When I first encountered Skype over ten years ago, I thought about its practical uses on a micro-level: I could reach out to my grandmother in Florida, my colleague in Texas, or my college buddy in Chicago. We could see each other and spend a different sort of time together. And then I realized its implications for the classroom. How enlightening would it be to connect with classrooms around the world? For the students in my small, rural Vermont school, Skype had the potential to build cultural understanding of places they’d likely never visit. The headlines in the last few days remind me of the most important purpose behind flattening the classroom walls and reaching out beyond our small corner of the United States: empathy.
Webster begins the definition of “empathy” with: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another… Because we have 1:1 iPads in our school, we have the power to reach out, and I believe it’s more important than ever to make that happen. It seems that others are feeling the call as well.
Rachel Mark, a PD Coordinator for the Tarrant Institute, reported on one such teacher. In a lesson designed to help students understand more about the refugees who were slated to relocate to our state, Charlie Herzog looked to virtual reality as a vehicle for empathy. Without the ability to physically visit countries in need, the next best option might be to access our nearest VR headset and visit one of them virtually. As demonstrated in Sophia’s response, her previous superficial understanding was replaced with a deeper awareness of the refugees’ plight: “I knew that they had it bad, but I didn’t know how it actually worked and how they would experience everyday life, so I thought that [VR] was a big help in understanding that.”
Even if we want to avoid bringing politics into school, empathy can be built around shared cultural tenets. Take the example of the hero’s journey–a global story structure familiar despite cultural differences. Tie that together with a love of games and a few video chats, and we have the makings of this multi-place Breakout Edu. Two of my colleagues teaching overseas and I used game-based learning to inspire connections across cultures, and in so doing, taught students not only about the hero’s journey, but also about its cross-cultural appeal.
Some teachers have used our 1:1 capacity to talk with authors and some have dabbled in Mystery Skype. This is a solid beginning, and I plan to build upon that capacity by culling student feedback about how best to reach out beyond our walls during a lunch series, by encouraging use of video chat tools and providing links to inspiration and possible classroom partners in my weekly Tech Update email, and by taking the simple step of committing my time to talking with teachers and providing individual support around building empathy. I have to believe we can change our world for the better, and starting with empathy feels like the best way forward.
Vermont is in the midst of an educational whirlwind, and it’s about time. While our little state leads the nation in many ways, it is in education that I hope it will make its mark in 2017. Act 77 demands a new kind of schooling for students that is personalized and flexible, and educators are now tasked with how best to accomplish the goals of that law. If there was ever a time when we needed strong leaders, it’s now.
I’d characterize myself as a reluctant leader, although I grow somewhat more comfortable with the idea as time passes. Leading puts one in harm’s way–uses one as a target of nay sayers and snarky comments–which as a person who keenly feels things, is difficult to accept. I am learning, however, to balance negativity with my desire to make education better for our students simply because we need strength in numbers to make this shift happen.
We also need inspiration, which is why I spend so much time scouring social media, newsletters, blogs and the like in search of educators doing amazing things around the world. Because I personally need inspiration to be moved to action, I try to provide that in my role at school. I also recognize that inspiration may produce the opposite effect in some people, causing them to shut down, so follow-up support is imperative. I invite. I listen. I appreciate. And I provide individualized guidance, tools, and feedback which I believe helps build a culture of perseverance–something we need to model for students.
People who know me well also know that I am prone to action, or at least the impulse to make things happen. While I’ve been told that my model of efficiency isn’t a perfect fit in some instances, I think it’s what our education system needs. If we don’t take action, nothing changes, and while we are doing a lot of things well, there are also many of our students who are unsuccessful and unhappy in our current system. It is with them in mind that I push my colleagues gently out of their comfort zones.
I must remind myself often to balance compassion with my desire to bring about change. In my quest to realize the bigger picture, I must remember that even small shifts take time, support, and guidance. If I can uphold the overall goal in my mind, take stock of and celebrate accomplishments, and create clear and attainable action steps, I can begin to achieve the kind of leadership I hope to achieve, and perhaps be part of why our little state will lead the way toward lasting and effective educational change.
Simon Sinek draws attention to the assumption that leadership and authority are often confused as one and the same thing, when indeed, they are anything but. Steeped in the political climate where the man who holds our country’s highest office faces serious questions about his leadership abilities, I reflect on my own surroundings and the leaders with whom I work on a daily basis. How are they leading in this time of transition in Vermont schools? Are they, as Sinek suggests, “looking after those around [them]?”
Clearly, it’s true that people will follow others when they feel heard, and while we see this played out on the national level, I see it play out just as clearly in my school. Listening to those around her is a strength of one leader I admire. Although it takes patience sometimes to catch up with her, she is willing to hear all viewpoints and takes them into consideration when making decisions. Her style is to talk things through, listen and synthesize, and ultimately clear the way to make things happen.
The thing is, sometimes you have to be willing to fight to make things happen, and this is where this woman wins me over. On spunk, she is never short. She is willing to take on the often male-dominated power chain in order to make progress, willing to have difficult conversations honestly, and in the end, doesn’t take any crap. This woman has passion, and I know she yearns for opportunities to surface from the muck of everyday duties to feed the visionary that is too often sacrificed.
I wish I had a little more of what she has. I’ve never been accused of not being passionate, but when it comes time to have those difficult conversations, I often freeze. Hit me up in the car on the way home and I’ve got all kinds of things on the ready to answer those questions, but in the moment, my brain wants to mull it over, not defend. I know it’s an area I need to address, and placing myself in situations where it’s necessary is the only way to retraining my brain.
