe heads and other tools, clothing, jewelry, drums and other instruments was a stunning collection in the sheer number, beauty, and array of objects. There were also many works of art depicting Native Americans, including a few Edward Curtis goldtone photographic prints made from the original negatives.

Elk Tooth child's dress

Elk Tooth child’s dress

The museum had a strange “thrown-together” feel as if it were someone’s homegrown project rather than the national treasure it is. There were no maps, very few explanations of context, some moving quotes by Native American leaders juxtaposed with sections that contained more information about the people who found the artifacts than the artifacts themselves. Once in awhile there would be an acknowledgement of the atrocities committed against Native peoples, but there was no overall lens through which the viewer was to understand the displays. Another somewhat jarring aspect of the collection were skeletons and recreations of huge mammals that once roamed the Ozarks. Though interesting to see their sheer size and vicious adaptations, I would have preferred to have a map, a guide, a sense of the eras represented, an explanation of the distinctive geology and natural history of the region. The exhibit ended with several rooms depicting guns and other Civil War memorabilia without much of a sense of the role Missouri played in that conflict or how the war shaped the region.

Quote in the museum

Quote in the museum

Walking through the museum was like a walk through time without a map. It made me wonder about the curation. The Native American artifacts were especially breathtaking and a reminder of how advanced those civilizations were when white settlers and soldiers called them “primitive.” I was simultaneously impressed with the cultures developed in the West, and grief-stricken at the genocide and ethnic cleansing perpetrated on its people. It reminded me that all land in the United States is stolen land and we have much to atone for. I was left with two haunting images. One was a photograph of Native American leaders lined up with the owners of Big Cedar Lodge at the opening of the museum. The caption stated the friendship between these two groups and how much the Native leaders liked the museum, but I wish I could talk to them about what they really thought, as I suspect it was more nuanced than portrayed. The second was a replica of Fraser’s “End of the Trail” statue which sits in an infinity pool at the edge of the End of the Trail Bar. All text surrounding this statue says it is a tribute to Native Americans, but I found its Indian rider slumped over his horse looking down in defeat extremely problematic and sad.

All in all, this has been both an enjoyable family vacation, and an enlightening global education experience. The trip has reminded me of the importance and lasting nature of a global perspective. Once you have it, you see it everywhere.

ExhibitBE: Arts and Social Justice

IMG_6563Although I have been back from New Orleans for nearly two weeks now, I can’t stop thinking about ExhibitBE, the building in the Algiers neighborhood scheduled to be torn down but in the meantime covered with paintings. I had three encounters with the show: one during my exploratory trip with Kaitlin, one with the students where we entered and explored on our own, and one with Brandon Odums, the artist who generated the project. Each made an impact on me in a different way.

IMG_6942Kaitlin and I had heard about the exhibit, and even though it had closed, we chose to drive out to see it. The complex was locked up and we stayed outside the chain link fence, drinking in what we could, feeling inspired and moved, taking pictures and hoping to return. We checked with our connection at Jericho Road, who confirmed it was closed, and they suggested the idea of contacting the artist to see if he might work with our group when we returned.

IMG_6950The second time, an impromptu visit to the exhibit with the group, we pushed through the barriers and explored the venue in more depth. Examining the murals, seeing what was inside the rooms, taking inspiration from the quotes: students came away elated, honored, invigorated, inspired. As it turned out, the folks at Jericho Road were able to get ahold of Brandon Odums, the artist who was the impetus behind the show and he agreed to give us a special guided tour. It was one of the highlights of our entire week.

He talked about what the place was like when it was first built: a beautiful apartment complex for middle and upper middle class mostly black residents of the area, with a pool and fine furnishings. IMG_6943Later, it came into disrepair, was managed by “slumlords” and became a haven for drug deals and other forms of crime. After Hurricane Katrina, it was all but abandoned. During this period,Brandon used to come in and paint there; it was quiet, he had space, and no one bothered him. New owners plan to tear it down and build something new there, but when they met Brandon, they admired his work and together they came up with the idea of inviting other artists, mostly graffiti artists with a social justice mission, to fill the whole place with images and words. The painting went on for a couple of months, and in the final weekend, they opened it to the public for one day and over 2500 people came to see it.

HIMG_6948earing Brandon talk about the impact the project had on him, on other artists, and on those who came out to view it, I couldn’t help thinking about the power of art, of visual images and words to inspire, to make us think and feel, even to change lives. He says art for art’s sake is not for him; he needs it to have a higher purpose, to make a difference. Our New York city students were reminded of a similar project in Queens where artists were able to paint murals on a building before it sold. The new owner painted it yellow and someone spray-painted the words “Art Murderer” over it.

The line between street art and “legitimate” art — what is not allowed and yet needs to be said by the disenfranchised — is a fine one. I admire the artists who created the work, the owners who supported the project, and all those who allowed themselves to be moved by it. I know the students will not easily forget our experience there, and neither will I. May we all be inspired to work together toward a just, humane, sustainable and beautiful world.


