Extending the Partnership: School Partnerships for a Greater Good

(University School of Milwaukee)
(University School of Milwaukee)

By Tim Quinn and Haiyun Lu

At the University School of Milwaukee, we have been eager to partner with schools from around the globe, but thanks to one partnership we quickly realized that these relationships can and should benefit more than just the students directly involved in them. Following is the story of our partnership with a school from Harbin, China, which we hope will serve as a model for other schools so that they can use their partnerships to serve an even greater good.

Like many partnerships, the one between the University School of Milwaukee and the Harbin Institute of Technology started slowly. Administrators from Harbin visited us in Milwaukee in 2011 before the 4th National Chinese Language Conference in San Francisco. Our initial meetings were encouraging, but it was clear that we were still just getting to know one another. Although we came away with a clear understanding that both sides were looking for a long-term partnership and were excited to collaborate, no concrete plans were made for how this partnership might benefit our students. Still, we expressed a willingness to visit Harbin and began waiting eagerly for that opportunity to come.

Finally, in the fall of 2012 he two of us attended Asia Society’s U.S.–China Partner Schools Leaders Summit in Shanghai, where we were met by our colleagues from Harbin and then travelled with them to their school in the far northeast of China. It was during this visit that we connected on a deeper level with their administration, and with a shared philosophy for global education, we began to dream big, imagining how our partnership could bear fruit.

The first step was getting our students together. Despite little time for planning, we harnessed the enthusiasm generated by our visit and organized a trip for thirteen students to come from Harbin to Milwaukee for eight days in the spring of 2013. Prior to that, the Chinese students who would visit us had been "Skype pals" with their counterparts in the United States, but it wasn't until they arrived at our school that the partnership blossomed.

During their stay here, our guests attended classes with their peers, went on college visits, field trips to Madison and Chicago, and shopping adventures to the local outlet stores. We also organized sessions for the students on American etiquette, cultural survival skills, and college guidance seminars. We planned many activities for the students to fully engage with each other, such as a welcome party, a basketball game, a rock-climbing excursion, and a farewell party at the end of their stay. The most exciting part of the visit, however, was the hatching of our next plan for collaboration, one that would allow our students to collaborate in a much deeper and more meaningful way.

We already planned to send our students on a service trip to China in the coming summer in order to work with students at a rural school, Xingwen #2 High School, in the southeast corner of Sichuan. So we decided, why not invite our partners from Harbin to meet us there and work with us? This way the partnership would benefit not only the two partner schools, but others as well. After all, our students are mostly upper class and even those who aren't have the privilege of attending an elite private school; the same was essentially true of the international track students from Harbin, with whom they were working. For both groups of students this trip to rural China would take them places far different from the cities of Milwaukee and Harbin, and would force them to encounter and work with people from a vastly different economic situation than their own. All of the students would benefit from being thrust out of their own comfort zones, but what's more, they would now be working on a project that would promote, in its own small way, equal education across the globe.

The trip was a tremendous success. Because the students were already acquainted, meeting in Xingwen was like a reunion, and all everyone genuinely bought into our motto for the trip: “Live together, teach together, play together.” Our students were now roommates with the students they had hosted in the spring, only now they were on foreign soil. Through this cultural immersion our students' eyes and minds were opened, and the same was true of their counterparts from Harbin, who found themselves in "foreign" lands as well. Living closely with one another, the students developed friendships that many predicted would last a lifetime.

Our main task while there was to teach lessons for the younger students from Xingwen. We trained the students in basic teaching methodology and then had them practice teaching one another before stepping into the actual classroom. We insisted that all students use both English and Chinese in their teaching, so that they were not simply translating for one another. Our students’ initial anxiety regarding teaching was instantly dismissed when they were greeted by Xingwen’s 3000 students, whose enthusiasm and eagerness to learn was overwhelming.

The three days of teaching went by very quickly, but the impact of the experience for all involved was profound. We had told our students that they were planting seeds that could help the students in Xingwen reach their dreams. They were opening windows that would allow these students to look beyond the mountains, and inspire them to follow a path that would "allow the impossible to happen."

So we lived together, we taught together, and did we ever play together! The experience was intense, and it really stretched the students in ways that had not been stretched before, but the fun came easily, as students constantly laughed, joked, and played games with one another throughout the entire visit.

The fun, though, was just a byproduct of a powerfully meaningful experience. Ultimately, the trip was clear evidence that partnerships between Chinese schools and schools in the United States need not limit themselves only to the two schools involved, but rather that they should use their partnership to extend in different directions, to widen the circle of people and cultures with whom they will interact. Our students and their peers from Harbin will now be working on N.A.I.S.'s "Challenge 20/20," which asks students to work with partner schools in other countries to find solutions to one of 20 global problems. But it won't be just the two schools working together; we have brought in another school from Borna Germany to work with us as well.

We're now convinced that global education programs that do no more than provide students with diverse cultural experiences fall short of the true goal of global education. As idealistic as it may sound, the very point of global education is to make the world a better place for all citizens of the world, no matter what their nationality. Providing travel experiences and cultural exchanges for our students is an important first step, but it alone will not help us solve the many, many problems facing the world today, problems that can only be solved when the powerful nations of the world – such as the U.S. and China – put the interests of others ahead of their own. So let's start our students on this path by establishing partnerships that are not self-serving, but instead that take it as their mission to work together to help others.

Tim Quinn is the Assistant Head of Upper School at the University School of Milwaukee where he also teaches English and coaches ice hockey. Mr. Quinn has an Ed.M. from Harvard University and a B.A. from Amherst College. Quinn has written widely about education, including his recent book, On Grades and Grading: Supporting Student Learning through a more Transparent and Purposeful Use of Grades.

Haiyun Lu is a Chinese instructor at the University School of Milwaukee. Ms. Lu has an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and B.A. from Cardinal-Stritch University. Ms. Lu is recognized for her work with Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and has presented her work at a number conferences, including the National Chinese Language Conference (NCLC).