Sparking Students Forward
A young disheveled boy stands amongst ruins and looks straight ahead as though he is unsure where to go or what to do next. Two young children chase each other on a roof, a roof that overlooks a city in rubble around them; they laugh and play the way children do even in the worst circumstances, and then there are children in a van, and they are being driven with their parents away from everything they have always known. The father meets no one’s eyes, and the mother clings to her children as the van bumps along an anonymous road towards a refugee camp. I cannot stop looking in the youngest child’s eyes; they look abandoned, like a child lost at a mall, and wiser than any eight year old should look. I am a mom and a teacher, and I am surrounded this particular day by my middle school Freedom Course students. We have been discussing what is means to be a refugee and what responsibility we may have for other human beings who live so far away.
The conversation is not as robust as I would like it to be, and I am looking for a way to engage my students. The stories themselves do not seem to be enough, nor are the pictures. The statistics fall flat. There is usually a moment in a lesson where the energy sits precariously waiting to be shifted. I like to think of it as a class pulse (maybe this is from my former career as a nurse practitioner), but my job in that moment is to spark the students forward without pulling them. If their attention is lost, if they become disengaged, it is much harder to have them return. In that moment that day, I decided to wait, to slow the discussion that was fading, and surrender to the bell that was getting ready to ring.
They Seem More Like Us Than I Thought
That night at home, I come across a short documentary film produced by the New York Times called The Displaced. This film follows the lives of three refugee children. I grab my Google Cardboard VR headset, pull on some headphones and immerse myself in this short documentary. As soon as I finish watching it, the next class can not arrive soon enough for me.
People immersed in Virtual Reality are interesting to watch. You see heads bobbing, mouths opening in surprise, and limbs and bodies moving to places you cannot see. What I see the next day in class is nothing short of magical. I hand out the Google headsets, the students slide in their phones, plug in their earbuds, and then… silence. I see them looking down and around, turning. And then- 11 minutes later, most are silent, but some are tearful. One student says in a quiet voice I almost cannot hear, “They seem more like us than I thought.” And that is when I knew. If this technology is available, than this is how it must be used, for good, and we needed this for empathy and design right here at Mount Vernon.
Nearly 60 million people are currently displaced from their homes by war and persecution. Half are children. This virtual reality film tells the stories of three of them. Watch The Displaced here or on the New York Times.
Connection is Not Magical; It is Only Bold.
I always tell my students this. When I was in what was then called junior high school in Roanoke, Virginia, I remember reading a book that I loved. It was the kind of read that when you finished, you felt changed, almost spiritually altered in some way. The name of the author was on the book jacket, and it said that he was a visiting professor at the University of Virginia. The afternoon I finished the book, I called the operator (because that is what one did in the 1980s) and asked for the English Department of UVA. In moments, this author was on the phone with me talking, and we shared a conversation. I will never forget how that changed my thinking.
You see, most people are not inaccessible.
We create the disconnection ourselves by not reaching for the conversations, the answers, the connections.We stop ourselves before we ever start. I was young and naive, but this author seemed genuinely happy to talk to me. If the students and I wanted to use and create virtual reality, we had to have connections, so we vigorously brainstormed a plan of action. I reached out to other adults and brainstormed with them, as well. Students and I discussed the gaming computers needed to run virtual reality, and then I went to Linkedin and began to cast out for connections with Alienware, which we had determined to be the best gaming computer with the most exciting options for our students. This all sounds so matter-of-fact, but the days were charged with excitement with the sending messages, waiting for responses, and robust cheers when we heard back from someone. We became a team, the students and I, and the work we were doing was important and exciting! We started with how might we use virtual reality and quickly ascended to how might we use and create virtual reality? And in true Mount Vernon style, we let our dreams spin, how might we create a school virtual reality lab right here on campus? What if we worked with industry leaders to create content that helped others, content that impacted the world right now?When it was finally time for a conference call with Nick Savo from Alienware to pitch our idea for a Mount Vernon VR lab, the students helped me prepare. We talked about the importance of doing background work and researching before any meeting. It was amazing how much learning happened as the students followed the process along. Ultimately, we realized that the needs of Dell/Alienware connected beautifully with our own. We all want to use this nascent technology for good, and with our strong Design Thinking culture, virtual reality may be a tool that magnifies the work we are already doing.
Many months passed before we got a final yes! When I got that call, I ran to my original group of eighth graders, now ninth graders with the good news. We all jumped around, high-fived, and looked at each other with disbelief. A Mount Vernon VR Lab was happening, and we were going to be the ones to carry it out. We were grateful and proud, and weeks later, every time we were called to the office for a box from FedEx for another computer, a monitor, a VR headset, well, it was like Christmas, and we smiled all day.
Demonstrating how Mount Vernon turns vision into reality, a group of Upper School students and their teacher are taking the first steps to create a state-of-the-art Virtual Reality Lab for the School. Through a partnership with Dell Alienware, Mount Vernon launched a VR program creating content with industry leaders to make an impact in the world.