If you have a few minutes, watch this youtube video of Brandon talking about ExhibitBE:

A few more of my favorite photos: 








The New Orleans Experience

I just returned home from my trip to New Orleans with a group of 22 seniors and three adults from Trinity School in New York City. My mind is reeling to make sense of all the experiences we had, the people we met, and the issues we engaged with. Kaitlin’s previous post described the process of creating the experience; now I will say more about what it was like to be there.

The goals we created with Trinity School faculty were centered around big picture themes, and we wanted students, by the end of the experience to:

  • Understand the timeline and environmental, political, and cultural effects of Hurricane Katrina (pre, during, and post, including  issues related to wealth vs. poverty, self vs. other, oil industry, and community rebuilding efforts)
  • Explore the range of environmental issues still facing the Gulf Coast
  • Explore the city’s diverse cultural history and how different cultures have shaped the customs and traditions in modern day New Orleans
  • Analyze the city to city comparison between NYC and NOLA
  • Learn the overview of the city’s history (French rule, Spanish Rule, War of 2812, slavery and the slave revolt, Civil War, musical influences, pre- and post-Katrina)
  • Develop personal connections to the New Orleans community and make an impact through their service project(s)

Bayou Cleanup with LPBF

Our project was conceived as a week of environmental service learning with a focus on the Gulf region, pre- and post-hurricane Katrina. Normally, I like to work with one organization the entire length of a project to enable students to dig deeper into the issues, the groups we found were only able to host us a couple of days, so we chose more of a “smorgasbord” approach which had its challenges but also its perks. We learned about a variety of approaches to dealing with environmental issues facing people in the Gulf region, and each project was different enough to appeal to students in different ways. I have picked up my share of trash with groups over the years, but I had never catalogued it before our time spent with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF). LPBF works with the Sewage and Water Board of New Orleans to identify what types of trash is washing up into the newly created marshes at the mouth of the bayou. This helps them figure out where it is coming from and how to stop it. One person with a bag, one picking up trash, and one marking it on a clipboard (“three straws, ten pieces of plastic, six pieces of glass, one beer can, eight candy wrappers, one pencil,” etc.) made for some important teamwork.

Working at the Earth Lab at Groundwork New Orleans

Working at the Earth Lab at Groundwork New Orleans

When we moved into our work with Groundwork New Orleans, students were interested to note that that the two groups work in tandem on a number of projects that raise awareness while ameliorating the effects of disappearing land through sinkage and flooding, and working to stop the harmful human activities. Groundwork has two Earth Labs which they use to educate school groups about environmental issues and help them become stewards of the earth. In these, we helped beautify and call attention to one of the labs by painting a fence and signs to hang on it. We also created mosaics from donated recycled tiles to be used in a walkway. Their other project is on a center city street Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (referred to by locals at “OC Haley”). Once a booming black neighborhood, then left to deteriorate, the area is now coming back as the place for organizations helping change the city through good works. We weeded some rain gardens that help stem flooding, and then had the wonderful opportunity to meet with representatives from Bike Easy and Ride, two organizations working on transportation solutions in NOLA. We also ate at Cafe Reconcile, an organization that helps youth learn food service skills through job and social skill training in a restaurant that serves delicious local food.

Working with Jericho Road

Working on the vacant lot with Jericho Road

Our final service project was with Jericho Road, an organization that fights urban blight by beautifying vacant lots and engaging with communities about how to use them, whether for parks, urban gardens, or new homes. We covered a weedy lot with tarp and mulch to keep down weeds, and then painted and hung tires on a fence around a vacant lot that they hope will become a park one day. One of the best parts was meeting the energetic and committed young people who have chosen to work in the organizations we served. It was inspiring to see their dedication, passion, and hard work in the service of making life better for all.

Exhibit Be

Because our focus was social justice, we tried whenever possible to make our activities align with that overarching goal. Our tour of the French Quarter was with Hidden History Tours led by Mr. Leon Waters, a man intent on teaching the history of New Orleans from the point of view of the oppressed rather than the oppressor, and we learned some fascinating stories from him that changed many of our perspectives on certain events. When we visited a t-shirt shop and allowed each student to buy a shirt, we chose Dirty Coast because all of their messaging is about social causes and they donate a portion of their proceeds to organizations working in the area. We had two chances to visit the inspiring Exhibit Be, in Algiers, and hear the story of its inception from Brandon Odums, the artist who made it happen. We all left moved by the images and by the power of art to change lives.



