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. 

Lifelong Learning: A Summer Search Design Challenge

Jump in and throw something wild out there; no suggestion too extreme!” I was told. My group was apparently being far too logical, rational, and moderate in our solutions. Once we heard prompts  like “Every program must cost at least a million dollars…. Or take place in outer space…. Or involve celebrities…” we loosened up a little and the ideas started flowing.

imgresI had the great privilege of participating in a design challenge last Saturday morning. Yes, Saturday morning. An organization called Summer Search was looking for some new ways to organize the second summer of their highly successful program for low income youth. An “innovation team” on their board pulled together 35 people — board members, staff members, current and former Summer Search students, and educators like myself — who agreed to spend four hours engaged in a design process to help them enhance their vision and think about potential new programming.

We spent our time going through a mini version of a typical design process, led by a skilled facilitator who kept us focused and on task, gave us just enough information at each stage to make decisions, and encouraged us to be creative and think big. We started with exercises designed to help us understand the student experience and develop empathy. Current and former students demonstrated their challenges and successes while we asked questions and prompted them to add detail. Each team of three had the chance to learn from three different students before we gathered all the information we had and attempted to define the issues facing Summer Search in this process.

Design-Thinking-670-x-443The next step set teams of four to brainstorm solutions and this is where we were encouraged to think big. Once we had all of our crazy and not so crazy ideas (“Sail around the world!” “Make a movie!” “Build a house!” “Intern at a business”) in sticky notes on the wall, we each chose the one we liked the best and developed it further so we could present it to the Summer Search innovation team for further review. They plan on taking the design challenge to the next levels of iteration, prototyping and testing; our work was done after the brainstorm and initial idea creation.

It was so much fun! I’m not sure when four hours have flown by so fast. I love the way the time was scripted and yet allowed for a lot of fertile creative thought. A small group of people working very hard on something they care about, contributing real ideas to an organization they care about, was incredibly engaging and thought-provoking. Design thinking is a tool I have heard so much about and even participated in a couple of times, but this took it to a new level for me. I am reminded of how much fun it is to learn something new with other people, and even better when what I learned for me actually will be useful to someone else. As educators, we often espouse lifelong learning as a goal; rarely have I experienced it in such a profound and enjoyable way.

The Design Thinking Process

The Design Thinking Process

Blog Year in Review

Students reflecting on their journey

This time of year lends itself to reflection. As I considered my customary examination of highlights, low lights, and lessons learned in 2015, I decided to reread my blog posts for the year to see what they might tell me about my year. It was fun to relive some of my adventures and see what I was puzzling over as the months unfolded. A couple of themes emerged.

The first pattern I noticed was that I wrote most often about school initiatives. This makes sense, as I work primarily with schools. I continue to be impressed by school leaders who are embracing concepts and practices such as experiential education, design thinking, and global-local connections; paying attention to risk management, program assessment and staff training; and creating meaningful overseas partnerships. I love working with schools, and I am encouraged and inspired by educators who seek improvement through both strategic planning and new initiatives. Serving on the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) and the Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG) boards continues to shape my thinking, provide support for my work, and add meaning to all of my consulting partnerships.

Students from Trinity School (NYC) doing service work in New Orleans

Students from Trinity School (NYC) doing service work in New Orleans

Travel opened my mind and heart this year, whether to places far away like Namibia, South Africa and Peru, middle distances such as Arkansas, Santa Fe and New Orleans, or nearby in Victoria, B.C. and Olympia, WA. Each experience made me think about the world in new and interesting ways, and the people I met reinforced my belief in both our similarities and our differences. I returned home stimulated by new landscapes, engaged in new relationships, and brimming with new ideas for collaborative global and experiential education.

Another theme that emerged as I examined the posts is the importance of art and culture in all of their rich expression. My focus on visual art through Exhibit Be, theater for Little Bee, and music for OneBeat underscores my belief in the power of art to connect, to inspire, and to heal. I noticed that I invited my readers to engage with the world through art and also through political movements like Black Lives Matter, world events like the devastating Nepal earthquake, and then I encouraged heeding the call to an interior life (such as unplugging from technology and connecting with a group like Seasons of the Soul) to stay centered and able to both bear and help ease the pain in our world.

2015 - 2016 signpost in a desert road background

Bring it on 2016: I’m ready!

As I look back, I realize how grateful I am for the kind of work I do and how much I enjoyed writing about it. I appreciate the weekly practice of reflection and putting into words what I am thinking about, engaged in, puzzled by. The greatest joy the blog brought me this year came in the form of my twelve guest bloggers: former students and program associates who wrote about how global travel and experiential education have influenced their lives. Their testimonials reinforce my career choice and provide motivation to continue working on behalf of global and experiential education. Bring on 2016: I’m ready!

