What a Year Part II

One of the highlights of this past year was a parental moment we dream of…our youngest son’s graduation from college!  The youngest of five, James graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with two degrees, art history and sculpture.  He is now in Berlin, Germany kicking off his career as a curator.   We are very proud of him, as we are of all our children.

This past spring, I had the opportunity to return to China, spending 12 days visiting a number of higher education institutions and meeting with government officials exploring potential partnerships.  I continue to be in awe of the country and learned much about the resilience of people and education when we visited Aba Teacher’s College. Destroyed by the 2008 earthquake, the university was moved to a new site and completely rebuilt. It is amazing what they have accomplished in such a short time.

With my presidency of UPCEA over and moving to the role of past president, I anticipated that my schedule would slow down.  That was only partially true. As I reflected in August, sometimes we need to give away time to get time…and most recently, a turn at Dancing with the Stars of the ‘burg kept me hopping – literally. Giving Away Time to Get Time (https://shaeffersforays.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/leaving-you-dancing/) and, Leaving You Dancing (https://shaeffersforays.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/leaving-you-dancing/

Dancing was easily the most interesting experience I’ve ever had.  I quickly found myself learning something I knew absolutely nothing about…a situation I am sure many of you reading this can relate to in your lives! Like many learners, I was initially insecure and uncomfortable and the first six weeks were challenging. In my case I simply couldn’t get my feet to go where my head was telling them to go — not only did I feel silly, I looked silly.  Then over time and practice I gained more confidence.  I realized I could and should take directions from my excellent teacher and dance partner.  My Dancing with the Stars of the ‘burg was a positive experience for a great cause. It was also a good reminder that it’s always a good idea to learn a new “step or two” every once in a while, which is in itself a nice reminder of seeing things from a learner’s perspective. Many thanks to everyone who provided support.

I don’t know if I planned it this way but within 36 hours of the “big dance,” Peggy and I traveled to Spain and Italy with our colleague Felix Wang.

Our trip to Europe was a follow-up to previous meetings we have had with schools in Salamanca, Spain and Florence, Italy.  While Peggy has visited the schools in both countries, this was my first trip to meet with the teachers in Spain. With the support of JMU’s Office of International Programs (thanks, Lee!), Peggy has led an effort to have JMU students who are either on a semester in Florence or in JMU’s EU master’s degree assist teachers in teaching English.  Over the last four years this has turned out to be a great success.  Our students love the opportunity to work with the teachers and middle school students, the administrators and teachers of Scuola Machiavelli in Florence appreciate the support of our students and having native English speakers in the classroom, and the kids in the school love interacting with JMU students and benefit from the instructional support the JMU students provide.

During our visit to Florence JMU signed a formal agreement with the Scuola Machiavelli to continue the program, and we plan on expanding the program beyond English classes to assisting with teaching in the content areas in English.

While I was in Florence I also met with personnel from the City of Florence office that is responsible for providing lifelong learning experiences for adults as well as professional development for teachers.  It was a fascinating conversation; they are concerned about many of the same things we are in our country when offering our lifelong learning programs, and take full advantage of the city of Florence in their offerings.

I found they also had a similar challenge in assuring that the professional development provided for teachers addresses and supports the challenges faced in their schools. Something relatively new to the schools in Florence is the growing number of children whose native language is not Italian, similar to our second language learners in the United States. This challenge is a great opportunity for us to partner with the teachers, schools, and the City of Florence to share our mutual expertise in addressing the challenge.

Finally, I learned that young children are young children no matter where they are.  To quote my wife, “people are people and no matter how different we believe we are, we are much more alike than we are different.”  This was made clear to me in my visits with the middle school students. I had the opportunity to make two new friends, two students at the Scuola Machiavelli.  These two middle school boys had already established a reputation of being troublemakers because they didn’t pay attention in class.  They invited me to arm wrestle, which I politely turned down! During our conversations together, I found out these “troublemakers” and their families have been quite transient and therefore their formal education has been spotty at best.  These are simply two kids that, like so many kids everywhere, are trying to connect with others. I left the schools impressed with these two young men and with a continuing admiration for the teachers at the Scuola Machiavelli and all teachers everywhere who daily find ways of reaching and helping students learn.

Let’s fast forward to today; we left Arlington, VA this evening and traveled home to the Shenandoah Valley.  I know there are many beautiful places to live, but I was reminded driving through the valley to our home that we may have found one of the prettiest.

It has been quite a year, and I owe so many thanks to so many people for their support from the Outreach & Engagement Staff, to the UPCEA staff, to the many volunteers at UPCEA and faculty and staff at JMU.  And I am blessed to have a great family (and growing  – we are expecting grandchild number five in March) and to my wife Peggy, thank you for your support, patience and a very happy 25th wedding anniversary.

Happy New Year to all.

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