Stirring the Soul With a New Story: A Letter to HKIS Alumni

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 9.17.17 PMOn May 31st 2014 Mike Kersten and I walked out onto the stage of the nostalgic Sunbeam Theatre in North Point at TEDxHong Kong on education and shared the journey of social conscience that we take students on in Humanities I in Action, an interdisciplinary course option for grade 9 students. For the next few minutes we shared the vision, the content and experiences, and the impact of the course upon students over the last 12 years. We decided to write a retrospective article about how service has grown in our years at HKIS, and what it all means for alumni in the future.

Dear alumni,                                                                                                               October, 2014

It is a great pleasure to share with you the development of service learning at HKIS over the last 20 years because so many of you, in both large and small ways, have contributed to the HKIS story of service. Your collective vision, energy, time and donations have propelled us along this path. In the midst of a city in turmoil and a planet in peril, we hope that this progress report inspires you to get back in touch with us and the HKIS network about your vision of what we might all accomplish together for the sake of our local and global community.

The Task

We as humanities teachers are inspired in equal measurerumi2 by ancient words of wisdom as well as our daily interaction with students. The 13th century poet Rumi once wrote, “It is as if a king had sent you to a country to carry out one special task. You go to the country and you perform a hundred other tasks, but if you have not performed the task you were sent for, it is as if you have performed nothing at all. So man has come into the world for a particular task, and that is his purpose. If he doesn’t perform it, he will have done nothing.”

For the two of us as Lutheran-trained teachers, we were first told of this one task as young children through the well-known story of Jesus’ visit to the home of the two sisters, Mary and Martha.  Whmariamartaile Martha was busy running around the kitchen, Mary, ignoring her sister’s not-so-subtle eye messages, sat listening in rapt attention at the feet of Lord Jesus. Martha complains to Jesus, “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” Jesus responds, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.”

Our third anecdote takes us into an HKIS classroom. It is November, 2004, and my (Marty) Humanities I in Action class has just returned from the Foshan orphanage, and we were discussing what we had really accomplished in a mere three days of visits.  Why, I pushed further, do we not simply give up when we are barraged with the overwhelming needs all around us – when we watch the news, when we pick up a newspaper . . . or when we visit a foshan04hum1 079country with an endless number of healthy baby girls abandoned simply because of their gender?  I repeated: why don’t we give up?  Silence . . .  a long pause. Then out of the corner of my eye from the right hand corner of the room, I noticed a student who, in my mind’s eye, seems to rise up. Her name is Grace Chang (08), and she broke the silence with a voice of conviction, almost exasperation, declaring to the class, “WE HAVE SOULS.” We have souls . . . we have souls . . . Her three little words continue/d to echo inside of me about the urgency of the task itself and the naming of its core energy: soulfulness.

Yes, there is a purpose, a task, the one needful thing, that each of us needs to find and to do. In a world with so many cries – of abandoned children, child laborers, victims of natural disasters, and even democracy protests in the heart of our city – what do you do to find that purpose and discover your soul?

The Story of Service at HKIS

The answer, as students have told us repeatedly,index is to break out of the bubble world of over-preoccupation with academic success and re-connect to the concerns of others in our school, community, city, nation, and world. To that end, service experiences have been an indispensable way for students to pop the bubble and re-align themselves with the world.

Of course, many of you experienced this bubble bursting in your time at HKIS. Starting, we believe, in the 1970’s, was the “Day of Giving” in which all high school students provided a day of service to a local organization. Then, in 1996, high principal, Jim Handrich, challenged Ms. Talbot and myself (Marty) to consider an on-going service program, which resulted in the creation of “Service on Saturday.” At the same time, service interims grew from only one, the Pattaya orphanage trip, to over 20 service interim experiences; service clubs emerged; and Interact’s charity fashion began. This phenomenal growth in service activities during the 1990’s created a new culture of service at the high school.

A few weeks ago Ms. Talbot and I met with HKIS couple Edward Tsui and Trisha Yeh (00) about their desire to get back in touch with HKIS and do more service work. As Ed explained in writing, “When I reflect on my experience at HKIS, the core value that comes back over and over again in my mind is the service of others. While the outside community may associate HKIS with affluence, privilege, and exclusivity, from an alumni that spent 7 years at HKIS, the key value I took away is of service. In particular during my high school years, I don’t think there has been a comparable stage in my life where service was more encouraged and advocated by my surrounding environment. It was not only “cool” to serve with your peers (SOS, Interact, Amnesty, Mother’s Choice, etc), it was the norm. If you were an HKIS student, service was a part of your life.”

