We might be part of learning communities that strive to develop innovative curriculum in which technology plays a central role; we might be part of learning communities in which teachers and students strive for excellence, but what is the point of all this if we, as a school, never inculcate the need of contributing to the community; if we never foster a proactive attitude to give back; and if, despite the 21st centrury attitude in our institution, we keep students from being an instrumental part in the understanding and improvement of their/our local context.
Walking the streets of Qingdao as I follow the colors of the cherry blossoms, I have recently been wondering about how blind many International schools can be: blind about the learning opportunities in their surroundings; bling about the possibilities for engaging students in their local context, and truly encourage them to become change making agents. I wonder how many time schools miss opportunities to take advantage of the play and learning opportunities their neighborhoods allow them to have. Clearly, a school address is more than a street with a zip code- it’s a playground and a laboratory.
The long cold nights of the winter invited me to explore and navigate the layer of my school’s curriculum as a voyager who explores unknown geographies. While we can claim ownership and be proud about the somewhat rich inquiry we can observe, I could also observe how the lack of connections with the local context made it look dry, illusionary, and beautified as if it were a damsel going to the opera. Thus, with the help of my local colleagues, we have gone scouting for venues where our students could put their skills to practice.
Every person has a role to play in the process of transforming the curriculum into a livable experience; a process in which learning experiences connect understandings from all subjects, and also make use of the city spaces for our students see that their skills are needed. Teachers, parents, administrators, policy makers, and practically everyone who comes into contact with the real lives of students are potential instruments to lead, accompany and provoke action in the learning that occurs in our community- we only need to understand that we acquire skills to understand and improve the community we live in, not to become isolated.
For a context like the one Mainland China provides us, every opportunity we have to foster emotional and social literacy in students must be taken in order to get learners to practice their critical and human skills. The size of the unknown and unexplored is so vast that there is room for testing how much we can do with what we know in various corners of a neighborhood, a city, and a province.
Yes, there is rigor in life; yes, it is important to learn as much as one can, but it is important to develop a sense of belonging in our context; and this is only done when we see ourselves as functional, and vital parts of it.
In our exploration we have walked streets that not even the locals born and brought up in Qingdao had walked; entered buildings with deceiving appearances that were actually ‘connections waiting to happen’; and it is like this how we have started to become aware the many experiences our context can provide us: it’s a learning matryoshka, an experience within an experience within an experience.
At school, as we openned the repertoir of possibilities and had students look at what the city allows us to do, the most fascinating thing was to see students’ interest focusing on home for the elderly as they wanted to explore what stories older people had to tell. They wondered whether there were unspoken heroes who contributed to what China is like now; and as they wondered about what these people thought of the youth of modern China. Clearly, witnessing this outlined our inquiry for the unit we were about to commence.
Thus, for over a month students went to a home for the elderly in order to hunt for stories worth telling and also to support the work the institution has been doing. This experience enriched the Language Acquisition class with dialogue; with opportunities for students to use language to communicate ideas that mattered to them; with scenarios that allowed us to engage in deep reflection and to witness how each other’s thoughts can change transform us.
I am happy to share a summary of students’ reflections, which they consistently did for the duration of the experience in a video journal, which is only one of the strategies used to support students’ language development. As I post this, students are getting ready to present a story in a school assembly.
As for me, my learning is clear: One of the worst enemies of effective and meaningful learning/curriculum is indifference.