Project-Based Learning (PBL)

A School with a Worldview: Teens Learn Beyond Borders

Students at the International School of the Americas acquire a global overview in their education.

October 14, 2004

Running Time: 7 min.

In our eleventh year as the International School of the Americas (ISA) in San Antonio, Texas, we are still an evolving and growing community of learners.

At the time of our founding, we were one of the first reform-minded small schools developed in a context of the mega high school in Texas. Although NAFTA (the North America Free Trade Agreement) was the dominant political issue in the state back then, international education was not foremost in the minds of Texan politicians or school leaders. Yet, from a position paper written by Professor Tom Sergiovanni at San Antonio's Trinity University grew a new notion of high schooling designed to be an intimate, internationally focused, relationship-driven enterprise within the context of a public magnet high school of choice.

At ISA, a magnet school, we act on the premise that our students will change the world, and, further, that we have the imperative to prepare them to do so with the academic knowledge, skills, and experiences to take on this possibility. In the rapidly changing, internationally focused world of the twenty-first century, it is incumbent on us to provide students with the tools, understandings, and capacities for continual growth and learning this global context demands.

ISA's small size -- we have just 460 students -- and our use of grade-level teams provides a strong sense of not just community but also family. Each grade level consists of one teacher for each core subject area (math, science, social studies, English) and about 120 students. Elective teachers (multimedia, internship, foreign languages, and the like) support these teams by assisting in the creation of a rich, integrated curriculum. Teachers at ISA play many different roles, from the traditional ones of creating curriculum and communicating with families to the more innovative ones of leading students in traveling and expeditionary educational opportunities. Through authentic, performance-based learning, students and teachers grapple with complex questions, look at multiple perspectives, make judicious decisions, and find solutions not only for themselves but also for the world community.

Travel-Enriched Curriculum

Last year, students from the North East School of the Arts, which shares the high school campus with ISA, documented the Zacatecas trip on video. Learning expeditions and other travel experiences throughout North America are a regular part of every student's experience at ISA. As freshmen, they travel to Heifer International in Arkansas, where they live for four days, experiencing the challenges of economic need and learning about sustainable economic development. The experience galvanizes students as a class -- and as global citizens. This often life-changing trip is followed up by a Make a Difference project, in which students select an international issue or challenge, conduct research, prepare an informative Web page, design and implement a service-learning project to address the issue, and present their findings to a panel of community judges. Past projects have addressed homelessness, teen alcohol abuse, children's-hospital programming, environmental initiatives, and animal advocacy.

During their sophomore year, students travel to Zacatecas, Mexico, the culmination of an interdisciplinary unit on identity. For this project, students examine the theme of identity on personal, municipal, and national levels through local and international learning expeditions that examine culture, politics, history, industry, civic planning, religion, and art. The unit forces connections and comparisons between San Antonio and Zacatecas -- an authentic and important connection, because the same route we travel on buses to Zacatecas represents the El Camino Real, forged by friars during the early years of the Catholic Church's presence in the New World.

At the junior level, students meld their learning in mathematics and physics in a visit to West Texas University's McDonald Observatory, located in the mountains hundreds of miles west of Austin and, when they are seniors, they immerse themselves in government as they spend a week in Washington, DC, meeting with governmental leaders. Reflection is a critical piece of ISA's curriculum, most significantly in portfolio requirements at each grade level and building to the senior portfolio presentation.

Small classes, travel opportunities, and plenty of time for formal and informal exchanges all help to create a powerful sense of community and to foster respectful, caring relationships at ISA.

Credit: Edutopia

The Power of Relationships

Relationships are fostered through intentional practices to build deep learning, real support, and honest dialogue. Students and teachers feel supported, valued, and empowered in a setting where their voices are heard and where actions are developed in partnership with one another. Grade-level teams frequently use their planning periods to meet with students regarding their academic progress or personal concerns, and the students interact regularly with the principal to share ideas and offer input. Students are known, and individual accommodations are made, for their learning styles, differences, talents, and interests.

