As we look at the news headlines of today, we can only wonder, what will the world look like for our children? What about the balance of world powers? What will be the main issues we will hand down to future generations?
WISS and our IB education address these questions by developing and encouraging our students to be brave. With the unknown before us, we have a choice to watch or to act. The mission at WISS is for our students to be sent into the world, not to be a bystander, but to engage and be an agent of change. Cultivating a culture that encourages our students to be brave is how we know their lives will be instrumental in shaping our future.
“I was thinking this may be a challenging year for her,” comments John Bazazian, Grade 1 Yellow teacher in reference to Lobar, a new student to WISS from Uzbekistan. Her challenge is somewhat unique; not only is she unable to communicate in English, but there is also no other student who speaks her native tongue of Uzbek to give her some comfort or support. Can you imagine the brave act of walking through that classroom door on the first day of school for Lobar?
Lobar is not alone in this process. Her act of bravery on the first day is the first step. Immediately, the Primary team steps alongside her and begins the process of guiding and nurturing her bravery that will be the fuel for her development as a Risk-Taker, a key characteristic of the IB Learner Profile. Sharon Loper, Grade 1 EAL specialist knows what to do. “We teach the kids to persevere when faced with challenges. Don’t give up and keep trying. In fact, in EAL, one of the chants is, ‘keep on trying don’t give up’ Not only is the rhythmic pattern of singing/chanting a great way to learn English, but the message of perseverance is then repeatedly practiced,” says Ms. Loper. Lobar is going to learn, not only the language, but an incredible life lesson that taking risks and making mistakes is accepted and, in fact, encouraged. According to Ms. Loper, “Perfection is not the goal; we celebrate risk taking and bravery in class instead of focusing only on achievement.” In the classroom, Mr. Bazazian and Ms. Liandan have put structures in place to surround Lobar with opportunities for success in order to build her confidence and encourage her to take risks. This happens through differentiated learning. Like Ms. Loper, they too have also noticed that Lobar is particularly responsive to music and rhymes and have incorporated ways for her to participate in the daily calendar by setting it to music. Ms. Liandan has also noticed that “Visuals really help her and so sometimes we will draw pictures, use the computer or demonstrate with other students’ work to further her understanding of an assignment.” Mr. Bazazian notes that, “We have high expectations for Lobar but it’s at a level that is achievable.” This gives Lobar the confidence and bravery to keep trying. The change has been dramatic. “Lobar is using much more social language these days. She’s playful and coming out of her shell and can stick up for herself when she feels wronged,” comments Mr. Bazazian. The residual effect in the classroom is also noteworthy. “The kids are so excited for her when she learns something new. A few closer classmates have really taken to helping her out and encourage her,” comments Ms. Liandan.
But it’s not just about strategies and philosophies, however, arguably more importantly, it’s about the relationship and trust-building between students and teachers. Teachers at WISS put in the time to get to know their students and to truly care for their learning. “We tap into what they want to do and enable them to learn through their interests and strengths. For Lobar it’s singing and music. Music bridges where she is and where she wants to be as she’s learning English. For another student it’s leadership, and so when he is given the opportunities to lead, he then begins to use his English,” comments Ms. Loper. It’s this level of comfort that allows a child to feel secure in the midst of a challenge. Feeling secure is then a catalyst for a child to take a measured risk.
“I was terrified of public speaking,” comments Lucas Kohler, Grade 12 student. Lucas has always shied away from performing, but, a tap on the shoulder by Mr. Scully in the cafe, and an invitation to audition for a “small role” in the upcoming play has given him a huge confidence boost and forged new friendships–a risk that paid off in so many positive ways. Giving Lucas the platform to face a fear, and give a stunning and emotional performance, is something that can be accomplished in a program which highly values relationships and trust between teacher and student and structurally formatted with the intention of utilizing opportunities to build confidence through performing arts as an ensemble and solo performer.
The performing arts, since its inception, has leaned towards taking a vanguard approach by bringing in experimental work, exploring controversial or highly politicized materials, and also utilizing original works. Such choices bring risk-taking front and center for teachers and students. “The entire play was so unusual as what I thought high school drama should be,” comments Lucas about the play ‘Illyria’ which is centered on a war-torn country and touches upon heavy issues such as power, truth, abuse and violence. For the cast of Illyria, it was a matter of bravely entering the world of war and having to research and emotionally connect with victims of war. Cooper Vardy states, “It allowed us to empathize with a struggle as living, breathing warm bodies, rather than watching pixels on the screen.” This level of empathy can only be acquired through an imaginative engagement and identification with human suffering. Reality, in fact, needs a great deal of imagination to understand what is really going on.
Relationships within a classroom setting are another indicator of whether or not students feel brave enough to take risks. Anyone who went to see the show would have noticed that each and every character was consistently committed (or ‘online’, as Mr. Scully would describe it) and an integral part of every scene. For first time actor, Lucas, this was a challenge he did not see coming, but he was soon immersed in the ensemble. Lucas agrees that at a certain point, he felt the confidence to push through his fears for himself and for the team. “Whether Lucas was aware or not, Lucas came to realize that the idea of working in an ensemble is more than collective responsibility. It’s actually recognition that vulnerability is a prerequisite for growth” says Mr. Scully. Vulnerability, stripping away inhibitions in the midst of teachers and classmates, in front of parents and strangers is a measured risk that will only happen within an a level of trust. When a student feels secure with his teachers and his classmates, his support system, then the act of bravery is more likely to occur.
Emphasizing, not just the result, but paying careful attention to the process is at the heart of a WISS education. Students young like Lobar, to the DP level like Lucas, will take risks when they know they have a support system that will celebrate their acts of bravery and not judge their failure. Bravery, as the fuel for risk-taking, is a core part of the ethos at WISS- striving to send out people who will engage with their communities and want to make a difference the world around them. “We cannot underestimate young people and what they can achieve,” says Mr. Scully.