This woman is also a people person–something likely learned from her involvement in the family business. She knows how to read people, and more importantly, work them– to identify characteristics in others that work well for the whole, and how to best support them in the name of progress. Sometimes, it takes stepping back and letting others think they’ve devised the great idea she suggested. Sometimes, it takes talking it through for an hour or two, and sometimes it just takes the support that she can give because of her title.
While the title is important, Sinek reminds us that the “power always belongs to the
people.” A smart leader is one who has a keen understanding of this fact, and makes decisions as such. The leader I have described here is able to balance both the demands of a state in flux and the needs of a veteran and outspoken staff. I appreciate the opportunity to learn from her and to incorporate those lessons as I make my own way.
Every hero’s journey begins with a call to adventure, and we answered it with a Breakout game. My teaching partner, Whitney, and I cannonballed a long-distance, multi-place game that took our students through a bold “edventure” of their own.
Here I take you through day by day, sharing our experience and offering up lessons learned.
Our goals were to connect Vermont students with students in the Dominican Republic, to teach them the story structure of the hero’s journey (HJ), to explore facets of Identity, and to inspire their love of learning through games. We created a ten-puzzle prototype that led students from the call to adventure through the journey to an eventual return home.
Our most daunting task began before the game even started: to take something of value from our would-be student heroes. Thinking abstractly, we decided to “steal a memory” of a proud moment from their lives. Requests were sent to parents to contribute to a form letter that could be printed and kept as a final prize. With this task underway, the game began.
Day One: Students took their seats and we explained that our goal in the next two weeks was to discover the power of the hero’s journey through game play, and that they would work together to do so. We encouraged them to be curious, to ask questions, to collaborate, and to persevere. Then, because setting up the game properly is incredibly important, we paused for a moment, adopted a sober tone, and started with this:
“I have been informed by The Hero that something of personal value has been taken from each of you. You may not know what it is yet. You may not be aware that it is lost, but it has indeed been taken. It is my understanding that you will receive the object upon successful completion of difficult challenges.
A message has been sent to you with further instructions.”
This was a risk. Students have to believe in the story of the game. They have to be curious. They have to want in. And we have to risk being out of the ordinary. We hoped to see confused looks and curiosity piqued, and we did. Students dove into their emails looking for “further instructions,” and there found a primer for the game: a link to a dossier.
The dossier triggered a gmail confirmation: see the game master for the next challenge. When approached, we gave each group an envelope with numbered puzzle pieces of the respective flags of Vermont and Dominican Republic, a small Breakout box, and an iPad with the Locks app set to a color code lock. The game was in full motion.
Students scrambled to make sense of the puzzle and the first connection between our two groups. They eventually discovered the relation between the flags and the numbers, and successfully broke through their first lock.
We set the color lock to open a Chatterpix, which told students to run! to their library with the clue GNFYANG. Some realized that their clue was a call number which led them to copies of American Born Chinese by Gene Yang, inside of which was a QR code linked to challenge questions. The reading of the graphic novel took our class through the remainder of the first Breakout day.
Day Two was rife with challenges for the most patient heroes. After finishing Yang’s novel and accompanying reflections, students traced a clue to the lock opening the small Breakout box. Inside, they discovered a black & white copy of a map, a flashlight used for reading invisible ink, and another QR code linked to Petra. Our daily lesson tied the Hero’s Journey to one element of identity (spirituality), to guardians, and to journey. Google Street Treks (Petra) provided a virtual tour of this place that has drawn many a hero over time.
At this point, we as game masters presented the large Breakout Box complete with a hasp and three locks on a front desk, giving students a sense of the scope of our study and game. Students smiled (or gaped) and returned to the heady work of the Petra challenge, using this guide to locate map points related to the directional lock.
As with any class game, play it through first so you can anticipate where students may struggle and have answers for them. Thus we saw necessity in revisiting the guardian stage and the journey through a portal to a special world.Students savvy with the invisible ink/ flashlight enjoyed searching the room for their portal: a table oftalk times with students from the other country.
Day Three: students reviewed the structure for conversations and plunged through a portal/ video chat with students from another country. For all involved, these video chats were one of the very best parts of the game. Each country had a question and half of a URL needed in the next challenge, but only revealed it after discussion about the meaning of true heroes. By combining each half of the URL students could move to the next lock.
Day Four: With the URL now in hand from their long-distance partners, students discovered a seven-minute physical challenge and choices to explore gender as it relates to heroism. Digging deep to find the part of themselves that defeats self-consciousness, they risked push-ups and planks in front of their peers to follow the calling.
Day five: My long-distance partner, Whit, was ready to test our heroes’ patience. After solving the riddle buried in Google’s Arts and Culture Institute, students faced finding a grail within the school. Although they wanted to tear through the halls looking for it, we offered them a structured challenge to earn the location: work together to create a HJ word wall, and in return, receive pieces of a photograph showing them the way.
The grail held the key to another lock on the hasp. The final word lock was revealed in a Padlet exchange–an asynchronous meeting as compromise since we could not find another time to meet live. There, we shared both clues and photos of our ideal heroes. And in the box was the final clue: a rhyme hinting at the location of that which had been taken in the beginning of the journey.
Day six was our heroes’ return home. Students were invited to the highest offices on campus where administrative teams met them to unveil the letters. Admittedly some students were hoping for candy, but all who read the letters blushed with amazement and joy, some even shedding tears. A few nodded as they understood the deeper level of what this experience represented, and requests were made to keep the game going.
This prototype of interactions, communications and problem solving was so much more than a box of locks or a reading and a graphic organizer. It was an experience–an adventure, even. Already we are exploring changes and collaborations with schools in other countries for next year. Everyone teaches the HJ; why not make it a truly shared experience?