A Model School Focuses on Students Taking Global Action

John Stanford International School has been a model for developing global awareness curricula. Now they've expanded their lessons to teach students how to take action to help others.

John Stanford International School has been a model for developing global awareness curricula. Now they've expanded their lessons to teach students how to take action to help others.
Students and teacher; bulletin board showing food waste, recycle, landfill in English and Spanish

The Green Team (above) is just one of the ways that students at John Stanford International School take action to help address global issues.

Credit: Suzie Boss

At John Stanford International School (JSIS), a few city blocks away from the university district on the north end of Seattle, the global focus is hard to miss. Flags from around the world brighten the hallways and library. Animated conversations and songs in Japanese and Spanish spill out of classrooms. When Principal Jesely Alvarez interacts with students, she's known to break out dance moves that celebrate her Dominican heritage.

Beneath the colorful, multicultural surface of JSIS, there's more going on than meets the eye -- or ear. "We're making a paradigm shift," explains Alvarez. "Instead of just teaching our students about the world, we're asking them, 'What are you going to do about it?' It's about taking action." For a school that has already been a leader in developing a global curricula, the next challenge "is figuring out how to make global citizenship more alive, more visible," the principal says.

(Learn tips for teaching global curricula.)

JSIS was launched in 2000 as a break-the-mold public school designed to prepare a new generation of citizens for an interconnected world. The school pioneered a model where everyone is a language learner, with students spending half the day learning in English and half the day immersed in either Japanese or Spanish. Because teachers share the same students, they frequently collaborate to design curricula and exchange effective teaching strategies. Technology and sister-school relationships connect students to the world beyond the classroom.

The JSIS model (PDF) quickly caught on, producing strong academic results for English-language learners and native English-speakers alike. Awards, partnerships, and a steady parade of international visitors followed, generating a waiting list of interested families. To meet growing demand for global education, Seattle Public Schools has developed a districtwide network of international schools serving students from grades K-12. Like JSIS, all emphasize world languages, academic excellence, and a global perspective.

(Learn more about how the JSIS model grew into a network.)

Community of Learners

Tinkering with a school model that's working well may seem risky, but delivering high-quality international education "depends on people who are committed to change. It takes teachers who are lifelong learners themselves," says Karen Kodama, founding principal of JSIS, who now directs international education for the school district.

Alvarez, in her second year as principal of JSIS, is respectful of the hard work that is part of her school's history. "As the first international school in the district, our teachers have poured their hearts into developing curricula," she acknowledges. "As we transition to what we know is the best next step -- shifting from content study to global issues -- how do we honor the work it took to get here?"

Three strategies are emerging to support this shift and build a strong community of learners:

Teacher-leaders: JSIS has identified teacher-leaders who are veterans of international education. They meet with other teacher-leaders from across the district, facilitate professional conversations with their peers at the building level, and serve as a sounding board for Kodama. "This renews me as a teacher," says Hiromi Pingry, who has been at JSIS for ten years and teaches Japanese, math, science, and social studies.

Professional learning communities: When Alvarez arrived at JSIS, she was immediately impressed "by the talent in this building." She also realized that her all-star teachers seldom got to see each other in action. The principal has introduced professional learning communities (PLCs) to make sure teachers have time and opportunities to learn together. For example, teachers now have regularly scheduled peer observations where they can watch their colleagues firsthand. Alvarez sends out a weekly letter to staff (PDF) to describe what she's looking for during her own frequent learning walks (PDF), where she observes classrooms in action. Weekly staff meetings as well as monthly PLC meetings (PDF) allow time to debrief. "At the PLC meetings, I'll invite teachers to share specific ideas I've seen in their classrooms. If they have a great example of how to teach global perspective, let's share that. Let's look at student work together. Our teachers are really talented at supporting students who are below grade level, but what are we doing for kids who are already at grade level or higher? These conversations are more formalized now," Alvarez says.

