A Broader Sense of "We" - Strategic Vision Planning Part 2 of 3

September 12, 2018

About this time two years ago, a task force of 21 dedicated CAIS teachers, administrators, parents and trustees came together at our 888 Campus on a Saturday morning. The purpose of this gathering was to begin work on creating a philosophy statement that would guide our school’s work on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The group met monthly for a year, reporting out periodically to the community as well as inviting input and feedback on our work. A decision the task force made early in the process was that in order for the work of DEI to be meaningful and relevant, it had to be rooted in the school’s mission. As former lower school assistant director Anna Donnelly put it quite eloquently, “in order for our mission to be true, our DEI statement has to be true.” So we braided together our mission—Embrace Chinese, become your best self, create your place in the world 心怀中华,精益求精,立足世界—and our DEI philosophy, which was completed and introduced to the CAIS community in June of 2017.

There is a paragraph in the DEI philosophy statement that draws out the explicit connection between immersion and diversity, equity, and inclusion:

Immersion in a new language and culture requires humility, curiosity, empathy, connection, and a true appreciation of difference…. The attitudes and aptitudes that are cultivated through Chinese immersion extend far beyond language and prepare students to engage respectfully with a diverse world.

I have a solid faith in the power of language and cultural immersion to cultivate deeply rooted attitudes and behaviors about how to be in the world (and not just in San Francisco or the US), viewing and treating others as us. Sometimes I like to visualize the trajectory of children immersed in a world language and culture other than their own. I envision a series of concentric circles extending outward from the self to the family to one’s wider surroundings and ultimately encompassing the entire world and all its many peoples—a broader and broader sense of how we understand and define “us”.

The Great Learning

This conception of education is neither new nor is it exclusively western. Over two millennia ago, the classic Confucian text The Great Learning (《大学》 Dà xué) described the progression of an educated person in a series of outward extending concentric circles, often rendered as self-cultivation, harmony in the family, a well-governed kingdom and, ultimately, world peace (修身、齐家、治国、平天下 xiū shēn, qí jiā, zhì guó, píng tiān xià).   

This is not necessarily a mainstream vision of immersion, nor is it the first thing people unfamiliar with CAIS think if when they picture a “Chinese school.” Educators and parents often cite a competitive advantage that their children will have in the global economy, connections with family heritage, brain development, and flexible thinking as benefits of immersion. All of these are true. And the power of immersion to cultivate 21st century, world-ready people with “humility, curiosity, empathy, connection, and a true appreciation of difference” with the “attitudes and aptitudes … to engage respectfully with a diverse world” is also true.

While I have not done a particularly good job of articulating this latter vision of immersion at CAIS, I believe that many of you get this intuitively. One of the great strengths of our parent community is its global character.  Given the breadth of backgrounds represented, there are a lot of languages that were and are spoken in the homes of our CAIS families. Many CAIS parents either grew up negotiating increasing complex cultural norms and expectations or had a front row seat as their parents went through this process.  I imagine that for many of you, this has cultivated a deep sense of “humility, curiosity, empathy, connection, and a true appreciation of difference.” I lived with my family for 15 years in China and Taiwan, and I am deeply grateful for the attitudes that our experience cultivated in my children. My kids have a broader sense of “we” than they would have, had they not been immersed in a language and culture different from their parents’.        

Last week, in a letter to you entitled “Welcoming Back with a Look Back,” I recounted some of the progress our school has made since 2013-14, guided by the vision our trustees established five years ago. Building upon these successes and with an eye to accomplish even more, 2018-19 will be a visioning and planning year. As we envision what we want to look like in five years time, we will necessarily take a hard look and think deeply about many issues: maintaining solid academics (the “3 Rs” in two languages), learning skills that will prepare kids for life in the 21st century (learning and innovation skills; information, media, and technology skills; and life and career skills), developing and retaining outstanding teachers in one of the world’s most expensive cities, addressing the challenge of access and affordability, and improving our physical learning environments, to name a few.

It is also best practice to review school mission every five years. As students with access to private school education, our kids are fortunate in the extreme, so much more fortunate than the vast majority of children in the rest of the country and the world. Are we satisfied with committing ourselves to preparing them to create their own places in the world, or is it time that we committed to fostering in them a sense of duty to make a positive impact on the world?

I am not sure exactly what the outcome of our visioning year will look like; we are committed to a thorough and inclusive process, and our environment is rich with data and ideas. One thing of which I am sure, however, is that whatever we commit ourselves to achieving, it will be within the context of our opportunity through immersion to cultivate our children’s capacity to engage respectfully—and successfully—in a diverse world. Our work will be fostering of a broader sense of “we.”

In part III of this series on school vision, I will share some ideas about the process by which our community will be invited to participate in the articulation of CAIS’s next strategic vision.