School Partnerships Across Borders

chadwick school korea

Chadwick International in South Korea

My first job as a consultant was at Chadwick International in South Korea, the partner of Chadwick School outside of Los Angeles. This international partnership was ready to add a high school, and they hired me to help with the experiential programming for incoming ninth graders. I traveled to South Korea twice with colleagues to create and then help lead this orientation program in the southern part of the country where many of the city-raised students had never been, setting up activities such as farming, fishing, hiking and living in homestays. In addition to enjoying the project itself, I learned a great deal about this partnership and became intrigued with what is becoming a trend in global education.


An island off the coast of South Korea

Several schools in China, South Korea, and India have reached out to independent schools in North America as partners. Each partnership differs according to the needs of the schools involved, and yet they all have some similarities. They appear to grow out of a desire to learn from each other, and since it is usually the Asian school that reaches out first, a desire to bring more critical thinking, innovation, and creativity to areas traditionally more structured and content-focused. The North American schools tend to benefit more financially as well. After I worked at Chadwick International, I heard about another school on Jeju Island in South Korea called Branksome Hall Asia operated by Branksome Hall School in Toronto, Ontario. Later, I learned that Barstow School in Kansas City, Missouri has partnerships with several schools in China. Closer to me, the University Child Development School in Seattle has partnered with Ascend International in Mumbai, India.


With a “friend” in Korea

These schools intrigue me for several reasons. First of all, I marvel at the nature of our world that these partnerships can exist, even thrive, across continents. Second, as an advocate for experiential education, I love the fact that people have jumped into something new and are figuring it out as they go along. Finally, I am excited by the possibilities of exchange between different cultures, educational systems, and teaching pedagogy. I wonder how they came about, how each school is benefitting, what bumps in the road they have experienced, and what they have learned that will serve them as they evolve. I suspect that strong leadership is important to keep them developing to mutual advantage.

I have followed Chadwick School’s experiment as they have added student and teacher exchanges, co-developed curriculum, and struggled with the decision to stay with the International Baccalaureate curriculum that is standard in International Schools, or use the Advanced Placement curriculum more common in the United States. I know that the relationship between the two schoolshas absolutely enriched both campuses even with the inherent challenges. (see these articles: “Chadwick fosters creative thinking” and “The ‘five-year-old Chadwick International” and for more information). Led by progressive educator Paula Smith, the University Child Development School (UCDS) has worked hard to foster a true partnership with Ascend International, not simply create an Indian clone of the Seattle school. Many faculty and staff, both senior and new, have spent significant time on their counterpart’s campus to ensure things like language, behavior and methodology function well in both cultures.


Faculty collaboration through soccer at Ascend International

I recently connected with a former student of mine who works at UCDS and just returned to India for his second year at Ascend International. He could not say enough about the impact working there has had on him. Teachers return to their home schools energized, transformed and excited about how the partnership enhanced their teaching. I want to learn more about these experiments, especially what educators are learning from each other, and what that learning means moving forward into the increasingly connected world of global education.

What is Culture?


French Quarter, New Orleans

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately. I find it interesting that when you say culture,” you could be talking about art, or biology, or a process of enrichment. Joshua Rothman wrote an article in the New Yorker discussing this very issue when Merriam-Webster declared “culture” as their 2014 Word of the Year. There are so many definitions, and I don’t find any of them ultimately satisfying when discussing global education. The concept is loaded, fraught with contradiction, appropriation, and nuance. I guess this one from works pretty well for me: “the sum of attitutes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another. Culture is transmitted through language, material objects, ritual, institutions, and art, from one generation to the next.” I like it because it covers aspects of the term that apply to many groups not necessarily thought of as cultures. Families have cultures, schools have cultures, geographic regions within a particular country have cultures, associations and sports teams have cultures; and ethnic groups and nations have cultures. How should we think about all these different cultures? How can we learn more about our own culture and increase understanding about other ones?

culture 1

Woman from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation

Often in my work I am asked if global education can be done locally, and if so, in what way(s). See my recent blog post (link) for one discussion of this issue. Although I will never give up on my quest to help more young people experience life in a different country, I also understand that we can and must look for ways to learn from others in our own neighborhoods. I am impressed with schools that are making efforts to do this in meaningful ways. Students from Trinity School in New York spent time in New Orleans exploring attitudes and beliefs in that region (see blog post). Palmer Trinity School in Miami sent a group to the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in South Dakota to learn about the people and the social institutions in that place.

culture 8

Apple packing line at Broetje Orchards, WA

This fall, Lakeside School in Seattle will send its entire eighth grade class in small groups to six different locations in the Pacific Northwest for a week to get to know the cultures represented in each. In addition to the Native American and Mexican American cultures they will encounter, the groups will learn about farming culture, fishing culture, and timber culture.They will explore global education through its local manifestations, broadening their minds and expanding their hearts as they learn about sustainable ways of living and working locally as part of a global economy. This project is a part of Lakeside’s extensive Global Service Learning program which I had the good fortune to help create. I love seeing the direction this Middle School portion has taken, including pre-trip curriculum and ties to the yearlong global issues eighth grade course. I am excited to see what they will learn about all the different cultures within our region and how they will tie                                                                                 that learning to their own cultures of family, friends, classes, teams,                                                                                and school when they return.