Networking across the district: Although Seattle has developed a network of international schools across the district, there have been few opportunities for member schools to learn from each other. That started to change last March, when the district hosted its first international-education symposium (PDF). To prepare, each school faculty did its own book study of Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World. (Download a free PDF of the book from the Asia Society.) Teacher-leaders volunteered to share units that reflected practices outlined in the book, such as focusing on topics that garner deep student engagement and make clear local and global connections. Harvard researcher Veronica Boix Mansilla, one of the coauthors, attended the symposium as the keynote speaker and offered feedback on the teachers' presentations.

"The symposium was giant PLC work," says Alvarez. "We heard from an expert (Boix Mansilla), who provided context, and then our teachers shared the how. It was all about teachers learning from teachers."

"It was so different than just having a consultant come in," Kodama adds. "Here were our teachers -- our true leaders -- sharing their units and examples of student work, with everyone learning together."

Stepping Toward Action

Both students and staff at JSIS are getting more comfortable in their role as citizens of the world. Last spring, the entire school rallied around a global action project that raised awareness of the need for clean drinking water. Teachers talked about the issue, read books, and showed picture books to younger students, while older students learned about the issue from reading A Long Walk to Water. The school raised funds in support of a nonprofit organization that builds water systems in the developing world by staging their own Walk for Water. Carrying jugs of water around the playground, students felt empathy for the women and children who walk miles each day in places like the Sudan to transport water for their families. In their reflective writing that concluded the project, they expressed what it was like "to walk in another's shoes."

Librarian Kathleen Gillespie suggested the water project after thinking about Alvarez's call to action. "She wants us to think beyond celebrations of culture and bring in service learning," says the librarian, whose daughter Imogene is a JSIS student. "I'm so grateful she's a student here," she adds. Imogene, a bright-eyed second grader, says events like the Walk for Water help her understand what it means to be a global citizen. "It's about helping others, being respectful, having a good life," she says. "It makes me proud to go to a school where we get to ask, 'How can I help?'"

That question is coming up more and more often at JSIS -- and increasingly, it's coming from students. Students on the Green Team -- who organize composting and recycling efforts at lunchtime -- are getting ready to take their initiative outside the school by surveying the neighborhood about household recycling habits. A student advisory panel meets regularly with Alvarez to talk through more ideas for local and global action.

The week after Halloween, candy was a popular lunchtime topic. One table group in the cafeteria started brainstorming what they might do with their abundance of bite-size goodies. Their conversation caught the attention of Alvarez, who spends the lunch hour chatting with students in both English and Spanish. Before long, she had students connected with local dentists who "buy back" kids' Halloween candy and send it to American troops overseas.

"This may seem like a small thing," Alvarez reflected later, "but it's an example of our students wanting to do things in the world and then taking action. They have the fire in their bellies. It's our responsibility to guide that passion, direct it, and get them to think critically so that we can realize all the possibilities they bring."

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This article originally published on 1/29/2013

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Work we should all participate in!

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I love what John Stanford International School is doing for the young students. I am still an undergrad student, yet I have family members who attend a bi-lingual school and I can see how more knowledge they are gaining from growing up learning two languages. It is important for our young learners to realize that they can contribute to society at any age. They don't have to complete an education before they are making small changes, collectively we all make up a community that can help others in need. It is one thing to learn about a topic but also how we can change that outcome now.

The Smallest Actions are the Biggest!

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Having worked in international education for almost 20 years now, I'll applaud any school that starts doing what JSIS is doing. However, laudable as these larger, collective actions are, the real prize is getting students to a place where they take self-initiated action arising out of their learning experiences...and it doesn't have to be on a grand scale. Typically, a unit looking at natural resources such as water has kids not letting the tap run while they brush their teeth: most importantly, they aren't told to do this but they arrive at it themselves as a result of their learnings. Some of you might already be recognising Action as in the International Baccalaureate's Primary Years Program: I can't claim the credit for this approach!

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