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.