Monday, October 14, 2013

School without Walls

It’s the kind of rolling, grassy, manicured expanse that compels the 47 high school sophomores on our school trip to race barefoot up the hills whooping and hollering and barrel-roll down them shrieking. 

The weather has conspired with the landscape--a warm autumn post-typhoon day with Mt. Fuji behind us outlined against a “blue, true dream of sky,” and, yes, there are also “leaping greenly spirits of trees” dancing in the breeze all around me. (I can’t help but think of e.e.cummings on days like this.) But mostly I’m enjoying watching the students enjoying themselves. 

This is our last stop on a 4-day activity we call SWOW or “School WithOut Walls.” In a few minutes we’ll board the bus for the 2-1/2 hour ride back to Tokyo. While it’s structured for student learning, I’ve also learned much, including the following:
  • One student has eclectic taste in music--from Ray Charles to classical Japanese to K-pop. 
  • One student is so concerned about germs that instead of holding hands around the supper table to pray, we had to fold hands and touch elbows. (We had a good laugh when one girl described her as “germaholic” rather than “germophobic,” and people began imagining what a “germaholic” would do, like licking the hand rings on a train.)
  • Several had very little experience riding bikes--but were up for the challenge of biking around a lake.
  • Prayer is a a vital part of this enterprise we call education. It was something to do with all my “What if” anxiety before the trip, a focus for my learning about students, and an outlet for gratitude when good things happened.

What have students learned? They’ve learned about the beauty and fragility of the natural environment through a biology activity, a guided hike, a visit to an aquarium about the freshwater ecology of the lakes around Mt. Fuji, and a bike ride around the largest of those lakes, Lake Yamanaka. They have learned about group dynamics and servant leadership through a Bible study of Philippians, group initiative games, cabin devotions, and figuring out how to live, cook, and clean-up a cabin together. The big question we’ve been asking is “How can I make a difference?” whether in the physical or in the social environment where God has placed me. 

The 8 girls in my cabin group grappled with what our world, our school, their class, would look like if everyone actually loved their enemies, did everything without complaining, served others as if serving Christ, refrained from judging, practiced humility. And with what it would look like for each of them to pick one of those servant-leadership traits and really try to live it. When I asked if they were serious enough about the learnings they wanted to apply and the changes they wanted to see to be interested in having lunch together in a couple of weeks to discuss how it was going, they agreed enthusiastically.  

I’m thankful for the opportunity this week to see my students in a different setting, to get to know my them on a different level, and to connect classroom lessons with life experience. I’m looking forward to the opportunity in the coming weeks to the opportunity to connect this week’s experiences back into the classroom, and to see how all these learnings will transfer into the real life of our school community. 

One final minor learning: I at last got to play Mafia (after years of being confused by my childrens description). I learned that the part of my mind that retains bare facts (who the murderer, the victim, the doctor, the detective are) and the part that spins vivid stories cannot function at the same time. Yet one more talent I can admire in my students: the ability to be great Mafia narrators.   


  1. What could be accomplished in other subject areas if we did this kind of intensive learning? Maths camp would be anathema, but maybe a quilting weekend for home ec? All day in the science lab would be an interesting turn of events.

    1. This could be a really exciting line of exploration to pursue...SWOW is about classroom learning meeting life. Biology class has a lot of connections to the 10th grade SWOW--students have just finished a unit on ecology, they have 75 minutes in the lab on the first day, and the guided hike and the aquarium while at Yamanaka. Where does math or science of the other grades meet life? How could those meeting points be capitalized upon in SWOW? (10th graders recall doing one of the collaborative games--which is a puzzle--in some math class--which doesn't mean they remember the solution--but it's interesting to see the problem solving strategies they do--or don't--employ.)