It started with a simple question: How to connect middle school students growing up in an expatriate "bubble" in Shanghai, China, with a completely different side of their host country. Shanghai American School (SAS) students live in China, but for most SAS students their experiences have generally been limited to large urban areas, with travel experiences usually limited to short-terms exposures to "Chinese Culture" as presented by the tourism industry.
Having traveled extensively during his first decade of living in China, Microcampus founder and SAS teacher Craig Tafel had been profoundly affected by the "real China" that he discovered during his travels--ones that took him beyond the usual sites, sounds, and souvenir stands that define modern travel in China. It was during these adventures that a fascinating picture of modern China emerged. Well beyond the shadows of skyscrapers, snarled traffic, polluted air, and urban sprawl could be found some of the world's most remarkable, wise, strong, patient, generous people--people with wisdom to share, stories to tell, and lives worthy of tremendous respect.
The challenge, of course, was to find a way to bring students to this place--not for a day or a week, but for enough time to allow students to become truly immersed in the daily life of a small village. After a particularly inspiring visit to the Linden Centre, located in Xizhou (near Dali) in Yunnan Province, a seed was planted. With that, Craig began having conversations with hundreds of friends, colleagues, students, parents, school administrators and, most importantly, people in the village of Xizhou, about the possibility of bringing students to spend a significant part of the school year living and learning in a place that is far away from their usual routines in nearly every possible way.
Several important pieces began to fall into place: SAS students' increased technical proficiency through the use of their laptop computers allowed for new opportunities to use distance-learning and web-based project work spaces. SAS adopted a new mission statement that helped guide and support the planning process. Finally, school-wide fundraising efforts began to provide for ways to support 21st Century, real-world learning.
After more than two years, thousands of bits of advice from community members, and countless logistical challenges, the first Microcampus group made the 2000-plus kilometer journey from Shanghai to Xizhou, Yunnan Province, during the spring of 2012. This brave group of 11 Grade 8 students spent a month away from Shanghai during the school year, not knowing what to expect from such an experience. Through the ups and downs, sore ankles, occasional stomachaches, adapting to local plumbing, and perhaps a bit of nagging from their chaperones, the first group paved the way to an expanded, more polished program moving forward. Above all else, their positive approach made it all worth doing again . . . and again.
Now in its fourth year, more than 150 Shanghai American School students have made the trip to Xizhou, with four trips scheduled each school year (two trips for students from both the Pudong and Puxi campuses).
Exciting things are happening with the SAS Microcampus program, with the discoveries that students make about China--and themselves--serving as the fuel that drives the process forward. As students spend their days immersed in experiences that are designed to maximize exposure to the "big four" goals of the Microcampus (experiential learning, personal growth, expanding intercultural understanding, and having a positive impact), they make important connections to the world outside "the bubble."
It all started with a simple question, really. How wonderful to follow the students as they continue to ask their own questions, plan their own learning, and make the most of this experience outside of their comfort zone.