DSC_3451The next step in the development of service occurred with the turning of the new millennium. Inspired by a visit to Ateneo high school in Manila, Mr. Coombs and myself offered the first service learning course in January, 2000 called “Service, Society, and the Sacred.”  Three years later we brought the key concepts in SSS into  “Humanities I in Action,” a core double-period interdisciplinary course that students can choose in grade 9. In class we study urgent contemporary issues such as genocide, globalization, and the environment, while out of class students engage in about 10 experiential learning outings in Hong Kong, such as Crossroads’ “Refugee Run” simulation. For many students, the highlight of the course is a weekend of taking care of children at the Foshan orphanage.  The combined study and experiences in Humanities I in Action has been a powerful motivator for many over the years, but perhaps it has not been better expressed than by Tiffany Chan (08), who wrote in her senior year:

“Before a journey begins, there is a moment . . . when aTiff Chan darker side of the world is thrust upon us. The journey begins when the blindfolds are untied and fall away from our vision; it is when we see. When we went to Foshan in my freshman year, I saw. When I went to Mongolia that same year, I saw. It was a slow stirring of my soul, an insistent urging to go further out, to see more, to do more, feel more, give more, empathize more with the rest of the world. My journey began at the draw of a window curtain, at the flick of a light switch, at the light of a matchstick. It was ultimately, the ignition of a fire that I hope will never cease to burn.”

It was about this time that Mike Kersten, who was serving as a Lutheran missionary in Taiwan, enters the story. Pick up the story, Mike.

A New Story of Education

The first time I came to HKIS was in 2005 for a Lutheran education conference.  Marty Schmidt had led a workshop on service-learning and as I approached enthusiastically afterwards, he invited me to bring students from my local school in Taiwan on one of his trips to a state-run orphanage in Foshan, China.  The following summer I joined him and, like so many Humanities I in Action students before and since, the experience changed me.  In the same way that Tiffany described, a fire was ignited and I knew that my classroom would never be the same.


I came to HKIS in 2008, intent on teaching Humanities I in Action, and two years later proposed a semester elective follow-up, a service learning course that has been doing work in rural Cambodia.  The core conviction which animates our students and motivates me is that in a globalized, inScreen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.37.33 PMformation-saturated world, what we need more than anything is to put some soul back into the machine.  Our industrial model of educating students in standardized batches is functionally and morally bankrupt.  We have brought the modern world to dizzying material heights.  But at what cost?  People are suffering on both sides of the wealth gap – poverty on one side, depression and disillusionment on the other – while the planet groans under our consumptive lifestyles.

At younger and younger ages, we find studenScreen Shot 2014-06-02 at 11.43.51 PMts who believe that figuring out how to navigate this dual crisis is the most important challenge they will face in life.  In our classes, we see that they are hungry for a vision of education that tackles these big questions.  And yet, they often feel caught between worlds, yearning for a new story of a whole people for a whole planet, while at the same time working tirelessly chasing an older story of success that requires jumping through hoops, climbing ladders, and enduring a fragmented personal life.  As the incongruity of the new and old story becomes apparent to students, together we search in classes for solutions, such as social entrepreneurship, spiritual practice, and lifelong service to society.  We ask ourselves and our students: are we fulfilling the task?  Have we found our soul?

Writing a New Story

One of the benefits of the attention brought by our TED talk has been the opportunity to ask this question to you, alumni, in this article. How are you handling the “one special task” spoken of by Rumi, the “one needful thing” Jesus commended to Mary, the “stirring of the soul” embraced by our students?  At HKIS, we have seen how your passion as students has carried us from a single “Day of Giving” in the 1970’s to a robust program of service clubs, service-learning interim trips, and social conscience courses today. Alumni, what are you doing today?  We would love to hear from you. Let’s keep lending our hands to the healing of the people-planet divide. Let’s keep writing a new story that stirs the soul.

Postscript: I have collected reflections from some HKIS students, including Ed and Trisha, about how our service programs impacted alumni in their years beyond HKIS. I would really like to add your thoughts to this collection. (At some point I’d like to do some type of more serious research project on the long-term impact of our service programs.) I welcome anyone to contribute their thoughts at this link.

This article was published in the Winter 2016 edition of Dragontales, our alumni magazine.

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TEDx sideview

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About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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One Response to Stirring the Soul With a New Story: A Letter to HKIS Alumni

  1. Pingback: Education for Transformation: Introducing Humanities I in Action | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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