This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Jennifer Lanas
To say that I was profoundly affected watching Clouds Over Sidra is an understatement. It was my first exposure to a VR documentary, and you can still see the indelible mark it left upon my soul. Upon concluding our summer residency, I went to Schenley Park to sit and collect my thoughts. Meditating upon Sidra’s story and that of the children in the refugee camp, I found it difficult to still the mind. My thoughts swirled around the empathic pull of this twelve-year-old’s narrative; I felt a stirring that welled-up from deep within, insisting that I must do something. Call it emotional velcro, or perhaps a VR inspired awakening? Either way, I was hooked. “My kids need to see this... Everyone needs to see this.” I feel as though I said aloud to no one in particular, save the squirrels in the park.
As the school year progressed, with our “Pittsburgh: Boom. Bust! Rebirth?” junior research papers in the rearview mirror, the time had finally come to introduce my Cultural Literacy students to the enormity of the global refugee crisis. Together we would move into the final phase of our course and connect present day topics surrounding refugees and immigration within the context of historical inquiry. And so began our final unit: “Immigration and Historical Imagination: Looking Back, Dreaming Forward”. My students were embarking on the Inquiry, Case-Making, and Analysis model with the prospect of developing cellphone apps on one of the following four themes in this inquiry-based unit:
●The Great Migration - Oral histories from Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns
●Jews denied asylum pre-WWII - Anne Frank and her family were also denied entry as refugees to the U.S.
●Latin American Refugees - Why tens of thousands of kids from El Salvador continue to flee to the U.S.
●Syrian Refugees - 24 hours in a fuel tank and Syrian refugee “nearly drowned in melted chocolate”
Before diving into these selections, however, I set-out to teach my juniors about the “inquiry, case-making, advocacy” model that so much of our work in The Fluency Project is centered upon. To do this right, to begin to use numbers and narratives in a meaningful way that starts conversations and drives change, we first needed to develop the skill of critically noticing.
The Art of Critically Noticing
They were taken with their faces--looks of elation, confusion, and sadness--to hear my students describe the above image from the Washington Post was to marvel at a pendulum of emotions as it swung through our learning space. At first, some were outraged that the majority of the refugees wearing lifejackets in the image above appeared to be able-bodied men. As I listened to their explanations, I coaxed them to continue describing what they noticed. At some point, a perceptible shift occurred, whereby a number of students raised the questions, “What if the men on the rafts are responsible for rescuing passengers tossed into the Mediterranean? Is it possible that some of the refugees who boarded the raft made a split-second decision to leave everything behind?” As our natural, human curiosity took over, my students found themselves hot on the trail of discovery.
Suddenly, even the most reluctant readers began to surreptitiously scroll through the news feeds and our vocabulary board filled with new and unfamiliar concepts such as refugee, migrant, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers. The art of slowing down, taking the time to critically notice, along with the use of photographs captivated my students’ imaginations in a deeply moving and personal way. Desperate to learn more, it was time to introduce my classes to the twelve-year-old Syrian girl named Sidra.
Virtual Reality: “Emotional Velcro”, “The Empathy Machine”, and So Much More
In the days leading up to viewing Clouds Over Sidra, I downloaded the UNICEF 360 app as well as Google Expeditions. During my prep one of my juniors, Jessiyah, dropped by to say hello. Inquisitive by nature, it did not take much to convince her to test drive VR using Google Cardboard. She spun about the room, delighting in the scene unfolding before her. As she sauntered out of the room, I could hear Jessiyah’s request to “borrow it for just one sec” trail behind her. I wasn’t worried, as I suspected that she would be back with one of her friends… Little did I know she would bring two, then three, then the second floor hallway became an impromptu VR lounge for juniors in their study hall, and a few whom I suspect were conspicuously missing from chemistry.