Of course, a trip to New Orleans would not be complete without time in the French Quarter, listening to live music in the street — one of the students was even able to sit in and play his trumpet with a few of the bands! We attended a Sacred Music Festival, a St. Patrick’s Day parade, the National WWII Museum, the Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1, and a concert at Preservation Hall. A Trinity graduate who is now a professor at Tulane gave us a private tour of the Middle American Research Institute, engaging the students with passion for his subject area and stories of his professional journey. Meals at restaurants, Po’Boy stands, and in the HandsOn New Orleans bunkhouse kitchen, games in the evening, and singalongs on the balcony rounded out our time together.

Overall, it was a whirlwind of experiences that I’m sure will take some time to sort out. The city is vibrant, alive, recovering, and thriving in many places. Ten years after Katrina there is much to be proud of, and much still to be done. I’m sure these high school seniors will not soon forget the places they went, people they met, activities they did, and issues they were exposed to. I believe we met our big picture goals, and I look forward to seeing what the post-trip evaluations uncover about their experience, how the time affected them, and what it will mean in the future, both for them and for Trinity School.

One students' personal t-shirt design after visiting Dirty Coast. The choice is yours.

One students’ personal t-shirt design after visiting Dirty Coast. The choice is yours!



Designing a Service-Learning Program in New Orleans

If you’ve been following Global Weeks on Facebook or Twitter, you probably know that one of our bigger projects has been designing a weeklong service-learning program in New Orleans for a group of high school seniors from Trinity School in New York City. After months of planning and preparing, the program is currently underway! Students are doing service with with Jericho Road Housing Initiative and GroundWork New Orleans, exploring the Hidden History of the 1811 Slave Revolt in the French Quarter, listening to jazz at Preservation Hall, and touring the National World War II Museum, among many other historical and cultural activities. You can expect a post about how the program went from Vicki’s perspective after the program wraps up, but I first wanted to share a bit about the design process.

The students after a debris cleanup at Bayou St. John

The students after a debris cleanup at Bayou St. John

We first wrote the contract to develop this program back in October when I started my SIT Graduate Institute practicum with Global Weeks. While the school boasts an impressive Global Travel Program, they have never offered a domestic service-learning program. Within the parameters of developing an environmentally-focused service program, we had a completely clean slate. For me, this was equal parts exciting and daunting. I was thrilled to have the creative freedom to build a program, and overwhelmed at where to begin.

While six months may seem like plenty of time to develop a weeklong program, we were actually a bit late to the game. This week is spring break for many students around the country, and many schools offer annual service trips to New Orleans. By October, many volunteer bunkhouses and service organizations were already booked solid for the spring of 2015. I can’t tell you how many inquiry calls ended with another organization scratched off our list of potential partners; had our search been limited to internet resources, we might have been in trouble. Fortunately, one of the many perks of Vicki’s 30 year career in global education is a wealth of connections in the field. We reached out to her professional networks, former students and colleagues who had lived, worked, or traveled in New Orleans, tapping into resources we otherwise would not have found.

Throughout the design process, this was Vicki's mindset: We Can Do It! (photo from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans)

Throughout the design process, this has been Vicki’s mindset: We Can Do It! (photo from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans)

We used backward design thinking to map out the big picture learning outcomes and develop measurable goals and objectives. In collaboration with the team at Trinity, we drafted the program description, mapped out the daily itinerary, and surveyed students about what they wanted out to learn and experience. This was all new for me. When I’ve developed programs in the past, I’ve always worked for the school or organization offering the program — I’ve understood the inner workings, policies, and culture. Consulting in this way was an iterative process, moving forward while also stepping back to reevaluate, continually checking in with the program goals to make sure the service and curricular activities were in alignment with the learning outcomes.

In January, we went on an exploratory trip to New Orleans and met many of the people we had connected with. They, in turn, connected us with more people, and we began to develop our own network of community partners. As we fine-tuned the schedule, we relied heavily in the relationships we had built. When we wanted to know whether or not a museum exhibit was worthwhile, weasked them. When we needed to find a driver, we asked them. When we wanted to figure out a way for the students to experience ExhibitBE, a collaborative graffiti art project at an abandoned apartment building on the West Bank, it turned out that one of our contacts was friends with the artist who made the entire installation possible. She was able to arrange a personal tour for the Trinity students — an opportunity we would have never had without her. Having “eyes on the ground,” so to speak, allowed us to vet organizations and activities that we didn’t have time to experience on the exploratory trip.

This is what most people see when they go to ExhibitBE: CLOSED.

This is what most people see when they go to ExhibitBE: CLOSED.

What I have loved about designing this program has been its collaborative nature.  As consultants, Vicki and I worked together to create the program from the ground up in collaboration with stakeholders from the school and New Orleans. We’ve been able to use our experience to help a school create a program they had the desire but not the capacity to build.

After this first year Trinity School plans to run the program annually over spring break, keeping what worked and adjusting as necessary to fit their school’s needs. In the end, the recipe for a successful program was a lot of research, a lot of reaching out, and a number of serendipitous encounters.


Stay tuned to the blog for Vicki’s post about her experience leading the New Orleans program!