With a history that began in 1912, Shanghai American School (SAS) is one of the most famous international schools in Asia, with an emphasis on the cultivation of creativity, critical thinking and a life-long passion of learning for students.
At SAS，the word “school” is not limited to books and classes, but real-life environments are also “schools.” Students are encouraged to step out of their comfort zone, engage with a foreign community, interact with locals, and complete difficult tasks.
Old Picture of SAS
As a part of that, every year since 2012 SAS has taken 16 students from 8th grade to Xizhou, Dali and let them live for a short period of time in rural China, a program that is referred to as “Microcampus.”
“Microcampus” includes two main academic projects. The first is an “Inquiry Project” in which students learn about the local culture, such as tie-dye, wood-carving, food and religion according to their own interests.
The second is a “Service Learning Project,” in which students choose a local elder to interview and then document their story through film. Students later share their finished product with their local partners and the community, and also give the elders a copy of the film.
In the end all of the projects are compiled into a series: Voice of the Village, which now holds almost 100 short films.
The difference between “Microcampus” and traditional education models is that everything that goes into these projects is focused solely on the development of the students.
Students are put in a completely foreign but safe environment, in which they are tasked with learning how to plan their 28 days of living and studying in Xizhou.
During the past 8 years, around 300 students have come to Xizhou through Microcampus. Additionally, 10% of students who’ve participated in the program have come back to visit the locals who helped them.
As the local partner of SAS, we interviewed the founder of “Microcampus” Craig (also known as “Mr.T”), to learn about the whole process of the program, project design and it’s very meaning for students.
Director of Menwai program of SAS
A: It’s very common for teachers to ask each other the standard question: Where are you going on your next holiday?
Most of my colleagues would go to Thailand, Korea, Japan, etc. They would go anywhere but China. But I did it a bit differently. I would go to the airport, look up at the flight sign, find an interesting sounding place and simply go there. And trust me there were many places with strange names.
One day, my colleague said to me something that changed my life. He told me there was a place in Yunnan that I had to visit. And that was the first time I heard about the Linden Centre. So in the winter I bought a plane ticket, came here and met a crazy man called Brian Linden.
You see we have this sickness as teachers, which is we start our vacation and about two days into it we start to think about our students. As this happened to me in Xizhou I thought: this is a place where our students need to come, and they need to be here not just for a day or for a couple of days, but long enough that they can become part of this community.
That was the birth of Microcampus.
The second morning, as I sat across from Brian at the breakfast table I said, “Brian, I have this crazy idea.” And then proceeded to explain my vison behind Microcampus.
To which Brian responded, I like your crazy idea. Let’s do this.
Brian has the things that we don’t have, which is a close connection with the community and a physical location. And we as a school have what he doesn’t: students who need to learn.
A: One day, I took the idea of Microcampus to my principal, Brad Latzke, who was kind of at the tail end of his career as an administrator. He was really great to kind of latch onto me and act as the push to work my idea through our channels on the logistical side. He was a real advocate for this, he came out to Xizhou a couple of times and really worked it through.
In one of our early videos promoting Microcampus he ended the whole video by saying
“this is not the future of education,
this is education.”
There were also a couple of factors that contributed to its establishment. One was distant learning technology and skills.
Another was the school’s new mission. SAS inspires in all students a lifelong passion for learning, a commitment to act with integrity and compassion，and the courage to follow their dreams. That mission came about around the same time microcampus was coming into being.
The last factor was funding. Initial funding came from advancement funds and family contributions, the school’s fundraising efforts and private donors as well. We had a three year pilot period, so we were funded for 3 years initially, and halfway through the 3rd year the school had to make a decision is this something we’re going to continue or should we pack up our boxes and stop. It was a crucial time where the school had to make the decision to say “yep.” I think they made the right call.
A: Initially it was sort of “well what will they do out there for 28 days?”
At the time that concept was totally unexplored at our school, and usually the trips that we did were just 5-day trips.
At this point, we have families that already know this is part of an 8th grade offering at our school. We have a few cases where families have heard about it but they sort of need a little convincing, to be reassured it’s going to be safe and academically rigorous. We have also set up a dedicated website to introduce the basics of the project, show the journals and achievements of previous students, and answer common questions.
I think that hasn’t changed much over the years, you have students who look at it and say “yes!” and students who say “no way!” and parents who have the same reactions. I try to be clear with students about who should apply and their readiness for something like this.
Students and parents need to see this as a natural fit, parents who do have a certain idea of what education is and where learning can take place.
A: We have four very specific pillars in “Microcampus”: Expanding Intercultural Understanding, Working Through Challenges, Personal Growth and Awareness of Impact.
