How many have slipped on an Oculus or Odyssey headset and experienced virtual reality? Recently a colleague and I intentionally introduced seventh grade students to a unit on migration by seeing firsthand what life is like in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Za’atari is home to more than 80,000, with over half the refugees being children. Students are exposed Sidra’s world,a tent-city where the 12-year old has lived the more than half her life. Clouds Over Sidra, available at no cost, was created to support a United Nations goal of developing resilience in vulnerable communities.

The decision to hook students through this experience was founded upon a desire for students to emotionally connect and hopefully generate not only greater interest and understanding, but ultimately empathy. As students followed Sidra through the camp, into a classroom, onto the football field, and into a shop baking a thin, flat bread called saj, curiosity piqued. Students were partnered so one could act as note taker, recording all that was wondered. For example:

*Why are there more kids than adults?
*How do the people here get money aside from donations?
*How does this affect children’s well-being?

After partners switched roles, students were asked to complete a three question survey.
*What is one word to describe how you felt, seeing and hearing about Sidra’s life?
*What did you see and/or hear that led to your feeling this way?
*Did you enjoy doing the VR?

The overwhelming majority of students responded favorably to the third question. To enhance the depth of emotional response and explanation, students were provided with the Mood Meter. Marc Brackett, Yale professor and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence developed this evidence-based road map to emotions. In a nutshell, the tool supports building vocabulary and also measures the energy and pleasantness of a feeling. Over 50 percent of students surveyed indicated unpleasant and high energy emotions. Words like, “concerned,” “stressed,” and even “peeved” were selected.

Further, one student explained why she thought felt this way. “I felt stressed because looking at her life, I don’t know what she is going to do next. Or how she is going to survive through the war.” Another shared, “I felt angry because I was appalled by the fact that rulers can be so dumb. That they make decisions to destroy other people’s homes, just to have POWER. I mean WHY, why would you do that? To get power by destroying other people’s houses? Who does that? So mean!” The level of emotional response was clear. So too was the empathy. Exactly what we were hoping to cultivate.

But this is just a beginning.

Following empathetic awareness, students will explore the myriad reasons for why people migrate and how migration impacts people and places. Through deeper understanding, the goal is to empower students to ultimately transfer their learning in meaningful ways. As a culminating project students will create documentary films of stories from individuals in our community who have experience with migration. The films will then be submitted to the The United Nations International Organization for Migration Film Festival. Ultimately the intention is capture the multitude of challenges of migration but also the promise.

Riding the Momentum

In a recent blog post by James Birchenough titled, Leading through the fog, we are reminded of the essential roles of kindness and empathy.  Being a leader of any organization during the trying months of COVID-19 presents challenges that no GPS could guide us through.  A seemingly shifting terrain with ever-changing weather patterns.

“Whichever camp we sit in, we need to be kind to each other, try to empathise and understand each other’s perspectives, and give each other a little extra grace: we’re all doing the best we can.”  (Birchenough)

So, in the forefront of my thoughts is this, yet occupying seemingly larger recesses of my mind, is the question many are considering; begging for time to answer.  “What will school look like post pandemic?”  I consider myself humble, yet there is ONE thing I do definitely know.  With all the speculation and ambivalence that everything will go back to normal, or a “new normal,” I flat out disagree.  There is no going back!  If nothing else, students, teachers, and families have all eaten from the “apple” that fell from the tree.  Call it the Tree of Knowledge or better yet, the Corona Tree.  In this case knowledge gained from direct experience.


Why an Apple?

Bing Crosby sang about apples in his 1939 hit, “An Apple for a Teacher.”  And before this, popular lore dates back to the 1700s where in Sweden and Denmark, baskets of apples were given to teachers as a sort of payment for a child’s education.  Then there are stories connecting apple giving to teachers as a result of a popular phrase, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  Gifting a teacher with a healthy snack was a token of appreciation and a possible way to get on the teacher’s good side.  Is it ironic if we further consider that this same fruit is the name of one of the world’ largest computer companies?  Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc. is quoted as saying the origins of the company’s name were, “Partly because I like apples a lot and partially because Apple is ahead of Atari in the phone book and I used to work at Atari.”


Post WWI and WWII

No one would be so naive as to claim that life post either of the World Wars, just went back to normal.  Facts and stories about this have compiled volumes. Lives the world over, cultures forever changed.  The effects being almost written in the human DNA.  For simplicity sake, take the role of technology pre and post WWI as but one example of change.  “France only had 140 aircraft when war began, but by the end of it, it had used around 4,500” (  But what about the role of women, medical innovations, and political borders?

The effects of the wars were gruesome and violent yet, inherent in survival was change.  A moving forward and not expecting life to be how it was.  Positively, there was a surge in arts and a sort of counter-revolution. The arts a means for memorializing the dead. Sculpture, painting, song, and memoire but a few examples.  It is possible today’s war with Corona is stimulating a similar shift.  Sidewalk art, along with rainbows and teddy bears in windows are glimpses of both solidarity and artistry.   Yet, what I imagine is more pervasive in its invisibility but also ubiquity.  The whole world over, the pandemic has forced our hand to adapt.  And humans are masters of adapting.

Whether we like virtual learning or not, and regardless of our deeming it a success or not, both may as well be mute points.  For the reality is, the wheels on the bus continue to go round and round.  The pandemic has forced our hand.  Virtual learning it is!  Many critics point to the ever-widening achievement gap and expanding inequities.  I would agree.  Yet, looking at where we are and where we want to be, seems to be the gravest consideration.  To do this, it would behoove us to answer the question, “What is the purpose of school?”


Why School?

The deep-seated roots of and role of tradition, combined with “this is the way it’s always been” practices of the institution, are collapsing.  At least during the reign of Corona.   Steeped in nearly 400 years of structure, compliance has overshadowed our school houses.  Virtual learning has not provided for this control.  There no longer is a “front” of the classroom, though a teacher may still be able to “mute” a student.  The lecture approach neither captivating nor effective.  For many, virtual learning is an experience of less than 8 weeks.  We cannot forget how in the scope of education as we know it, this is but a blip in time.  Yet, one that continues to leave an indelible mark.


I just hope we open our arms and hearts wide to the possibility of what school can be.  For me, this means continuing to expand in kindness, empathy, and creativity.