“All members of the Nishimachi community, including students, teachers, support staff, parents, and the larger community, are part of the continuous process of growth and learning. We are all learners.” (Carol Koran, Director of Learning 2019)
What are the characteristics of an educated person? What are the qualities of a good person? What makes a good student? These questions were posed to a group of grade 8 students during a silent conversation activity in 2018. Some of their responses: An educated person respects others, has multiple perspectives, makes good choices, solves problems, and tries to make the world a better place. A good person thinks critically but is open to new ideas, accepts different cultures and backgrounds, and is compassionate and thoughtful of others. A good student is open minded, asks lots of questions, tries hard, and is open to challenges.
Starting in 2016, under the guidance of consultant Pam Harper, the Nishimachi faculty has been exploring similar questions: What does learning look like? How do we know when a student is learning? What attitudes and approaches to learning best prepare students for their futures? The faculty responses, which were similar to those articulated by students in 2018, helped to provide a baseline for our journey to develop a new set of learner expectations for Nishimachi. Following the creation of a list of learning principles, the faculty spent the next two years further refining and analyzing our beliefs and understandings about education, culminating in five Nishimachi Learner Expectations. The new NLEs successfully merged the previous Student Learning Expectations with our current understandings about how students learn and the skills they will need to be successful in the world in which they will be leaders.
Our new Nishimachi Learner Expectations are based on the beliefs that, as learners:
We make connections. We cultivate meaningful connections between people, cultures and ideas.
We take ownership. We take initiative, we explore our own questions and accept responsibility for our actions.
We pursue challenges. We take risks and persevere.
We act ethically. We respect differences, are empathetic and work to find solutions on a global and local levels.
We are creative. We use multiple processes to think, innovate and reflect.
Posters that include Japanese symbols and Kanji, as well as the Learner Expectation statements are displayed throughout the school, and teachers incorporate these principles into their classroom activities.
Visualizing the NLEs
Our modern culture is highly visual. Students respond emotionally to colors, shapes, and designs. To ensure that our new NLEs were appropriately rendered visually, graphic designer Juntaro Mori created a series of posters with original designs inspired by traditional Japanese themes. The descriptions of the designs included in this article are Mr. Mori’s. The NLE posters displayed throughout the school and in the classrooms include English text, Japanese kanji, and Mori’s unique designs, all illustrating founder Tané Matsukata’s vision for Nishimachi of keeping a special identity, a principle that remains core to the school’s mission to this day.
We Make Connections
“To share, to live and learn together...” (Tané Matsukata)
At Nishimachi, we recognize that learning involves collaboration, communication, and sharing. When a student says, “That makes me think of…,” or “That reminds me of the time…,” they are making those valuable connections that make new knowledge personally meaningful. Tané Matsukata also noted the important role education plays in forging connections between people and cultures as a means of promoting peace and understanding. Grade 8 student Alexis M. identified this NLE as important because “we have a whole international community and we get to know different perspectives.” The image for this NLE combines snow, circles, and sakura blossoms, signifying harmony in and connections to the changing seasons. Nishimachi’s strong alumni community, as well as the many graduates who return each year to visit their former school, is a testament to the meaningful human connections that are formed in the classroom.
We Take Ownership
The original Student Learning Expectations included “Responsible Learner” and “Developer of Quality Work.” In the case of the revised NLE, the focus shifts from what a student produces (a product) and widens the concept of “responsible” to include a sense of individual accountability. The image associated with this NLE depicts mature rice in a traditional Japanese design that combines grain, the moon, and clouds, to illustrate the humility that comes as one grows in knowledge. Taking ownership asks students to recognize that they need to be active, involved participants in their own learning: setting goals, identifying practices that will move them forward in their learning, and reflecting on their own progress. From a grade 2 perspective, it means “asking others for help when you don’t know the answer.” From a grade 4 perspective, it means, “being a leader. Because, if something needs to happen, someone has to say, ‘I will take charge of this’.”
We Pursue Challenges
As described by the artist, the image chosen for this NLE is a traditional Japanese chidori (a thousand birds) design that is associated with good luck and achieving goals. It suggests swimming through rough waves and navigating challenges. When asked to describe what this NLE meant to them, grade 8 student Sara T. responded, “If we don’t take on a challenge, our world would not be broader. Pursue challenge means don’t give up.” Emma S. expanded the concept further. “It means to do things that are out of your comfort zone, to ‘open your bubble,’ as Ms. Lawson [MS principal] says.” Challenges may be personal, physical, intellectual, and global, but, regardless of their origin, this NLE encourages all learners to not only accept challenge, but to pursue it as a valuable and necessary component of continued growth. We Act Ethically At Nishimachi, we want students to know, to care, and, perhaps most important, to take action. It is no coincidence that the verb for this NLE is “act.” Translating knowledge into action is evidenced when our students travel to Cambodia to work with the students at the Kirivorn School, when they raise funds for and provide support to Minamisanriku-cho, when they venture out early on a weekend morning to deliver food to the homeless in Shibuya. Acting ethically is reflected in our curriculum, where we ensure that students are engaged intellectually in exploring ethical issues around environmental sustainability, human rights, and global conflicts. Acting ethically also means treating those with whom we interact every day with the same compassion and respect that we show to a larger community. Saying “I’m sorry,” including others in activities, and being mindful of one’s impact on others are simple, everyday observances of this important NLE. The floral pattern designed to illustrate it suggests its importance in nurturing both the heart and the mind. Tané Matsukata’s vision for Nishimachi included this important component of sensitivity toward others and the courage to take action.
We Are Creative
In the art classroom, students are constructing a large mural out of individually created images. The grade 3 students are experimenting with ramps and different materials to discover more about motion and friction. On the playground, a group of grade 1 students has devised a new game using only a length of rope they found in a basket. The whiteboard in the math class poses a question, “How many ways can you solve this problem?” Creativity extends to all aspects of learning; it is a mind-set that explores, looks for new perspectives, and asks “what if?” As one grade 8 student commented during a discussion in advisory class, “It appeals to me, because to be creative is to have something that nobody else has thought of. It means you think differently, or have different reactions.” The image for this NLE is the umetsuru or umezuru pattern, which combines a plum blossom with the head of a tsuru (crane) to suggest rich ideas and creativity.
We would like to acknowledge the work of all those who collaborated to create our Nishimachi Learner Expectations. They provide us with a common language to use when talking about learning with our students and community. They connect us to our past and our founder’s vision for education. Finally, they are both practical and inspirational, relevant to our students in their current context, and reminders of those attitudes and practices that will guide our students to be leaders in the future.