Explore But Not Too Far

Danny Stock
Against the backdrop of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the world’s attention has been captured by the Hong Kong protests. Over the last year, what started as the Anti–Extradition Law Amendment Bill movement grew to include matters of Hong Kong autonomy and Chinese encroachment and policing. Social media has served as both a platform and a tool as protests continue to escalate following combative action by the Chinese government and People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Just prior to the breakout of large scale protests this summer, Lower/Middle School art teacher John Headley traveled to Hong Kong for a conference hosted by the Savannah School of Art and Design (SCAD), underwritten completely by SCAD. Classes were offered in painting, design, fashion, and—interestingly given current events—social media.

“There were rumblings of protests that were going to happen,” John said as he spoke about the experience. “They gave us the phone number of the consulate. At the same time, they encouraged us to explore beyond the campus, be immersed in Hong Kong culture, and get out of the SCAD bubble. Towards the end of the trip though, there was a sense in the background that we not venture off the beaten path. ‘But don’t wander too far,’ they told us. ‘We don’t want you to get stuck if the airport closes down.’” The day after John flew home, protesters tried to shut down the airport.

Arriving a few days before the start of the professional development experience, John visited Hong Kong’s Museum of History. He was struck even there by the stark contrast between vibrant exhibitions showing the development of society, art, and commerce of Hong Kong, the shift in “flavor” as exhibitions showed colonial rule, and finally the “sterile presentation” of Chinese modernization.

The social media workshop provided some valuable strategies for using various platforms for marketing and storytelling. John and other workshop participants traveled the city on assignments, capturing stories using tools their instructor had presented for Instagram and Weibo, the most-used platform in Hong Kong. “There is an interesting controversy in Weibo, too, given that it is also used as a way to monitor people and manage commerce,” John explained.

Participants were tasked with projects to help them engage both with social media apps and the city itself, including selfie projects with street art backdrops by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami and this collection

“We were not carted around in buses as a group of foreigners,” John recalled. “We used the train, walked around. They would leave us somewhere to use public transportation to find our way back. We saw lots of beautiful pottery and other intricate things that I related back to GDS 5th grade slab clay work. We ate from ‘mystery buckets’ in hot intense markets with the smell of pork and fish. The enormously colorful experience provided a better understanding of another space, within another culture—yes, as a foreigner—but also as educators. We learned through the classes certainly, but the experience also provided a chance to learn from other teachers.”

In the dynamic design-thinking class, the gregarious, Italian teacher explored human-centered problem solving. “Brainstorming can be egocentric at the start,” the instructor explained. “But it soon shifts to a collaborative, empathetic approach. Don’t design alone.”

Prior to the Hong Kong trip, John had discussed taking on a design-thinking project with our Lower School computer science teacher Elvin Peprah for the Lower/Middle School STEAM Day. Following the Hong Kong program, John is even more motivated to create such a project. Design-thinking processes, as John described them, in many ways reflect the GDS mission. We design and learn best “when each contributor does not have everything in common.” Instead, collaboration with a “diversity of perspectives” makes the product “more authentic and viable.” The process is, by necessity, inclusive: “You want to have everyone’s voice because there may be a snippet of a comment that may have a beneficial impact for everyone.”

As John prepared to leave Hong Kong, SCAD blasted out a warning over WhatsApp, cautioning program participants as the scale of protests swelled. John noted that even while the Hong Kong government is independent, “people perceive that their government is voiceless.” Even as teachers and students in the program learned to listen for, value, and elevate every voice, the people of Hong Kong were finding theirs.

John returned safely home reinvigorated to bring students together in an inclusive design-thinking process and encourage their willingness to embrace failure and learn, removing the anxiety that students often feel about risk taking.
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