Learning from participating educators: Highlights from last week’s Google+ Hangout

This blog post refers to the Google+ Hangout that we organized on Tuesday, March 24. Because of a technical glitch the Youtube videos are divided into Part 1 and Part 2 – and while it was a very interesting conversation, you should know that the sound quality throughout was rather variable. This post synthesizes some of the ideas and comments that came up, with a focus on what was shared by the participating educators: Natalie Belli, a 5th grade teacher from Massachusetts, USA; Rob Martin, a 5th grade teacher from Chennai, India; Khaula Rizwan, a 5th grade teacher from Lahore, Pakistan (who communicated via email because of technical issues); and Pam Sengos, an IT teacher from Wisconsin, along with her team of 3rd grade teachers.

I’ll start by synthesizing some of their comments about how Out of Eden Learn is going for their students before throwing out some questions that came up in our discussion to the wider Out of Eden Learn community. Scroll to the bottom for some terrific ideas and resources that were shared.

Theme #1: Out of Eden Learn is stimulating questions and conversations beyond regular classroom learning.

All of the educators referred to their students’ excitement about Out of Eden Learn. Khaula described how Out of Eden Learn features prominently in her students’ “table talk, whether it’s in the home room or during lunch hour”.

Holly Carpenter, from the 3rd grade team in Wisconsin, said: “My students are thrilled to be doing the footsteps. We just finished a unit on different cultures but now they’re interested to know, wow, what is the heritage and the culture of my own community? And the Out of Eden Learn footsteps really help me to guide them to exploring their own personal histories so I thank you for offering us this opportunity because our students are really engrossed in learning.”

To add my own commentary, I found it heartening to hear from the Wisconsin team that students are increasingly interested in their own cultures and communities as well as in those of other people living far away – an important dynamic to which I allude in Taking on the challenges of cultural perspective taking in Out of Eden Learn.

Meanwhile, for Rob’s students, who are expatriates living in Chennai, India the neighborhood map activity was an opportunity for them to start to discover the community in which they find themselves: “Some of the students don’t have much experience of their neighborhood. They’re always going from their gated housing community straight to the school and they live in a bit of a bubble. They’re expatriates here. We have students from Japan, Korea, France, from about 30 different countries so I think there’s a bit of a disconnect between their own lives and the local community. Certainly there’s a lot of poverty, which is not easy to handle for many of our students, so I think it was a very good opportunity for them to do this neighborhood map.”

On a different note Natalie talked about the enthusiasm of her students’ parents for Out of Eden Learn, in no small part because of the new questions and conversations it is generating at home: “At parent teacher conference every single parent said thank you for this Out of Eden Learn project because they talked about how it’s bringing them together at the dinner table, they’re having conversations, they’re talking when they’re traveling now, they’re having a bigger understanding of their place as far as this world goes, and how they’re connected. And they’re asking these questions of their parents … I just thought that was very, very powerful.”

Theme #2: Out of Eden Learn can be empowering for students, including English language learners and students who do not necessarily “shine”.

Rob talked in general terms about how motivating it has been for his class to have their work recognized by the wider world. As Rob commented: “There’s an authentic audience out there that goes beyond the classroom walls and beyond the walking party as well.” For example, his students have periodically commented on Paul’s dispatches – and have been thrilled when he has responded. Recently, John Stanmeyer, the National Geographic Magazine photographer, picked up on Rob’s Tweet about his students’ work for Out of Eden Learn. John Stanmeyer sent out his own Tweet – which was in turn re-Tweeted by Paul – again causing a great deal of excitement among his students.

Rob also pointed to the example of a particularly quiet Japanese student who is only just beginning to learn English. She takes a great deal of pride in her work and was delighted to see that her map was selected for our Out of Eden Learn Instagram site. Rob, like other educators in our community, has picked up on the potential for Out of Eden Learn to give individual students a voice, particularly those who might otherwise remain silent. I might add that some students have told us in interviews that the format of Out of Eden Learn has empowered them to share their perspective and stories in new ways.

Khaula similarly pointed to the ways in which our learning community can engage and motivate a wide variety of learners: “The inclusive learning space, in the form of annotated articles, audio instructions (along with written ones) for each footstep are easier to navigate. I believe Out of Eden Learn could carry great potential for including students with mild and other learning disabilities. Moreover, as Robert Martin from Chennai mentioned, ELL students tremendously benefit since this project contains real life tasks and a realistic audience participation.”

Theme #3: Out of Eden Learn has the potential to have a profound impact on students’ outlooks on the world and their attitudes towards other people and cultures.

Jeannie Mierendorf from the Wisconsin team spoke particularly passionately about the positive impact she sees the experience of participating in Out of Eden Learn having on her students: “I’ve never been so excited about something; this is keeping me from retiring. I love it. I love the personalized learning and I love how this has just been a catalyst for so many changes in our school and in our children. And it’s just bringing the whole theme of humanity together. I’m thinking that our eight year olds, in ten years’ time they’ll be voting age and we’re thinking about things that are very adult. Like why are people fighting each other, well it’s usually because of a misunderstanding … and we’re committed to understanding other cultures now and we’ll be less likely to fight with them if we understand them. That’s where my 3rd graders are with this right now and it makes me feel that we are here for a really big purpose, and we’re very proud to be a part of Out of Eden.”

I would like to add that our materials in and of themselves are unlikely to effect major and enduring changes among young people – but in the hands of skilled and compassionate educators I do think that the impact of Out of Eden Learn could be long lasting and profound. Given the current state of the world, let’s keep ourselves motivated by the idea that the work we’re doing together could be a little beacon of hope in terms of facilitating cross-cultural understanding.

Questions for the community

We would appreciate feedback and suggestions on the following questions that came up during the discussion:

  •  How could Out of Eden Learn be tied to service learning in schools?
  •  How could we get more teachers to share ideas on the Educators Forum on the Out of Eden Learn site?
  •  How could we increase classroom-to-classroom interactions within walking parties?
  •  What are some ways in which we could share student work more effectively both within the Out of Eden Learn community and to a wider audience?

Teaching tips and strategies

Rob organized a gallery walk of his students’ neighborhood maps. Rob has kindly described what he did and shared relevant materials via our Educator Forum. Be sure to check out the link to his class blog to view the student work. (Please note that we are in a gray area regarding protecting students’ privacy here but this is Rob’s private blog rather than something produced by us.)

Pam uses a program called Voicethread, which enables students to overlay audio on to their neighborhood maps to explain the stories they want to tell through them. Check out these beautiful maps.

Natalie has set up a mixed-grade “Vagabonding Club” that runs after school for interested students – including current Out of Eden Learn participants and students who took part in it last year. They look at different films and books together that introduce students to different cultures and perspectives: Natalie has been amazed at some of the connections they draw between these books and films and Out of Eden Learn. She particularly recommends the novel Camel Rider by Prue Mason and the Iranian film Children of Heaven.

Khaula movingly describes in our Educator Forum how she used Out of Eden Learn to build up the confidence and engagement of a student with a hearing disability as she transitioned between high school and college.

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