Story is everything. I am mindful of how important each student’s story is when they walk into my class each day. I'm equally mindful of trying to show them that they can write the lines of their stories on any inch of the planet they share.
To that end, while studying ecosystems, our classroom community opened itself up to a Skype Virtual Field Trip to Yellowstone National Park: a 1,400 km trip with over 50 students that didn’t cost us flights or packing, or impact our carbon footprint. We front-loaded by talking about both the park itself and our local ecosystems. We even accumulated artifacts like skulls and furs so that we’d be able to have our hands on the things that our counterparts in Wyoming would be walking us through.
The Skype call went brilliantly. The students were engaged. They had the right questions. They offered the right insights. They linked the story of the national park to their own life stories in so many ways. But it didn’t end at our cordial farewells and thank-yous. This was to be our jump-off point.
This summer, I had travelled to the Galapagos Islands as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with National Geographic. I have been sharing my story with my students through pictures and video and discussion. I had also asked each of them to share their travels, to share the stories of the smells and tastes and feelings and experiences of being in ecosystems both foreign and domestic. We wrote the stories and the poetry together of what those experiences were. Then, once our Skype visit with Yellowstone National Park happened, we used that experience to build on and connect to the feeling of our own. Since poetry is all about trying to invite another person into our own personal experiences, the students were able to connect to these ecosystems through both technology with Skype and through the most human of our experiences and senses.
Finally, we went further and used Skype to connect to fellow explorers and scientists, photographers, writers, and locals that I had worked with in the Galapagos and beyond. With Skype shrinking the size of the planet and our students growing the size of their personal stories, it made the whole experience something that showed the students that science really is less about fact than it is about discovery and experiential understanding.
The biggest success of this—of opening up not only the planet but in growing and celebrating the importance of each individual story—was that the students understood that our guests on Skype were less vessels of rote information and more pages of a story, one that we write and experience together as members of a shared biosphere and all the little ecosystems within it. In getting to feel and experience each of these ecosystems through unique lenses, story really did become everything.
Mike Johnston is a middle years educator specializing in sciences and language arts. He is a national and provincial champion slam poet, spoken word educator, and a National Geographic Grosvenor Fellow whose work has taken him to the Galapagos Islands.
To learn more about Skype in the Classroom and to find Virtual Field Trips, guest speakers, and other connective activities for your class, visit the Microsoft Educator Community. Discover a wide range of Microsoft Canada's tools and solutions for educators at microsoft.ca/education.