When a School is Ready: Consulting at the International School Yangon

January 24, 2020

Four days at International School Yangon, ISY, illuminated what a “ready for service learning” school looks like, and what moving 2019 Myanmar school campusforward entails.

Back story. Last spring, I was asked to lead service learning workshops in Bangkok at a NESA (Near East School Association) conference and was glad to participate. Among the attendees was a cohort from the International School Yangon, members of the school’s Service Learning Committee, come together to consider how they were already approaching service learning integration in their school and next steps. During the conference, they asked if I could meet with their team, and following this rich conversation, I received an invite to travel to Myanmar. I wrote this while traveling back to Los Angeles after four spectacular days in August 2019.

In Fall 2014, I was asked to write an article for CSEE Connections, a publication of the Center of Ethical and Spiritual Education. Thus was born A Baker’s Dozen: Guideposts to a Meaningful Service Learning Programs. Sitting in an airport lounge returning home, I wondered about this article and the 13 guideposts I described. Could these apply to ISY?

1. The Will to Start. Absolute will. Head of school Dr. Gregory Hedger had long been a fan of service learning. With other leadership, including principals, teacher leaders and curriculum coordinator Mike Simpson, they began laying the groundwork and encouraged service in co-curricular and academic settings. They did not need a multi-year prep which I have found some schools keen to do. They recognized an educational imperative in their school and the exponential benefits. See #3 for more on this.

Classic "Action Figures" -- getting in gear for ideas and collaboration

Classic “Action Figures” — getting in gear for ideas and collaboration

2. Administrative Buy-In. As noted above – complete admin buy-in. This is further manifested this year with the creation a position, Service Learning Coordinator. Todd Davis, new to the school, arrives as a service learning champion, bringing experience from past positions and a fervor to support the process at ISY. He aims to draw upon the abilities of his colleagues, his partnership with curriculum coordinator Mike Simpson – also 100% on board, and their collaboration to make this a school-wide initiative in practice. We spent most of one day in conversation clarifying Todd’s role and eight target areas. They included: Clarifying Purpose (including ongoing personal development); Meeting with Grade Level Teams and supporting a point person within each team; Big Picture School Stuff, that includes “office hours” for teachers and for students; Networking with Partner Organizations including an online data base for tracking contacts; Building Internal Capacity including holding a workshop for extended local school staff so they can bring their expertise into the service learning process – and same with parents; Communication with every set of stakeholders; Website Development in partnership with peers and students; and Capturing the Stories because ISY will definitely have a story to tell. And for support? Todd and Mike already have the expanding Service Learning Committee in place.

3. A Keen Ear. As Greg described in conversation, the school brought in an outside consultant to review their mission and vision statement. This included in-depth collection of voices from all stakeholders from students, parents, teachers, and board. Greg expected modest tweaking of their M/V and was unexpectedly surprised and pleased with the results. There was a uniform desire for more community engagement. For service. For enabling youth to be contributors now and to support teachers in digging deep with service learning. With an already established co-curricular program, the school community wanted more: academic opportunities for youth to learn and to apply what they have learned in meaningful ways. A new M and V was born! [insert image] Gathering the voices is a sure way to have buy-in from the start. And they went further. When interviewing for new hires, the topic of service learning mattered: Do you know about it? Have you done it? Are you willing to teach in this way? And the understanding will be build right into new teacher orientation.

4. Know the Terms. A key part of the professional learning I provided to ISY (and that I provide to all schools) is about terms,

What is "Service Learning"? Constructing definitions and clarifying understanding.

What is “Service Learning”? Constructing definitions and clarifying understanding.

because language defines culture. We discuss:

5. Let  Go. As stated in the article, “By changing control and manage to engage and inspire, students have the wherewithal to discover their voice and their choice in the learning process.” Again, language defines culture. Service learning rests upon engaging teaching strategies. I model these throughout my workshops and then make them explicit as noted in this article “Engaging Teaching.” For example, under-direct – when we over-direct we take away resourcefulness, creativity, and thinking. When we spontaneously use the “one minute think tank” to have students stand and find a partner and solve a problem or come up with a question, we are letting students know they are at the center of the classroom and we need their ideas and input (plus they get to MOVE). You can’t expect students to solve problems and be independent thinkers and contributors with service learning if they aren’t encouraged to be independent contributing thinkers all along. The buzz about these engaging strategies was thick at ISY. For example, the school is now adopting Personal Inventory so the interests, skills, talents, and areas for growth are at the center. And my MISO Action Research Method so students use media, interview, and observation/experience to dive in and go deeper. And yes, this can lead to . .  .

6. Appreciate Creative Chaos. If we only venture where we know the answer what can we discover? In the curricular development sessions at ISY, teachers embraced one of the four frameworks I have developed: Across the Curriculum, Bubble Method, Planning for Dynamic Learning (a three-page planning interactive technique), and Unifying the Curriculum – letting service learning be the vehicle that drives your yearlong concept that brings knowledge, skills and dispositions altogether, with an overarching purpose, theme, and essential questions that matter. Teachers bravely entered the unknown and will be broader and more inclusive with their students as a result. They may even adopt the language of moving from “activities and lesson plans” to “learning experiences.” Might this result in a little more classroom chaos? I hope so! Learning becomes a lively, engaged, challenging, real, non (or less) judgmental, purposeful, significant, adventure and celebration!

