Tabbatha O’Donnell is a 4th grade teacher at Palm Beach Day Academy in Palm Beach, Florida.
I first learned about Paul Salopek and his journey on Project Zero’s website. I was amazed. How could someone walk 21,000 miles, for 7 years? Having the opportunity to visit and learn about so many different cultures and countries in this way would be an unbelievable experience. I could not wait to share this with my 4th grade students who are 9 and 10 years old. I wanted them to have the opportunity to be a part of Paul’s adventure too.
My students were fascinated and wanted to know more about the people, cities, and countries Paul would be visiting. They were curious and had many questions for Paul like: “What made you want to walk for seven years? How do you feel when you are walking knowing what might happen? Are you feeling homesick? What impact is this walk having on your life? How do your feet feel when you are walking?” I encouraged them to write their questions down so that if we had an opportunity to email him, we’d have the questions ready to ask.
His walk also resonated with us because it corresponded beautifully with our literature curriculum theme of “Risks and Consequences”. All year we had been reading and sharing stories about great risk takers and how we take risks everyday. What kinds of risks, challenges, consequences, and rewards would Paul face? This sparked so many thoughtful discussions that led to even more questions.
Per discussions with students, I asked them to just imagine: in seven years, where will you be? what grade? how old will you be? We tried to think about the things Paul would see, hear, and experience, and tried to imagine what that would be like. I had my students follow along with the activities shared on this blog. They especially liked reading about and seeing the work that the middle school and high school students were doing. We also followed Paul’s journey on the National Geographic Out of Eden website.
Through Paul’s writings and all the beautiful photos, we located on maps where his journey began. We learned about why he chose Ethiopia as his starting point, and talked about what Ethiopia was like. I told them about Paul’s dispatch Noisiest village in the world. Together we listened to his sound recording and acted it out. We wondered what it might be like to live in such a noisy place.
I adapted some of the Project Zero activities for my students. For example, we created maps of our neighborhoods and tried “slow photo journalism” (see posts SLOW LOOKING and PHOTOGRAPHING NEIGHBORHOODS AS A CATALYST FOR LEARNING).
One student wrote about her experience of slowing down to notice a flower growing in her backyard that she would walk by every day without really paying too much attention. When she did take the time to look, the flower suddenly came alive to her and she noticed: “it has every shade of pink that I know of”. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before, and questioned: “why didn’t my family ever notice its beauty?”
Now a world of possibilities opened up, “what other things am I missing out on, and if I just take the time to slow down and really look, what will I see?” Through sharing our photos with each other, we began to realize that we were starting to view the world around us differently, and that it’s okay to slow down and to take a look, so you don’t miss anything.
We designed the covers of our folders that we used to keep our writings, reflections, drawings, and photos in.
Students even came up with their own definitions for the “meaning of life”: “The meaning of life to me means being able to be alive and having a chance to experience nature and life.” “The meaning of life to me is that you should do as much as you can every day.” “I think the meaning of life means to take risks. It also means to enjoy the feeling of being alive.” The story of learning that is happening for my students and myself is very rewarding. Paul’s gift has been to create an awareness and sense of wonder in us that has changed how we look at the world around us.
I shared what I had been doing with my students at the Project Zero Classroom this summer. The enthusiasm, encouragement, and support I found from both faculty and participants was overwhelmingly positive. I was inspired that other educators were as excited as I am about the possibilities that Paul’s walk holds for elementary age children. This fall, I will be collaborating with a small group of elementary school teachers from different countries to experiment with ways of engaging our students in the Out of Eden online learning community. We look forward to sharing our work.