The Conversation: Cross-Country Partnership Gives Students Real-World Experiences

Summer 2018

By Rebecca Scherr

How do we empower our students to be engaged citizens? How do we teach them to respect and learn from others’ perspectives? How do we set them up for success in the real world? For the past 10 years, PLACE (People Leading Across City Environments) programs at Catlin Gabel School (OR) has been bringing Portland-area students together to explore community issues and practice change in the world. George Zaninovich, PLACE programs director, heads the city-based hub where projects come to fruition. On the East Coast, Emily Schorr Lesnick, upper school director of service learning and assistant director of community engagement at Riverdale Country School (NY) and incoming social-emotional learning coordinator at University Prep (WA), understands and promotes the need for real-world learning. Lesnick and Zaninovich met at the Independent School Experiential Education Network Conference in 2016. They’d both chosen to do reflective work around service learning and were in the same group. When another group member made a seemingly dismissive comment about some students’ willingness or interest in experiential opportunities, that’s when Lesnick and Zaninovich’s connection first took hold. They quickly became allies in an intense discussion around the issue of equity and its role in their work. In this edited exchange, they discuss how this pivotal moment was the foundation for their relationship and how they’ve teamed up to offer more students new experiences in their partnership called myPLACE.
Lesnick: When I visited the PLACE Program, it was powerful to see the physical space and the students engaging—and the real rigor with which they were thinking about their lives and their landscapes. It made me think about being able to bring our students from the Bronx to another urban context. Our partnership, myPLACE, is an opportunity for students to come together and practice finding their people. It encourages dialogue across differences and conflict when you don’t have the same background or understanding. 
That is what excited Riverdale about working with Catlin, with PLACE, and with you, George. I think that Portland has this reputation that makes it especially intriguing for New Yorkers to come across the country, coming with preconceived notions and assumptions, breaking them down, and building something together.
Zaninovich: Because of the show Portlandia and all the press that Portland gets, there is sort of a monochromatic version of what Portland is, and I think that narrative is not inclusive. To have students intentionally try to confront that narrative and break it down, seeing who has a voice, thinking about how the story is being told, is really important for students to do. One of the reasons we have the PLACE Program is so students can look at the other side of an issue that is not necessarily being represented in the systems that are in front of them.
Lesnick: The dream of the program is that students will be able to develop their own—or co-develop—methodologies to understand and navigate cities as students, as citizens, as activists, academics, however they want to interact with an area. As you know, I like to always know: Where is the ice cream? Where is the sweetness? That’s how I start looking at a city, but I also ask questions; for me, it’s where are the black-owned businesses? That’s the way I like to navigate and understand history when I enter a new city. So, it’s important to give students the opportunity to think about that and be really intentional about where they go.
Zaninovich: There’s two organizing themes to what we did. One is this idea of you can’t change systems until you understand systems. If we don’t put students in a position where they can see systems for what they are and how they work, then they’re never going to be able to change them, if they so choose—whether it’s as an activist, a policymaker, or a philanthropic business model. It sounds obvious, but once you realize that things are done intentionally and people are making decisions, then our students can choose to make a different decision. It’s really empowering to know that things don’t just happen out of the blue. People are behind it.
Lesnick: What you just said really comes alive to me because I think we forget systems are made up of people. Once we start to learn about systems, sometimes they feel really distant. But it’s people within those systems who are designing it, disrupting it, and reimagining it. 
Zaninovich: Or people outside the systems who try to disrupt. But even then, you have to understand how things are working. Otherwise, your message might not land.
After talking to you, it was clear that you believe in all students, not just some students. And you weren’t interested in the “us versus them” that can sometimes be perpetuated in the independent school world. One of the reasons we wanted to do this partnership is that it brings more people and schools together around that commitment to all students. If we’re going to foster leadership, we need to have people from different backgrounds in the same room trying to figure out their way toward some common purpose and goal. Having your students in the same room—with Catlin Gabel students and other high schoolers in the Portland area—was such a rich opportunity to really investigate if it could be successful from a teaching and learning standpoint as well as from student happiness, the sweetness standpoint.
Lesnick: Yes; there were seven different schools represented in this program of 18–20 people. That was pretty amazing. What makes our collaboration unique—East Coast meets West Coast—city people and people who have more suburban homes. I really wanted to make sure that students were not staying in a hotel. Riverdale was funding the entire program; that was really important to me to make it accessible. But it’s also about how the students were going to experience their time in Portland. We really benefitted from the generosity of families in Portland who opened up their homes. That made all the difference to sit at somebody’s breakfast counter and talk to them—asking the homestay adult, where are you going today? What do you do all day? How do you understand the city?
Zaninovich: I’m glad you really pushed that aspect of the program. The learning that we did between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. every day was one type of learning. Then, students would go downtown, thinking about city systems, thinking about public transportation, thinking about how neighborhoods are different and why they’re different from a historical perspective. They’re out in the city experiencing it without us intervening.