As we assembled for class the following day, many students already had informal discussions over whom would get first “dibs” on the Google cardboard and VR headsets on loan from the CREATE Lab. Eric Darsow was in from the lab for his weekly check-in with my Cultural Literacy group. Already knowing that Eric works for CREATE and teaches classes in Java and GIS map-making at Community College of Allegheny County, he has taken the role of our resident expert and digital Sherpa in the world of cutting edge technology. I particularly enjoyed how students from all sections not only listened to him explain the science behind 360 image stitching, but also asked him thoughtful questions about the technology and the implications for its use. Before even putting on a headset, my students were plugged-in. For me, this was an exciting prospect that would only encourage more boundary stretching for my students to follow their curiosities. Chris Milk, one of the creative minds behind Clouds Over Sidra noted in his TED Talk that “VR is the ultimate empathy machine”. Beyond question, the moment you stepped into our classroom, or peered into the hallway, his statement proved to be an irrefutable truth. As Illah Nourbakhsh recounted to the Remake Learning Network panel assembled to preview the PBS documentary Schools of the Future, “Empathy is what connects the left brain and the right brain to the heart.”
The Future Does Not Just Happen… You Write It
The wide-ranging implications of teaching and learning with this medium goes well beyond the novelty of VR. As a learning community, we struck upon something very important that day. We need to be radically engaged in order for deeper learning to take root. This is just as critical for students as it is for teachers. Rich and varied learning experiences do not just happen, as one must be fully open to encounters with curiosity and wonder. Yet many times, we are guilty of opting-out of engaging. We need to wake up and seize the opportunities that present themselves to us. Our futures are actively being written by us--in the choices that we deliberately make and the passively accept. Yet, this may seem like a completely unfamiliar notion to the young adults entrusted to us at school.
I’ve often noticed that my students speak as though their future is something that just “sort of happens” to them. It is not a new phenomenon. Curiously enough, this is something that I have observed going on nearly a decade. The strikingly familiar sentiments echoed by my students attending a rural-suburban public school as well as an urban-ed parochial school are probably similar to the refrains that you’ve heard in your own schools: Engage or disengage… does it matter? Read and annotate the article, or wait for the bell to ring… why bother? This is pointless...
As teachers, it pains us to hear these laments--to endorse them is to concede failure. Worse, to dismiss them is to perpetuate a failing system. Despite our most valiant efforts and most innovative approaches, we are largely failing to engage so many minds of this generation. By no means am I suggesting that VR is a panacea, yet there was something magical happening in our classroom the day my students Watched Clouds Over Sidra. Dare I say that there was a palpable sense of school having meaning, purpose, and value. It was as though my students picked up the pen and decided to author a page of their junior year and illustrate it in living color. They are actively writing their story… perhaps even dedicating it as a living prayer for children like Sidra.
Inquiry, Case-Making, Advocacy: There’s an App For That
My students are taking these experiences of building empathy and understanding for past and present asylum-seekers and using their “critical noticing skills” to build apps. Admittedly, at the high-school level, refining the Inquiry, Case-Making, and Advocacy model is still largely a work in progress. I have to admit, it is so uplifting to overhear conversations between students about “leveling-up” the quality of a question and whether it would be more compelling to investigate an issue using numbers or narratives. My heart swells--and others have taken notice, asking me about our “App Building Project”. But it’s not about the app. See, the app is a medium, just as VR anything else, by which a story is told. What makes it different from a graphic organizer? Well, few students get excited about publishing their graphic organizer or having the capabilities to text or air-drop a worksheet. Apps built on Code Studio’s App Lab can be simple, yet elegant means of making a case and initiating powerful conversations. In this instance, we are building apps that enable us to slow down and process what we are learning--to make connections with human beings facing extraordinary circumstances. It is at once a deeply moving experience as well as a cutting-edge addition to my Fluency toolkit. It’s the future… and if we engage our students in meaningful ways, they can and will be the authors of it..
We must find ways to empower ourselves and our students or else we all run the risk of burning out or fizzling out before reaching our potential. I have found my inspiration in the company of group of ragamuffin teenagers I am honored to call my students and a robust personal learning network called The Fluency Project… The story and future that we are writing will unfold in the days and years ahead. What is certain though is that as far as Inquiry, Case-Making, and Advocacy are concerned, there’s an app for that.
For curriculum to teach about the Syrian Refugee Crisis (including a curriculum guide featuring the BBC articles cited above) check out Global Nomads Group