WATCH/LISTEN: Recorded in September 2020, Head of School Rodney Glasgow spoke with Shoshanna Sumka, SSFS alumna and Executive Director of ISEEN, about experiential education, creating connection in a virtual environment, and her time as a student at SSFS!
Shoshanna Sumka '90 is a leader in global learning, community engagement, and student leadership development. As the Executive Director of the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN), Shoshanna works to inspire and support experiential educators and connect lifelong learners through ISEEN’s inclusive network.
Shoshanna’s two decades of professional experience include support for travel and outdoor education throughout the world. Most recently she worked at Sidwell Friends School, where she coordinated global programs and community engagement, including service learning. In the past, she served as Assistant Director of Global Learning and Leadership at American University, Resident Director of the University of Idaho’s study abroad program in Quito, Ecuador, and Board Chair of Break Away, an organization that supports the development of active citizens and student leadership on college campuses.
She is the author of numerous journal articles and two books: Working Side By Side: Creating Alternative Breaks as Catalysts for Global Learning, Student Leadership, and Social Change and Health and Safety for Secondary School Programs Abroad.
Rodney: Well Soshanna, thank you so much for virtually dropping in. And I was thinking about how you and I met, which was sort of through this wonderful happenstance of the universe where you were doing this awesome conference. And I had the honor of being asked to speak at it. And I said, Let me check my, my calendar, because I'm moving over to Sandy Spring Friends School, and you go, "Oh, I went there." So, tell us what you're doing now. And then I'd love to hear just how you got to Sandy Spring Friends School.
Shoshanna: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me, Ronnie. And great to have the opportunity to talk with you. So right now, I'm leading an organization called ice cream. It's the independent schools experiential education network. And we work with independent schools like Sandy Spring Friends school, who have a deep belief in experiential learning as a way to transform learning, through doing and involving the whole person in education.
We do trainings and conferences and institutes, for teachers and educators to share best ideas, practices, share program resources, and basically form a network of like-minded educators to do this work better.
Rodney:...Give us a snippet of when you say experiential education, what that means.
Shoshanna: well, I can give you the ISEEN definition of experiential education. This is the one that we've been using for a while. It's experiential education is a pedagogical process by which educators engage students through a cycle of direct experience, reflection, analysis, and experimentation. So this flows from the cold cycle, which was a study around how people learn best. And we believe that experiential education values personal connection to deep and applied learning, and it inspires growth in both the student and teacher.
Rodney: So Shoshanna, thinking about all that's going on, like in the world right now, in our country, specifically, and we're seeing the national uprising around racial justice, we're watching election 2020. How does experiential education fit the moment?
Shoshanna:Yeah, well, it's so great that you asked that question. I was thinking about that. I mean, experiential education is good education. But that's not why we do it. I mean, it's great. You can do studies on the brain and how people learn best--you remember what you do, rather than... what you read or what you hear. But it's not just because it's good education. It's about the connection to our democracy, and meeting, and engaged citizenship and people learning about the real world. So that's one of the pieces of experience education, that's one of the core educational components--is relevance. How is what I'm learning relevant to the world I'm living in today, and you want students to make those connections that what they're learning is relevant. And so how do you tie math into injustices? And how do you tie English into inequalities? And really making sure that you're making those connections between what we're living now in the racial justice uprising. And having students engaged and involved in the election is about making their education relevant to them and the world and making a difference. And really making positive change, and especially looking at a school like Sandy Spring Friends, working towards peace and justice and equality in a way that students are engaged and active in their communities it's so key experiential education.
Rodney: Wow. So tell us, what was your journey to Norwood Road? How did you end up in Sandy Spring?
Shoshanna: I'm from Silver Spring, Maryland. I grew up here since I was five, and I was in Montgomery County Public Schools from kindergarten through ninth grade. And I hit a rough road when I was in high school. It was a really big high school, got lost in the crowd. And my parents found Sandy Spring Friends School--I actually don't even know how they found it. And I went a little bit kicking and screaming. I don't know how I passed the admissions interview, because I don't think I wanted to be there. But luckily, they accepted me. And I started Sandy Spring in 10th grade and it was really transformative for me... life-changing, I don't think I don't think I'd be where I am today if it hadn't been for Sandy Spring Friends.
Rodney: Wow. So in my opening talks to parents this week, I liken Sandy Spring Friends to the set of keys you've been looking for all along, and they were sitting right in front of you, but somehow you missed it until you found it. What do you find here that you were like, "this is what I have been missing?"
Shoshanna: Yeah, well, the most important thing is that I found teachers, and students, and educators that cared about me as a person. Who cared about me as a whole person in all aspects of my life. And I wasn't just a number of 1000 students, but they knew my name. And I was able to not only thrive academically but also.. in extracurricular activities, I was really involved in the dance program. And that's always been something that was separate for my life. I took dance classes outside of school, but now dance became part of the school and who I was at school. And it was really meaningful for me to be known at school as someone in the dance program.
Rodney: ...Bringing that sense of self to the campus. It's so big. I mean, you and I always have a synergy, but I've been talking a lot about belonging. And that's essentially what you're saying.
Shoshanna: Yeah, absolutely. created a sense of belonging. Yeah.
Rodney: So then from here, what happened?
Shoshanna:...I fell in love with Quaker values, you know, those values that Quaker values of education of peace and justice, the ideas around silence--that reflection piece, it's a part of experiential education. And, I ended up going to a Quaker college. I wouldn't have heard of it if it hadn't been for Sandy Spring Friends School. And then...when I graduated, I did an internship at the William Penn House, which is a Quaker Peace and Justice Center in Washington, DC. So that started my career down this path. So I really do have my whole adult life to thank for Sandy Spring Friends.
