Finding a Deeper Purpose in the Classroom Through Out of Eden Learn

Hollis Scott is a 5th grade teacher at Montair Elementary School in Danville, California. Her students participated in Out of Eden Learn last year.

I am a fifth grade teacher in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. I came to teaching after having worked in the corporate banking world, as a startup representative for The Learning Annex, and as a pastry chef in New York City and San Francisco restaurants. Though these jobs were wonderful experiences, I felt a deeper purpose was missing in all of them. I became a teacher because I wanted to touch others’ lives in the way one unique teacher had touched mine. But in the last couple years, I have become disillusioned by education.  As I tried to balance the overwhelming parts of the job—new standards, materials, online testing, changing technology, meetings, endless communication with parents, growing administrative details, and minimal collaboration time—I found it harder and harder to stay focused on the deeper goals and purpose of my work. As a teacher, I had lost a sense of what meaningful work was for me as well as my own understanding—not the district’s—of how to build life-long learners who were prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.

After some summer classes with Project Zero last year, I launched Out of Eden Learn in my classroom, uncertain what to expect. It has become a sparkling gem that has given focus and meaning to my work and brought life to our classroom.  By the end of the year, even though the pressures of my work had not changed, I was immersed in a learning process that rooted me deeply into my teaching. As we all slowed down to observe ourselves and communities around the world—through the footsteps, Paul Salopek’s dispatches and milestones, and the online communication with others outside our community— I saw and felt the excitement and energy that comes from engaged, purposeful, creative, and collaborative learning. Witnessing my students experience the passion that comes from learning about topics relevant to them, and being provided structures, supports and guidelines that would act as tools to get us there, helped me to experience an authentic classroom culture of thinking and learning.

Instead of having the Common Core Standards guide my teaching, the learning of the standards became a consequence of the thinking moves the students were making in their footsteps, discussions and extended class work.  While I believe we incorporated every Common Core State Standard for reading and writing, I was particularly impressed with the progress the students made towards achieving the standards that involved the most thinking and analysis.

A brainstorm that the class created after completing Learning Journey 1.

A brainstorm that the class created after completing Learning Journey 1.

Slowing down to look closely, uncovering their own narratives in relationship to others, making connections, learning how to communicate responsibly, becoming sensitive to different perspectives, and uncovering complexity were all part of the Out of Eden Learn curriculum. The Dialogue Toolkit and the Thinking Routines it suggests helped engage the children more deeply in their learning. I saw and felt student learning that was driven by emotional connection, curiosity, and a desire to connect to others outside their community. This wasn’t dry textbook learning and was clearly an example of how effectively technology can be used to extend learning outside the classroom. Quiet students were speaking up. Students were reflecting and showing empathy, often in ways that surprised me. Others were taking creative risks with their writing, art and digital expressions. “We have no expectations for this footstep” were magical directions to the children that seemed to free up creativity.  And as we moved through Learning Journey 2 of OOEL, I started to feel a classroom environment of excitement, creativity, engagement and thoughtful communication—all of it consistent with the goals set out in the standards.

As the children explored their own identities by reflecting on their lives, their family heritage and their relationships to the larger world around them, certain actions and comments struck me:

  • Two girls were so absorbed in their Educreations final footstep that they came to school for three days after school had closed for the summer.bassam
  • One boy was so excited about the footstep, “Documenting the Everyday” that he sent me a video every night for five days. This was the only homework he did all year.
  • The whole class was intrigued by the idea that they could participate from their classroom in a live Google Hangout with Bassam Almohor on the West Bank (photo at right), their walking party class in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and other educators from around the world.
  • Because of their desire to connect online, the children showed unprecedented eagerness to support each other with editing (the classroom policy was that posts had to be their best work).
  • A few children observed that one student’s post was hurtful. This led to many conversations about responsible and thoughtful communication.

One particularly meaningful Out of Eden Learn project grew out of our connection with a class from Pakistan. In January, their teacher wrote me asking if I would have my students craft letters to the children of The Army Public School in Peshawar, where a Taliban attack had taken place and 132 school children had died. She wrote, “Students returning to school need messages of hope and encouragement.”

This was a chance for students from our homogeneous community to explore the perspective of other children from far away, yet within their larger global community. For the background information we needed to do this thoughtfully, we read Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography, I Am Malala, Time For Kids articles, and picture books about education in Pakistan. We listened to Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize speech and used thinking routines such as See-Think-Wonder, Sentence-Phrase-Word, and Step-Inside to help engage our different learners, make their thinking visible to others, and uncover the complexity of this story.

pakistanletters1

pakistanletters2

Letters and postcards to students in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Before writing, the children reflected and collaborated with their peers and families about the joy, hardships and purpose of their own education. Showing care and thoughtfulness, they wrote and decorated letters, included postcards of the Bay Area with inspirational quotes, and made origami hearts for each envelope. The pride on their faces when we packed up the letters was enough to see that this was meaningful learning.  They had gained at least a small insight into someone else’s story. They had made an emotional connection and felt the purpose in their work. Together, the students wrote:

“Through acts of kindness, we can help others feel supported, and maybe this can cause a ripple effect, or a chain reaction, and our bigger world can be a kinder place.”

