Breaking Down Barriers through Engaging Exchanges

Mark Urwick is the Instructional Coach at RJ Frank Academy of Marine Science and Engineering in Oxnard, California.  Last year he supported 11 classrooms that were participating in Out of Eden Learn.

Getting Started

In the early 1990s I started my teaching career in Japan at a small English conversation school about two hours north of Tokyo.  The chance to spend three years living in a totally foreign culture instilled a love of travel and interacting with different environments.  This experience also left me with a desire to nurture student curiosity about the world.  When I discovered Out of Eden Learn at Project Zero Classroom I was hooked.  I remember thinking, “Someone built an entire platform that provides structure to support students from my school to interact with students around the world and it is all free?! Not only that but they are collaborating with an awarding winning journalist who is walking across the world and providing content from some of the countries and people we know the least about.  SIGN ME UP!”

As an Instructional Coach I have the opportunity to attend many trainings and work to implement and support programs that can help our students become career and college ready.  We are close to 90% Latino and many of our students come from homes where hard-working parents put in long hours supporting our thriving agricultural industry on the Oxnard plains.  Out of Eden Learn provides a platform for students I worked with to engage with primary source content and share observations about this content with students from around the world.

I was able to arrange my schedule so I could visit each class once a week helping to team-teach a new footstep or following up on having students post at least two comments and making sure everything was uploaded. This quickly became the most rewarding part of my job with students constantly reminding me, “Mr. Urwick don’t forget you are coming into 4th period today!”  I loved being able to team-teach the lessons with the classroom teacher and provide the extra support our English learners need to keep up with the pacing of the program.

Breaking Down Barriers

Many of the students I work with do not have the opportunity to interact with young people beyond their neighborhood. They have often have extended family nearby so there is not much incentive for day trips to explore the surrounding area.  I am always amazed when I ask how many students have seen snow and only a few hands go up. When I hear educators comment about the lack of “funds of knowledge” of these students, I get frustrated because it is not a lack – it is just different.  They may not have my funds of knowledge, but these students are eager to share their rich, daily experiences with other students far and wide.

English language learners, though challenged, felt confident responding and interacting on Out of Eden Learn.  Although the content was challenging and our school has high numbers of English learners and students reading below grade level, the students felt very comfortable commenting on posts from more affluent private school students.  Middle school students understand “the world is flat” and, yes, some of these students were posting photos from wealthy gated communities with private lakes, but issues of class never came up.  We were all members of a walking group eager to engage with new found friends from around the country and around the world.  Students were much more interested in sharing hobbies and commenting on daily routines that would come up through photos and drawings rather than talking about what their parents did for a living.

Many of the countries in our walking group, such as Spain or Mexico, were familiar with photos of neighborhoods and climates much like our own in Southern California.  For us, one of the most foreign members of our walking group was a school from Vermont, with photos of large trees, deep snow and hobbies that revolved around the seasons.  Italy, Greece, and even South Asia gave us context for daily routines we understood…. but 10 feet of snow?!  My students had all sorts of questions and a focus on higher level questioning brought out all sorts of discussion.  The Out of Eden Learn platform provided the scaffolding to really push my students to go beyond the who, what and where to ask open-ended questions and probe the daily routines and perspectives of a New Englander.  One of the highlights of my day was to pull up the comments students were posting on each other’s assignments and then give a shout out the next day to students that were using higher level questioning and the language structures supported by the Out of Eden Learn team.

I am constantlly asking my students “What makes you say that?” when they comment about Paul’s posts, the curriculum on the platform, or the the interaction between walking groups members.  My hope is that students break down preconceived notions about people around the world and get to know each other on an individual level.  When someone draws a Mosque or Temple in their neighborhood map, it becomes a point of interest, not a list of stereotypes.  Ron Ritchhart talks about providing time, opportunities, interactions, environment and language that build the culture of thinking, and Out of Eden Learn is the one place I have found that ties all these aspects together.

Kimberly Patton shared photos and lessons she used last year which already has me thinking of how to improve our role out of Out Of Eden Learn at my school this year. Pictured here is her Out of Eden Wall.

Continuing the Journey

Out of Eden Learn is helping to break down barriers for students who don’t have opportunities to travel far beyond their own communities. And as we are just beginning the school year, I am excited to once again support Out of Eden Learn in a number of classrooms as well as bring together an Out of Eden Learn network from the Oxnard School District. This has me excited about the posibilites to expand what I learned last year and explore how others are using this unique and powerful platform with students from all around our increasingly interconnected world.



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