Microcampus includes two main academic activities, one is our inquiry project, and the other is our service learning project. Last but not least are the rules students must comply with, which I call “Box.”
The model we use was created based on a combination of the place, Xizhou, and the thousands of questions people asked when I spoke of building a program of sixteen 8th graders out here for 28 days. All of the questions from colleagues, parents, community members, admins, etc. fed into, almost like a Wikipedia article, a cohesive result of related answers and insights.
A:The first one is “Expanding Intercultural Understanding” – we want students to be in places where they know “this is not my bubble, not my familiar place.” We want them to experience that, so when we talk about culture, we’re not talking about having them go see a bunch of ethnic minority shows for tourists. It’s not about that sort of big picture culture, but really looking at small picture, what is small village culture, what’s market culture, what’s restaurant culture, what’s woodcarver culture? Different little bubbles that aren’t their own, where they have to sort of go into those and say, “How does this new place work?” So that’s one piece, the “Expanding Intercultural Understanding.”
The second piece is “Working Through Challenges”. That means we present students with simply stated challenges and then step back and give them time to work through it, struggle and get frustrated a little bit, and ultimately find a way to make it work.
The third one is “Personal Growth” which comes from getting outside your comfort zone; in fact you could argue personal growth only really happens when you get outside of your usual routines. So when they’re having a tough time and when they’re struggling a little bit and running up against the limits of their competence, you know it’s really important that we continue to reframe that for the students and say: “Yeah, it is frustrating, and yeah this is not easy, and yeah this is difficult, this is what struggle feels like.” And that’s why we’re here in some ways.
The last one is “Awareness of Impact” on the places we go and the people who live there. We really look at awareness of impact from the perspective of power, how is each person’s choices and actions affecting others in the group? How are they affecting the people in this community and in the greater Xizhou community, and how do they affect the physical environment?
I think that awareness of impact piece is pretty nuanced, it’s pretty different from what you often see with groups. Because a lot of times it’s about – in fact even our former language of that as a school was “having a positive impact” or “making a difference” or all these kind of “we’re going to march into town and we’re going to help these people who are just sitting at the gates of the village waiting for us to come and save them”, types of mentalities. I think as a school we’ve really moved beyond that concept. Instead saying let’s just be aware of our impact, and realize that everything we do does have an impact, and just because our intentions are good and we see ourselves as good people doesn’t necessarily mean that those actions will be good or that the impact of those actions will be good.
So, things like, how many of us can walk down the sidewalk at the same time before we have too many of us? Things like umbrellas, we don’t bring umbrellas because middle school kids tend to poke people in the eye with umbrellas. So bring your rain gear and put on a couple extra layers and get out there and do your thing. These are the types of things we want students to be thinking about.
The volume of voice, all that, it takes some time to adjust, when you’re in the city of 22 million people, as they are, you have to shout to be heard, you have to do big things to be noticed. If you want to make an impact then you’ve got to do certain things that don’t necessarily fit in a smaller community.
It’s hard to teach people that. It’s not until you’re really in that smaller community that you start hearing and seeing.
People notice that – they say the students are very environmentally friendly. They don’t use plastic bags and they bring their own cups. Students make choices because they care about the community, do things that may not be as convenient or easy because it supports our overall goal.
Not that that’s going to change the world, but the fact that people recognize that sends the message of our relationship with the village. Responding to questions like “do you want a straw or bag with it?” and answering “No, thank you”-these types of things show that students are thinking about the impact of their individual choices on the larger community. We want students to make that choice and be aware of it.
In the end, it comes back to the pillar: “Awareness of impact.”
If we’re going to ask of young men and women today – who are going to become older men and women and leaders of the world tomorrow- if we’re going to ask them to deal with extremely complicated, challenging issues like cleaning up the environment, handling pollution, ending wars, etc., all of these really incredibly complicated issues, and if at the very core, the foundational, most fundamental level, students don’t understand that even the act of not being loud on a staircase has an impact, then how will they ever be able to tackle those larger, more challenging world issues that we’re looking to them to solve 20 years down the road?
Well it’s going to take an awareness of other people, it’s going to take being thoughtful and deliberate in my actions, changing my habits a little bit, it’s going to be an issue of convenience. It’s not as convenient to walk down the stairs quietly, but convenience for me comes at the cost of a disturbance for others. If they don’t understand that change, which is possible but difficult, if they don’t understand that, then there’s no way they’re going to be able to take on more complicated things, especially things that involve changing other people’s behavior. If you understand the difficulty of managing this, and what goes into that, then you have a foundation for starting to look at more complicated issues, because you realize it involves humans and choices and convenience, as well as patterns and habits.