6. Acknowledge How We Learn. This references psychologist Alison Gopnick’s article “How We Learn,” who describes

Experiencing a learning process  builds capacity to deliver the method: Action Research and the MISO method through the Four Corners Experience

Experiencing a learning process builds capacity to deliver the method: Action Research and the MISO method through the Four Corners Experience

learning as “‘two quite different things, the process of discovery and of mastering what one discovers.’ She continues to describe this as ‘guided discovery,’ adding that ‘children seem to learn best when they can explore the world and interact with expert adults.’” And service learning makes this a reality. I also introduced Robert Sternberg’s moving from intelligence to wisdom as noted in his article “What Makes an Expert Student?” This is another framework that some educators will integrate at ISY – that within any single “learning experience” we intentionally integrate analytical thinking, creative thinking, practical thinking, and (added by my colleague Raj Mundra) ethical thinking. This, according to Sternberg leads to intelligence whereas “Wisdom, the opposite of intelligence, is the use of successful thinking and experience, applied to a common good.” The best definition I have ever seen in an article that is not about service learning.

At ISY, the conversation about how learning occurs is considered and ongoing. Curricular Coordinator Mike Simpson and I had several enlightening conversations about a “Learning Cycle” he is creating with the five stages of service learning at the center (where it will be at this school), and the inquiry cycle merged. Service learning has been inquiry centered from the onset and supports an inquiry approach especially that it strengthens youth’s ability to query, interview, survey, analyze data, probe, and strengthen a curious mind. I love it. We also discussed a new construct I am working on – An Ecosystem for Learning. More on this soon.

7. Recognize that Kids Already Make a Difference. Every choice makes a difference. And at ISY they have compassion and caring as key attributes that enable youth to explore a service mindset in clubs, sports, academics, CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service as part of the Diploma IB Programme), and with individual intent. ISY teachers support every youth in their process. Now with their adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) along with the five stages of service learning as a centerpiece, their students will find ways to continually connect and move toward purposeful action.

8. Aim for Reciprocity. ISY has completely 100% adopted an asset approach to service learning. Before you can identify needs, we explore assets in every service learning relationship. Pause. Do your students know what the word “assets” mean? It goes beyond a list of personal attributes to the concrete aspects of a community and their culture. With an asset-based mindset you build sustainable mutually respectful partnerships that are the foundation of reciprocity, an essential element of service learning for me beginning way back in the mid-1980s.

9. Be Transparent Regarding the Five Stages of Service Learning. These ISY educators get it. They are moving toward owning the process. They will of course struggle at times, and surprise themselves by how well they guided students in service learning curricular integration. Every teacher attended sessions. Every teacher had experience planning curriculum with the five stages. And what Mike noticed was that the process was enjoyable, removed stress as they saw this modeling and interactive approach I led as doable, sensible and advancing their own overarching purpose while aiming for intentional outcomes. And leaving room for the unknown. I was completely impressed by the thoughtful ideas, and personally inspired by how willing these international teachers are to step into a new approach and trust the process. Appreciated.

10. A Pause for Purpose. This has become a big deal with ISY – the adoption of my approach to essential questions influenced by the teacher’s overarching purpose or TOP as I named it. If you are curious about my approach to essential questions drop me a note. Another article to come!

11. Raise Questions. At Every. Single. Step. Of the Process. All throughout the five stages. Service learning has always been inquiry driven.

12. Reexamine Reflection. Thanks to our scheduling, I led a one-hour session on reflection with the entire faculty that moved it from 100% teacher prompt directed or “turn in six reflections on Friday” (typically written on the way to school Friday morning), to engaging youth in pausing where it matters. We reframed the purpose, and clarified what reflection is not and what it is. A note to ISY teachers. One part I did not have time for was suggesting that, on occasion, to frame reflection as being “in search of significant moments.” Discuss, What makes a moment significant? That becomes the question. An extreme emotion? Goosebumps? An “aha” moment? When time slows down or goes so fast? And frame reflection in ways that is in their language. For example, consider the suggestion, “As we are doing _________, take a photo that says it all, no caption required.” When youth are on the lookout for significant moments, they are moving toward being reflective by choice. And we concluded with a Reflection Symphony. Memorable!

13. This is a BAKER’S DOZEN so there is a thirteenth idea: Make Room for a New Wall. As noted in the original article, “It has been said that service learning is the fourth wall of the classroom that opens up to the world. What a vibrant image and one educators can achieve. To meet the needs of 21st century learning, requires 21st century strategies. Service learning brings learning to life with meaning and purpose.”

Thank you to the entire ISY community for the welcoming vibes, the high level of participation (100%, 100% of the time), and joyful spirit. I wish each of you a fabulous year filled with youth at the center and all things possible!  

Grateful for these opportunities to connect and grow.


Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A., is an educator/author who loves to dance, travel, take walks, read, write, and collaborate with others all over the world — and loves time with my family

Catch my latest podcast HERE.

July 13-16, 2020 – Join us in UPstate NY for the Advisory and Service Learning Summer Institute, at Carey Conference Center outside Albany. Sponsored by the New York State Association of Independent Schools and open to ALL educators; I love leading this in-depth experience where we all catapult to great heights, together! Joined this year by Chris Neal, CBK Associates consultant, and his work on Equity and Diversity. 

More dates soon! Check the CALENDAR on this website or contact cathy as

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