Lesnick: OK, so PLACE has been around for 10 years. How has PLACE grown from our partnership? What are the measurable results that you’ve seen or heard from students or from schools?
Zaninovich: We added a second summer program. In addition to having this big robust four-week, project-based program, we also had a one-week program that might be more accessible to some students who work during the summer. It created another entry point into this type of learning and experiencing. I think we agree that we want as many of these opportunities for as many students around the cities that we live in.
We’ve done exit surveys asking questions around leadership and engagement with the idea of having a better sense of outcomes. I have some data points that I want to share:
  • 93% of students agreed or strongly agreed that the knowledge and hands-on experience made them feel empowered.
  • 93% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they are more confident in engaging in conversations that may feel difficult and/or challenging to their views.
  • 100% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they would encourage their peers to take this course.
Emily, that’s the first time you’re hearing that stuff—what do you think?
Lesnick: I feel like we’re on a reality show, and you just did a big reveal. I wanted to believe that it was a meaningful experience because it was for us, for professional development. In the end, the work is about the students. To hear that they really got something out of it feels really, really good.
Zaninovich: We talked a lot about the components of the program, the systems, the intentionality, the feeder, all of this; what’s the secret sauce do you think? Do you think there is a secret sauce?
Lesnick: Young people are amazing and given the space and the opportunity, they will rock anything. I think that’s the secret sauce—our belief in each other and our belief in them.
Zaninovich: I would also add the belief in creating relevant differentiated experiential learning. I think students see us coming together and working through our differences to make something happen. We’re kind of modeling it in real-time, and there’s a level of authenticity. We were learning right along with them. We supported one another. We were vulnerable while still being professional.
So, what do you think some of the challenges are, or is there room for improvement?
Lesnick: How we can set up space and convene for follow-up? For us, you were preparing for the next PLACE iteration, and I was thinking about how to get the students to keep in touch through seminars, readings, or an online forum where they can communicate.
Zaninovich: I think we could do more of a preview to help get students connected ahead of time. And you talked about professional development earlier. I think one of the biggest challenges for a meaningful professional development is what do you do when you leave that conference or school. Everybody creates forums and nobody uses them. That might be a really interesting project for the students to think about.
Lesnick: Any hopes, long-term goals for myPLACE moving forward?
Zaninovich: This summer, I’m thinking about doing more outreach, so more students can have the opportunity, you know thinking about barriers to access whether that’s time, money, exposure, and then how do we, again from the equity lens, make sure that as many students as possible have this opportunity—or at least have the option. ▪

Have you had a great conversation with a colleague recently that broke down silos or got you thinking about your work in a new way? Have you chatted with someone on (or off) campus that led to an unexpected collaboration? Tell us about it. Send a brief description to [email protected] and we’ll follow up.
Rebecca Scherr

Rebecca Scherr is senior editor/writer at NAIS.