A: Yes. Having the students comply with the rules unconditionally is the base of the project.
Every instruction we give is an attempt to solve a problem before it becomes one, those rules are the box. Non-negotiables came from attempting to realize beyond what kids can manage and create on their own, and to hold them accountable in order for them to have sort of a grounding, otherwise it’s just chaos. All these non-negotiables came from lessons watching students struggle with basic things, they’re not necessarily meant to teach, but more so serve the purpose of a “readiness tool”
This is kind of the way adult life is, we can go out and do wonderful things but still have local norms and Chinese law and rules of basic human interaction to follow.
And that’s what we try to bring to the kids during Micro-campus; the awareness of what the non-negotiables are, and once everyone has them down it opens up opportunities for them, which ultimately are freedom and flexibility and choice. We’ve seen it with groups that were not ready for it. They wanted to fight the box, they wanted to change the box, then they spent 28 days punching and screaming and kicking against the box, and the box was like nope. “Why won’t you let us outside the box?” “Because you don’t respect the box.”
The world outside of the classroom, the world outside of their experience, as education becomes more tailored and student centered and everything else, sometimes the box ends up changing for every single child. Which I on the one hand I think is wonderful, very responsive to student needs and everything else, but on the other hand it can create a false sense of how the world outside of that environment works. They’re going to have bosses, they will have taxes to pay, and tax codes to follow, and airport schedules and train schedules and credit card rules, and there are going to be boxes in lives outside of the environment in which they grow, and I don’t know that our students fully comprehend that yet. I don’t think they understand that.
And that’s what hits our kids – when we see our students coming back after they graduate from SAS, academically they’re fine, they’re prepared, they’re ready to take on the demands of the university. But I think they really do struggle with the visible boxes that constrain them and abruptly become a part of their lives. And I think it’s important for them to have experiences where they really have some non-negotiables that truly are non-negotiables. An experience in which they really have to live with the consequences of their choices.
A: We don’t post a list of rules, we do it through a series of questions, how would you handle it if this happens?
The rules themselves, the expectations and norms for our students are all tied to bigger goals of why we’re here. I encourage the students, if they don’t understand why a rule is in place to please ask, don’t just follow blindly or without thinking. Ask yourself why are we doing it this way? If you can’t come up with an explanation that ties to our bigger goals, then I would be happy to explain why.
It forces students to know why we do things, and even more importantly understand why we do things. That’s a big difference between the idea of rules in China versus what we do at international schools. Too often we try to talk about what you’re not supposed to do, but seldom talk about what you are supposed to do. These are the things you do inside your room, how you stay healthy, what you’re expected to do with your phone. We want our students to move towards the target not away from the target.
A: For students who are part of an international school where service and ethical global citizenship are part of who we are and what we say about ourselves, the model that I’ve been influenced by most is this concept of what’s called “Service Learning,” which like a lot of terms has been co-opted and means many different things.
There’s a distinction between acts of service, or acts of charity, and service learning. Service learning, carries with it, of course the word learning as a part of that.
The idea that a very typical service activity back in the States would be a canned food drive, but that’s not service learning. Service learning is harder, it takes more time, more thinking, more planning.
So with Microcampus we do an oral history project. It involves students capturing the stories of the elders of the community. Students talk to the elders of Xizhou by providing them with a “service” such as watching the store or pouring tea, and at the same time they’re providing a service they get the opportunity to listen and record their stories.
It’s called “Voices of the Village.” The hope, anyways, is that it sends a message to the community that says your stories are important, not because we say it’s important, and not that it needs our stamp of validation or anything like that. But I think a lot of folks in China today have lived through extraordinary times, and have incredible stories, and they’ve told their kids and their grandkids, but their grandkids get bored by the stories and these elders don’t always send the signal of just how remarkable their journeys are.
Like Hemingway said, “any man’s life truly told is a novel.” And that’s a big piece that I think students take away from here is that everyone has a story.
At this point we have about 100 of these stories that have been captured in short videos. You know they’re simple projects, and the kids are 8th graders and so their documentarian skills and their questioning skills are not as refined as professionals but I think there are moments where the students and the film and the medium kind of fades away and you suddenly have these incredible people sharing their stories. It’s truly quite special.
The students are very happy with their videos, and the response from folks with whom we share the videos with tends to be very, very positive as well.
A: Yes. I mean one of the goals one of the pillars of experience is “awareness of impact” on the places we go and the people who live there.
I think that it’s the hardest thing for schools to do, it’s the hardest thing for individuals to do, or groups, because our focus tends to be inward on ourselves, or if it does extend beyond ourselves, it’s sort of inward within the group. So, there’s always a risk of that.
