It is late evening in the sun-warmed streets of Zaragoza, and the last rays of sunshine illuminate el Pilar’s tallest steeples. A group of 25 faculty huddles around Dr. Aric Visser, head of schools and programs for School Year Abroad. He first addresses the group in English and then offers further explanations in Spanish and French. Other faculty fill in gaps for the native Mandarin and Italian speakers.
Visser is giving these teachers an assignment for the evening. “Find and order dinner on your own,” he says, “using local currency and without using your native language.”
This is opening night of the multiday Conference on Teaching and Learning Abroad, SYA’s first-ever school-wide curricular planning conference. Teachers from all four campuses have traveled here to help define the first stages of SYA’s curriculum redesign. As faculty scatter in different directions, they are being asked to complete a task SYA students often undertake as part of an increased commitment to hands-on fieldwork and experiential learning.
Held in June 2018, the Zaragoza conference provided time and space to share ideas, learn new skills and to further enhance a curriculum that is mission-driven and student-centered. SYA teachers delved into complex topics ranging from place-based pedagogy to competency-based learning, as well as the role of an advisor in the context of experiential education.
The entire event, along with three months of online professional development courses leading up to the conference, was made possible by generous and early philanthropic leadership to The Campaign for SYA. This kind of collaborative professional development will remain an essential need for SYA in the years ahead.
“We have done a lot of soul-searching about what kind of a school we want to be, which led to our newly articulated mission statement,” says Visser. “Now, we are at the implementation phase, where we gather our faculty to decide the concrete steps that we are taking to align today’s SYA experience with our mission and guiding principles.”
“Find and order dinner on your own using local currency and without using your native language.”— Dr. Aric Visser
Benefits of the conference continued long after that single week in Zaragoza. New faculty connections led to unprecedented amounts of cross-campus collaboration during 2018-19, resulting in an SYA that is more connected today than it has ever been. With the conference as a springboard, Visser and the SYA resident directors are continuing to develop curriculum and establish metrics, especially in the area of student assessment.
As SYA pushes forward with curricular re design, faculty professional development will become more and more important. “We’ve never done what we are doing right now,” says SYA Italy Director Pat Scanlon, “which is to change the the learning methods of our students. It is incredibly hard work, and I think we are emerging with an amazing toolbox that will change the fundamental experience that our students are having, very much for the better. We are so grateful for the generous support that made the Zaragoza conference our launching pad, and to those future supporters of professional development who will help us sustain the momentum.”
This article is updated from the 2017-18 Donor Impact Report; text by Charlie Reinertsen, senior communications officer.