More formalized structures such as our Academic Integrity Task Force, Leadership Course, Student Support Committee, Campus Improvement Committee, hiring committees, and multi-grade-level advisory board represent programs initiated by students and/or faculty and collaboratively run to ensure a student voice in decision making. These formal and informal structures reflect our commitment to value relationships, appreciate diversity, accept differences, take risks, and help students set and achieve individualized goals for learning.

As a learning institution predicated on relationships, and as a professional-development school for Trinity University, teacher training is fundamental at ISA, and the creation of a learning community is our mission. In academic teams, teachers meet every other day to address curriculum, grade-level projects, and the individual needs of students. All staff members participate in ongoing book studies to build our collective knowledge, and all are involved in either a Critical Friends Group or have crafted an individualized professional-growth plan for themselves. (As developed by the National School Reform Faculty, Critical Friends Groups consist of eight to ten teachers who meet biweekly to examine student and teacher work as artifacts of practice in order to encourage reflection and make the work of our classrooms more public and transparent to one another.)

In addition, all staff members attend an annual three- to four-day learning retreat where they are immersed together in new learning experiences to recapture the spirit of shared inquiry, which is so essential to teaching. These retreats have included expeditions through the Chihuahuan Desert to study the Raramuri Indians of Mexico, border explorations to learn about immigration and NAFTA, and indigenous studies through hikes into canyons to view native petroglyphs. In the summer of 2004, the entire staff traveled to Zacatecas to experience the interdisciplinary learning expedition that is a key component of the sophomore experience at the school. These shared learning experiences serve to build stronger collegiality than any team-building process available, and the experiential learning serves as a model of pedagogy for the staff while fostering reflection and refinement of learning initiatives.

Teachers as Learners, Too

Award-winning ISA physics teacher Chad Helgeson devises hands-on demonstrations to make physics concepts come alive in the classroom. Teachers are also provided with opportunities for international learning beyond school-based trips and retreats. Twelve teachers have participated in Fulbright Fellowships to Brazil, Japan, China, Morocco, and South Africa. In addition, the school hosts visitors from sister schools in Mexico, Japan, Oman, Italy, and Sweden; foreign teachers and students alike spend time at ISA. Also, in collaboration with our sister school in Takayama, Japan, three of our teachers and our biology classes are involved in joint biological studies, supported by the Fulbright-Hayes Memorial Fund, in which they share lesson planning and experimental results through the Internet and teleconferences.

ISA also facilitates a National Board Teacher Certification cohort and supports three to six teachers each year in this process with assistance from Trinity University. Furthermore, teachers attend and present at national, state, and local conferences regularly and speak in classes at many of the local universities. All of these activities occur on top of the traditional in-service opportunities provided to teachers by the school and the school district.

Students graduate from ISA with a strong sense of themselves -- and of their connection to their community and that of the broader world.

Credit: Edutopia

The Students Speak

Most important, it is what the students believe they carry away from ISA that matters. Four of ISA's 2004 graduates speak to this topic:

"ISA taught me the value of diversity and to think of myself as a world citizen," says Ari. "ISA inspires its students to dream big and educates them well enough to achieve these dreams."

"The fervor, curiosity, and humanity we see in our teachers is an excellent template for us to model ourselves after and will be our key to success in the future," says Lissette.

"Every student at ISA is treated with respect by the teachers and administrators," Liz offers. "We know our voices matter to them, and because we are encouraged to articulate and defend our ideas, we learn not to be afraid of contributing, whether in our current setting or on the larger world stage."

"We have learned from our teachers that learning and exploration should not end when we leave school," Katie explains. "It's a lifelong quest."

The students are valued and listened to, and they are offered the chance to "cut their adult teeth" on us as a school. We believe they are all the better for it and that we are sending remarkable learners, leaders, and global citizens out into the world.

That's the mission of our international school.

Shari Albright is the director of The International School of the Americas. Angela Breidenstein is a professor at Trinity University.

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