And certainly, that’s part of ongoing conversations with students; students are involved in these little committees, and one of them that we have is the “Awareness of Impact Committee,” where students are specifically looking at how they are affecting internal group pieces and how they are affecting the community. What are we doing to really be positive ambassadors and representatives of our school?
I think one of the things I really appreciate about Xizhou is that, this isn’t a Watertown with “buy your ticket and go through all these people who are being nice to you and patient with you.” But instead the students go into a place and say: “May I ask some questions?” and sometimes people say “no,” or sometimes people say: “Yeah I’ll take a question or two,” and then they hear the questions and say: “These questions are boring – ask me a good question, this is not relevant.” And in that sense, it’s clear to me that the folks in the community have a certain level of agency and control in that situation, simply to be able to say “No, I’m not interested in talking to you.” We try to get students to explain who they are and what their intention is.
But coming back to the concept of doing service, ultimately the first step of any service and of any interaction is that piece about observation and investigation. And so for students to be able to walk in, establish trust, feel as comfortable as they can in their 13 year old shoes to sort of say “I’m here as a scholar, I’m interested in this, I hear you have some expertise that might be helpful, do you mind if I ask you some questions?” That skill alone is a game changer for our kids who go back to Shanghai and can walk into any environment with that under their belt.
Now, does that come at the expense of a community of folks that are doing jobs and working in shops and living lives?
Certainly that requires a community that’s open to it, or one that has an understanding of what the students are there to do. It’s not a perfect process from our end by any stretch, but it becomes better as each student gains confidence and experience. They do tend to become better at saying “Hey, is this going ok? Do you have time? Can I ask a couple more questions?” For those kinds of non-verbal things, such as picking up cues that this isn’t the right time to ask these questions or this isn’t the right person to ask these questions, is an important skill that they start to gain with more confidence and experience.
So that’s a big piece and we take very specific steps with our group in terms of preparing the students to know what exactly it means to be aware of our impact?
The environment, the context, the time frame, everything around them sort of dictates how their behavior is going to be. When they think that their usual behavior’s quite good, and they get out here and they think for example that they’re at the mall and they can behave in the same way they would at a mall. And in the absence of clear guidance from the adults to say: “No, that’s not okay at all, this is what’s okay” it can be hard for students to fully grasp. It’s tough.
So, my work can be very challenging because that’s not who I am as a human being. I have no interest in being a mean guy and saying harsh things. That’s not fun. But what I found over the years is that you need those “these are the boundaries, these are the non-negotiables, these are the lines you simply do not cross,” and then to hold folks accountable, even though it’s a lot of work, it’s important work. Not for the sake of compliance or having students be obedient or any of that nonsense but just for the basic idea of this is the baseline level of awareness and kindness and deliberateness of thought and of action that’s required in order to interact respectfully with the community. And if you’re not at that point yet, if you’re not able to walk up and down the stairs respectfully, or if you’re not able to moderate the volume of your voice while teachers and adults are around, then there’s no way you’re going to be able to do it when we send you off on your own.
A: They burn up during re-entry! They come back to Shanghai late Friday night and go to school that next Monday. We spend a little bit of time prepping them back here for general ideas, but, only on sort of general best practices for reverse culture shock, those kinds of things. We do a couple of things informally as a learning community to welcome them back.
But because of the timing of our trips, the kids are coming back and their classmates are just coming back from school holiday, so community-wide everybody’s doing re-entry. I think students are generally very surprised by how loud their school is, and how loud people are because they just spent a month not shouting at each other.
A: They do, and that’s pretty unusual for school trips. I’ve been a teacher at Shanghai American School for 18 years, and I’ve run school trips to different places, usually the types of trips that follow that one-week model that most international schools have. For those trips, students just go and come back home, they don’t normally go back to visit.
Almost all of them want to, and many do, probably 10% actually do come back to Xizhou, but they’re not in charge of their own vacation lives. The fact that 30 have come back…maybe 15% have come back, is very telling. Every holiday, there are one or two or five SAS families whose alumni of our program end up being guides and making all the plans for their families. “These are the places I’m taking you, these are the places that are important to me, these are the people who were an important part of helping me feel at home in this place and people who I want to come back and see again.” That’s not built into the structure of your typical school field trip.
So our interview with Mr. T, teacher and creator of Microcampus ends. Next year, he will pass the torch to new teachers continuing to connect students to rural life and the people in Xizhou.
We all are beneficiaries of Mr. T and Shanghai American School’s mission to have “the courage to follow their dream.”