The Genesis of Project Zero’s Learning Community for the Out of Eden Walk

People we talk to, including participating teachers and students, usually ask how Project Zero came to be collaborating with Paul Salopek. It is a happy story of converging goals and serendipity.

In the spring of 2012 Paul was based at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard on a three-month fellowship to plan the Out of Eden Walk. While at Harvard, Paul took full advantage of the surrounding community of experts, consulting with anthropologists, archeologists, geographers and the like. He also began thinking about the broader legacy of his walk and how he might reach out to a new generation of global citizens.

Paul sent several emails to the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), seeking to start a conversation about the educational potential of his walk; one of the recipients was Shari Tishman, Director of Project Zero. She was naturally intrigued by Paul’s email. She also thought of my interest in making history and social studies education more relevant and engaging for middle and high school students. (I am a former history teacher and have worked in various capacities at Project Zero over the past ten years.)

At that time I was finishing up my dissertation at HGSE: a study of the ways in which young people use the past to talk about their own lives, identities, and values. With support from The Germanacos Foundation, I was also conducting a follow-up on-line pilot study called Personal Reflective Spaces in the History and Social Studies Classroom, which involved three schools in Australia, Canada, and the United States. Over the course of eight weeks, 110 students reflected on how their own lives relate to history and compared their perspectives with those of their classmates, students from other countries, and adults over the age of 50. Some of the activities developed for that study are being incorporated into this current project. However, the scale and scope of what we are doing with the Out of Eden Walk far exceeds anything I had originally imagined.

Meanwhile, over the past few years, Project Zero’s mission has coalesced around the following three questions:

  • What does learning look like?
  • How and where does learning thrive?
  • What’s worth understanding today and tomorrow?

Paul’s efforts to engage a world audience in big questions about our collective humanity and to try to connect the dots between isolated news stories sit well with Project Zero’s educational philosophy.  As an organization, we have a long track record of promoting learning experiences that promote deep and meaningful understandings of the world. We are particularly focused right now on what learning looks like in our rapidly changing contemporary context. For example, Carrie James, who is Co-Principal Investigator of this project with Shari Tishman, investigates the ethical and civic dimensions of young people’s on-line activities and interactions. Shari, on the other hand, has an ongoing interest in the value of looking slowly and closely at the world around us – an interest which resonates with Paul’s aspiration to slow contemporary journalism down.

When Shari, Carrie, and I met with Paul and his wife, Linda Lynch, the Office Manager for the Out of Eden Walk, to discuss a possible collaboration, it became apparent that there was a wonderful convergence between what Paul was trying to achieve through his walk, my interests regarding history and social studies education, and Project Zero’s overall mission as an organization.  The missing piece—and the biggest obstacle—was finding funding. There, serendipity struck again. We approached new friends of Project Zero, a dynamic group based in Oakland, California whose focus is “the intersection of Health, Empowerment, and Arts and Education”: the Abundance Foundation.  Their leadership, notably Liz and Stephen Kahn, immediately grasped the exciting potential of what we were proposing and quickly jumped on board. The international, collaborative, and experimental nature of the project, as well as its emphasis on giving voice to young people, sits well with Abundance’s mission.

We are just setting off on our journey toward establishing a robust and vibrant learning community for young people around the Out of Eden Walk. But we are tremendously excited about our project and hope that you will follow our progress through this blog.  The participants in our project will largely determine the direction that we take. Please consider joining us.

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