Rodney: That is incredible. And would you consider yourself like a Quaker?
Shoshanna: I grew up Jewish, my whole family's Jewish, but I formed a lot of connections between Quaker values and Jewish values. And I am still practicing... in the Jewish community. AND I feel very at home in the Quaker community, you know, going to Quaker meeting and being in... the Quaker environment.. [it still] feels very much at home to me.
Rodney: Awesome. I just love the multiplicity of that. And I know that you're someone, too, who has a deep connection to justice, and diversity work, and just the passion around those Quaker values and also Jewish values of honoring the individual and what the individual could do to transform. And that's a lot of the work you're doing now.
Shoshanna: Yeah, yeah. So one of the things that I'm really excited about the work we're doing with ISEEN is bringing a social justice lens to experiential education. ...One of the most memorable experiences for me at Sandy Spring Friends School was, what now I know to call experiential education, was the intersession program.
...When I think back about the thing that I kept, it was my first intercession was a weaving program. And I would have never thought that I'd learned how to weave on a loom that I brought, I brought some props. I brought some show and tell if you don't mind I for my photo album and taken out a three-ring binder, but that's me holding up the blanket that I will, in my very first intercession and fifth grade, and then and then I still have that blanket that I made.
Rodney: Did you make that blanket?
Shoshanna: I made this blanket. blanket with my own hands.
Shoshanna: And it was from my time at Sandy Spring, so it's just something that I really value a lot was that ability just to learn something new and to get outside your head. And do this repetitive motion with the loom... it was really a memorable experience for me. And my next year, the next intercession that I went on was to Belize. And this was, in the late 80s, and it was still very much a developing country. And I learned so much about the Kʼicheʼ Mayan community that we live with.
So that experience really opened up the world to me, I ended up becoming a global Nomad, I lived all over the world. And that was my first experience really interacting and learning from people in another culture outside of the US. And that helped me see myself as an American, and identify my American identity and what that means. And then it also opened up my passion and love of studying cross-cultural communication, which I did through an anthropology degree.
Rodney: Wow, just so fast that from basket weaving to Belize. I could see it. ...That's really incredible. And now, of course, we as a school, have the pleasure of being a member school of ISEEN, and having you leaving that awesome organization, with several private schools in this DC area and national... I mean, it's just a really incredible full-circle story.
Shoshanna: It is really incredible. I mean, I was so glad to welcome Sandy Spring Friends School as one of our newest ISEEN members, we have a little over 100 member schools and organizations around North America and beyond. And, you know, schools like Sandy Spring that have such a deep commitment to experiential education and those values of teaching to the whole students. So we're really glad to welcome you as part of this network of great, awesome educators wanting to be better and be together and support each other.
Rodney: So good. And in this time of virtual learning, and I'll cheat a little bit because you and I were just together in an ISEEN workshop all about this, but how do you do experiential education, which we think is so hands-on and in-person? And you know, we're virtual this semester? How do you do that and still be in a virtual center?
Shoshanna: We have to pivot like everyone else. And that when the pandemic hit, we were stunned. We thought, "well how do we do this?" We always think of experiential education going on trips, the intersession, the doing outdoor education, or global travel. And what we realized is that we had to distill it down to what are the core components of experiential education. And one of those core components is the human connection. So how do you connect with another human being, and if you can't do it by having a challenging experience together on a ropes course, then you do it through the virtual setting. And we really learned a lot about ways to use technology... from videos to bring games and joy and movement and kinesthetic learning to a little zoom box and playing I don't remember what they call it, but I call it Zoom Twister where you put your right elbow in the right corner, and you put your left elbow in the top left corner and doing things to get people moving and to build community, which it turns out is possible in a virtual environment.
Rodney: Well, it's so key, right? And it's teaching us all a different way of educating but that's still on the connection part of education, which is, we now, when we go back to the theorists.. they're all talking about the connection is the thing that makes learning right? And learning is a social hands-on experiential endeavor. In translating that virtually so powerful, and I was so thankful for the workshop I attended with you because it made me feel so good about the work we're doing virtually this year because we're doing all that stuff, right. And one of the things that we sat down and really talked about was, "okay, we want to put out an academic schedule that has all the social components to it as well because we know how key those are." We felt so affirmed by that by the direction of that.
Shoshanna: Absolutely. And that's one of the things that we've learned isconnection before content. You know, the content isn't going to stick unless you're feeling that connection. And, and people are gonna remember.. how you made them feel. And so did they feel that sense of belonging? Did they feel happy? Did they feel joyous? And then also, they'll remember the learning and academic confidence. That's what makes it sticky. That's what makes it stick.
Rodney: Well, I'm so thankful for this conversation for every conversation I get to have with you and as we wrap up, I guess my final question would be if you had to describe or distill down what this place Sandy Spring Friends meant to you and your life's journey, what would you say?
Shoshanna: It's hard to talk about it sometimes without getting emotional. But, it really was a place that allowed me to flourish, and grow, and to become myself and who I was meant to be.
Rodney: Well, [that's] so important. And we're so glad that happened for you and, from the alums I've talked to, it's happened for all of them. And it's happening right now!
Shoshanna: It's really a special place. It's really a special place. And, obviously, it's in a beautiful setting in the woods and out on Norwood Road. But as you can see in the virtual environment.... it's not about the buildings and the place, but it's about the people and the feelings and the values that you hold dear. So that's really great that you're continuing that.