Through Out of Eden Learn I have been reminded of what meaningful and purposeful teaching looks like.  I have seen how well-chosen, relevant content, along with an effective use of technology, can engage a classroom. The learning we participated in inspired my own passion for learning, and the children were motivated by my energy.  I have wrestled with the questions, “What matters?” and, “How do we teach to prepare our students for the fast-changing global environment ahead?” I realize that we need to motivate children to become lifelong learners, deep thinkers and creative problem solvers, so they have the tools and dispositions to adapt to the quickly changing future.

Though the digital revolution provides new and exciting opportunities for learners, we have a responsibility to address and support the students with the dilemmas and communication challenges posed by an online life.  Global issues and events today are complex and interdependent. To prepare our children to live in the globally connected world, we need to support students to develop a curiosity, openness and sensitivity to understanding their own stories and heritage, so they are able to understand their relationship to others within their community and those in the greater world around them.

It seems everything we did in Out of Eden Learn connected to what matters and how we teach to engage our students. For me, it was a small window into what 21st century learning could look like. Hopefully this has set in motion a new story for my own practice.

12 comments

  1. Emily H Fisher · · Reply

    Holly, as a retired teacher, out of teaching for 50 years, I am thrilled and delighted with your work. I only wish I could have been the teacher you are, or at least been a student in your class. Congratulations.
    Emily Fisher

  2. smitzen · · Reply

    My own journey with Out of Eden is just beginning. A trip to Project Zero Classroom this July led me to this community and reading your story, Hollis, has further inspired and intrigued me. I cannot wait to bring my own 5th graders along!

  3. Hollis, you are right on target with how “teaching to the Standards” are a consequence of the thinking and understanding that the Footsteps encourage. When the kids are engaged, it’s amazing the level that they will seek.

    So exciting to read about the relationship that you established with your Pakistan party and how your students showed global citizenship. You have created a very special learning environment—your kids will never forget.

    What a reflection! “Through acts of kindness, we can help others feel supported, and maybe this can cause a ripple effect, or a chain reaction, and our bigger world can be a kinder place.”

    Thank you for this thoughtful blog. I’m excited to begin our 2015-16 adventure.

    To be continued,
    Natalie Belli
    Marblehead, MA USA

  4. Marie Innocenti · · Reply

    Holly, you are an inspiration to so many! I want to learn more! Thank you!

  5. Edward Archer · · Reply

    All the things that are frustrating you in education are also happening in banking (reporting /compliance)! I think we need our own equivalent of the Eden Project !!!!!!!

  6. Angela Frankel · · Reply

    Holly, this is so inspiring! As a parent who got to observe my son’s amazing growth through his experience in your classroom last year, it is wonderful to read how OOEL renewed your purpose and passion as a teacher.

    This was an amazing project and I think it is important that you noted that the “learning of the standards became a consequence of the thinking moves the students were making in their footsteps.” It was such a real-world way to learn! You truly gave the students and opportunity to be thoughtful global citizens…feeling connected with those children in Pakistan is something my son will never forget.

    I love how much deep, meaningful learning you saw going on in the classroom: the analysis, consideration of others, synthesis of information to make thoughtful, purposeful comments, putting one’s best foot forward… these are things I worry about for my boys in this age of instant communication. The consequences of not learning to slow down and really think before throwing something out “there” are so great for them now that “there” is crazy big and could be unbelievably far-reaching. It is comforting that OOEL, under your direction, gave the students some good tools for how to monitor the comments that they make public.

    Your passion is infectious! I am looking forward to hearing how it goes this year!

  7. Wonderful blog post. It has been great to connect with via Google Chats with Out of Eden Learn. You are an inspiration to your students and it is obvious how engaged they are with Paul’s walk and the world around them. Have a wonderful school year.

    Rob
    Chennai, India

    1. Rob,
      I saw and participated with you in a recent Google hangout. All that you described you do in your school on a global and service level was inspiring for me.
      Hollis

      1. Thanks, Hollis. Keep up the good work on your side of the world. :>)

  8. Ann Griffith · · Reply

    Holly,
    Wow! How passionate you sound! I am impressed with how you found such inspiration and then inspired so many other teachers and students – including me. I will share your work and hope it catches fire! Have a great school year!

  9. vanemosqueira · · Reply

    I am thrilled beyond words for the opportunity to expose my G6 Spanish students to Out of Eden. It is amazing how they feel inspired with the project and the platform. My colleague María G. and I as teachers from the Atlanta International School feel so honored to be part of the new bilingual (Spanish) community. We are in our first footstep and Learning journey 1 in Spanish and we started interacting with our international party in India, Argentina and Mexico. Your post inspire me to keep sharing about this journey in my school. We are working with our Head of Technology and Innovation and Project Zero Coordinator to share this our first journey In Spanish on Out Of Eden in our school. Thanks for your post and the detailed observations you shared. What a great and passionate teacher you are. Your students and your community are very lucky to have you. Gracias, Vanenka

  10. It’s amazing how you inspired so many teachers and students. I thought that your blog was very professional and I also liked how so many teachers and students commented on your blog telling you about how you inspired them and taught them new things that they might not have done to make their teaching as easy as it should have been for some students.

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