Authentic Language Learning
A requirement across all ISSN schools is that students have the opportunity to study a language other than English throughout their school career, and that each school offer at least one Asian language. The goal in language classes is to use the language out loud, that is, to engage students continuously in speaking and writing in the target language to share information, ideas, opinions and emotions on engaging topics. Language learning also provides a unique vehicle for traveling “inside” other cultures to help students focus on how people live and think and to interpret cultural meanings in the behaviors, norms and traditions of everyday life. At the Denver Center for International Studies, for example, which offers Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Spanish and French to students in grades six to twelve, language instruction is virtually all in the target language itself. Frequent “world language days” allow students to hone language skills though purposeful conversations with native language speakers in local Chinese markets, Spanish language media outlets, local Hispanic cultural organizations, Asian fairs and in other community settings. Student-planned World Cafes engage families and community members in the cultures of the languages taught, with students taking on the role of teacher. The school’s world language lab also provides cutting edge technology to immerse students in the world’s voices and cultures, and the means to connect directly with individuals in other countries to practice communication and to better understand cultural similarities and differences.
To sharpen language skills and cultural understanding, and to truly empower students to act with confidence on the world stage, each ISSN school aims to provide every student the opportunity for international travel. Experiencing life in other regions is especially important for disadvantaged students to envision their own global future. That’s why even in its first year the Houston Academy for International Studies helped eight students travel in the summer following their freshman year toItaly, Spain, Costa Rica and Thailand through a study abroad scholarship programfor students of color. Another student traveled with peers from other ISSN schools on a three-week study tour of China.Other students throughout the network furthered their language scholarship through summer residential immersion classes at the Concordia Language Villages in Moorhead, MN.
Small Schools, Engaged Communities
Preparing students for global futures extends to the culture and organization of ISSN schools and to their local communities. Even before students first enter the Mathis High School for International Studies in Mathis, TX, they know it is a very different kind of school. In the summer before school opened, Mathis school leader Elizabeth Ozuna organized a city-wide book study of Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks about the unifying effect of a handful of beans in the lives of a diverse group of people to “seed the garden” of ideas within the Mathis community. Throughout the summer, students and adults discussed the “big ideas” in the text as a foundation for creating the school’s vision and mission statement. Just before school opened, Ozuna took her entering freshman to the Texas Museum for Asian Cultures in Corpus Christi, Texas, giving them their first school-sponsored experience with another culture.
All ISSN schools are small, roughly 120 students per grade level. Positive relationships with trusted adults motivate students to learn (Jackson & Davis, 2000) so each ISSN school works to develop a nurturing, relationship-driven environment where every student is known well. Each of the schools has an advisory component, which Natasha Thompson, principal of the International Studies School at Garinger, in Charlotte, NC describes as a “safe space for students to develop their personal voice through a variety of reflective journal topics, and their community and global voice by studying global environmental issues as well as participating in “family” meetings.”
As is true everywhere, the quality of teaching and leadership in ISSN schools determine their efficacy. Our cardinal rule in assisting districts in hiring teachers and leaders is that they are equally passionate about academic rigor and bringing the world inside their classrooms. They must be committed to fostering close, empowering relationships with students. And they must be willing to continually improve their own knowledge of the world and their ability to teach from an international perspective. Much of Asia Society’s ongoing work is to support teachers’ and leaders’ professional development through a variety of means that include on-site coaching, leadership training, curriculum and instruction seminars, an annual Summer Institute, regional and national networking, international study tours, a library of digital resources, and formative evaluation studies to support the school’s own data-driven professional development planning.
Close connection to families and linkages to organizations outside the school are seminal to the ISSN school design. The diversity of students’ family backgrounds provides a major asset to support schools’ inclusive international culture. At the International Studies Learning Center in South Gate, CA, near south central Los Angeles, many of the students are of Mexican heritage, which prompted Principal Guillermina Jauregui to have students, staff and parents read Burro Genius by Victor Villasenor. The book provided the foundation for school wide discourse, which included the book’s author himself, to examine the influence of culture and the diversity of students’ needs.
Universities and community colleges support ISSN schools’ global mission by offering college courses that tap substantial international expertise and by providing invaluable professional development opportunities for teachers, especially through Area Studies Centers whose mission is in part to support K-12 classroom teachers. Like several other ISSN schools, the International Studies Learning Center is partnering with a local institution, Los Angeles Southwest Community College, to offer greater choices in world languages and other college-level coursework. Over 80% of juniors and seniors are currently taking one or more college level courses.
Business, cultural and non-profit organizations are especially important to ISSN schools’ mission by providing educational resources and critical opportunities for internships and community service. Through a partnership with the World Affairs Council of Houston, for example, students in their first month at the Houston Academy for International Studies had a dinner discussion with former Secretary of State Colin Powell on contemporary world challenges and solutions. As a requirement for graduation, every student at the International School of the Americas in San Antonio interns at a globally focused organization, from Doctors Without Borders to the Mexican Consulate in San Antonio to the Volkswagen manufacturing plant in Pueblo, Mexico.