My SUSI Experience: The American Dream

SUSI program participants from around the world: at the U.S. Department of Education. Photo credit: Andrea.

Andrea Bossenger, Deputy Principal at Auckland’s Manurewa High School is an alumna of the 2015 Study of the United States Institute (SUSI) program.  Andrea trained as a geography teacher, but now teaches history and oversees the entire social science learning area for Manurewa, one of Auckland’s biggest schools.

What was the focus of your recent SUSI program exchange?

In July I was given a unique and privileged opportunity to travel to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne for a six-week program focused on looking at the American Dream: Myth or Reality?  We were very fortunate to be able to participate in a series of lectures and workshops run by staff and visiting professors at the University.  We also had the opportunity to interact with members of the local community, religious groups, and politicians from the area.  

Andrea Bossinger, Red Sox fan! Photo credit: Andrea.
Andrea Bossenger, Red Sox fan! Photo credit: Andrea.

The program, run for History and English language teachers, aimed to help develop strategies to integrate American topics within our teaching practices, while improving our understanding of America’s history, founding principles, and how those principles are affecting American society today in helping citizens to achieve the ‘American dream’ – or not.

With my fellow SUSI participants at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC. Photo credit: Andrea.
With my fellow SUSI participants at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC. Photo credit: Andrea.

Can you give us some specific examples of lessons learned from your U.S. experience (or from other colleagues on the program)?

17 teachers from 16 different countries were part of the six-week program; additionally we were lucky to have the Bridging Cultures initiative join us, where we had 12 American teachers work with us for part of our program.

Although I had studied American History in the past, I found  this a far more liberal and informative approach,  I have come away with a sounder understanding of the American democratic system, and the integral ideology of the ‘American people’ and the ‘bootstraps’ attitude which is fundamental to the American dream.

Working with teachers from around the world, all with a diversity of experiences, funding, education systems, and ability – or not – to have freedom of expression within their classrooms was enlightening.  It was informative to discover different government philosophies towards funding of schools, teachers and resources, and the different obstacles that teachers have to overcome to be able to deliver the lessons that will result in the passionate and engaged students we all aim for.  I recognized how fortunate we are in New Zealand – as much as New Zealand teachers may at times feel that the system is not ideal, the grass is not always greener, and we are exceptionally lucky in the way our state schools are funded and our teachers are paid and (usually) respected.

SUSI program participants from around the world: at the U.S. Department of Education. Photo credit: Andrea.
SUSI program participants from around the world: at the U.S. Department of Education. Photo credit: Andrea.

Were there lessons you could bring from your academic career in NZ that you could share with your colleagues in the U.S. and from overseas?

There is nothing like working with others from other government and educational systems to recognise how lucky you are yourself.  The LBGT issue was the hot topic of conversation while we were in the U.S. as it was just going through the Supreme Court.  It resulted in some interesting discussions, understanding the viewpoints of other participants, where LBGT rights are not upheld, or believed to exist. I come from a society where it is considered part of the norm.  

A surprising element of the discussions that arose for me was around the confidence of other teachers to discuss contentious issues in the classroom.  The fear of parental or government intervention as a result of topics discussed is not a concern for me in my teaching practice.  The fact that I teach in a system that allows and encourages contentious issues to be discussed in a positive manner resulting in discussion, debate and reflection in the classroom, was not the norm among all those teachers present.

How much time did you get off from your exchange to see the U.S.?

During the SUSI experience we had amazing opportunities to visit a range of destinations around the U.S., so I really felt I was extremely lucky.  We were fortunate enough with our location to be able to make a number of day trips to places such as Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park near St Louis, Lincoln’s hometown Springfield, Illinois, and a wonderful day spent with the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  

We had amazing trips to Boston and Washington DC, where it did not matter how long we had, there was always more we wanted to see.  We had a whirlwind 24 hours in Chicago, with a fantastic architecture tour by boat, a visit to The Bean, and a truly amazing display of impressionist art at the gallery.  Our SUSI experience was completed in San Francisco, a visit to the redwoods at Muir woods, a cycle across Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, and a beautiful farewell sunset dinner cruise around the harbour of San Francisco.

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge – or what we saw of it. Photo credit: Andrea.
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge – or what we saw of it. Photo credit: Andrea.

Our organizers were fantastic and laid-on a variety of other activities for us in the evenings and weekends.  We got to experience a rodeo, which having grown up on the Pony club circuit in New Zealand, I thoroughly enjoyed.  We had also arrived just in time for July 4th, so myself and two other participants, Jamila from France and Ahmed from Chad, got to march in the parade, at the end of which, even I was feeling patriotic for America and was ready to join everyone else in their red, white, and blue!  We were also fortunate during our Religion in America Week to visit religious establishments from a variety of faiths.  It was organised for us to participate in a Japanese tea ceremony on the University campus, which was another added highlight of the entire SUSI experience.

With Jamiela before the Independence Day Parade. Photo credit: Andrea.
With Jamiela before the Independence Day Parade. Photo credit: Andrea.
The Independence Day Parade in Champagne. Photo credit: Andrea.
The Independence Day Parade in Champagne. Photo credit: Andrea.

 

What did the SUSI program mean to you?

The SUSI program was an amazing experience which renewed my passion for American History and academic learning.  For the last 20 years I have been promoting academic learning for my students, but other than personal reading I had left that aspect of my own development behind.  It has now motivated me to return to academia in the future and enrol in a master’s program.  I thoroughly enjoyed the liberal approach to the topics we discussed and the openness with which those who were presenting were willing to discuss all aspects of American society.   

It has also allowed me to make links with teachers from all around the world, and I am presently trialling a program with one teacher from Chicago setting up our classes to be pen pals, with the aim of improving literacy and global awareness of others cultures.  In 2016 I plan to implement the program with all of our Year 9 (12-13 year old) students with the aim being that each class is set up with pen pals from America and the different SUSI participants from around the world.  The hope is they will develop their literacy skills in writing to the students, and through their communication they will develop a greater global understanding of the differences and similarities in cultures around the world.  

One of the group’s shared meals (the pizza wasn’t quite as big as it looks!). Photo credit: Andrea.
One of the group’s shared meals (the pizza wasn’t quite as big as it looks!). Photo credit: Andrea.

However, I think the biggest thing I took away from this experience was how welcoming the people of Champagne-Urbana were to us – into their families, homes, and places of worship.  Not just those people who put their names forward to the program to interact with us, but all the people we encountered on our journeys were welcoming, interested in our program, and what we were doing…. A number wanted to join us, as they thought it sounded so amazing – which it was!  A huge thank you to the State department for allowing me to participate in this and I would highly recommend it to anyone if they get the opportunity.