PBS describes the Extra Life documentary project as “a short history of living longer.” Every episode of the four-part series is dedicated to investigating the interventions that have come about in the last 100 years to produce what science writer Steven Johnson, who co-hosted the Extra Life documentary series, has dubbed “the living century.”
In Johnson’s article on "the living century" for The New York Times Magazine, and in the PBS documentary series, he considers the fact that, in the last 100 years, global life expectancy has doubled. As Johnson notes in a mission statement for Extra Life, “we added 5 billion humans to the planet since 1920, not because people were having more babies, but because we figured out all these new ways to keep people from dying.”
On Thursday, June 10, 2021, Johnson joined the Pulitzer Center for a webinar with five middle and high school educators, all of whom have brought the Extra Life documentary project into their classrooms in spring 2021:
- Akwete McAlister: Social Studies Teacher at CareerCenter High School in Winston-Salem, NC
- Anne-Michele Boyle: Global Citizenship Teacher at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago, IL
- Chalya Pudlewski: English Teacher at Cooperstown Jr./Sr. High School in Cooperstown, NY
- Dr. Cleopatra Warren: U.S./World Affairs, A.P. U.S. History, U.S. Film, and Economics teacher at the Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Atlanta, GA
- Tonita Dozier: Media Specialist at Hardy Middle School in Washington, D.C.
Working at the intersection of science, history, and culture, all of the educators who participated in the webinar had original approaches to how they connected Extra Life into their curricula. From rich classroom discussions about the implications of longer life spans to witty and creative student projects about reproductive health, each classroom approached the project and related curricula with distinct personality and style. Ultimately, their work connected the project to over 350 students.
Johnson opened the webinar panel by comparing the “momentous change” of the doubling of global life expectancy to an underreported story. He noted that the small, incremental changes that come from years of scientific research and breakthroughs do not lend themselves as easily to attention-grabbing headlines. However, he poses, “if a newspaper came out once every hundred years, what would the headline be?” To Johnson and to other members of the Extra Life team, the headline would be, simply “we doubled the average human lifespan.”
This became more potent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which arrived to the world approximately 100 years after the Great Influenza Pandemic. As science and public health moved to the forefront of the global conversation, Extra Life began telling what Johnson calls “the most important story in the world.”
All of the educators who spoke in the webinar were in the unique position of teaching the underreported stories of Extra Life to their students on the heels of an unprecedented and deeply challenging year defined by distance learning, frustration, and anxiety in the classroom and world at large.
AP Human Geography Students in Winston-Salem, NC Create Public Service Announcements:
As Akwete McAlister, a high school social studies teacher from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, dryly noted at the beginning of her presentation, “it has been a year, as you all know.”
McAlister teaches Advanced Placement Human Geography and she brought Extra Life-influenced curricula into her review of demography for her students prior to their Advanced Placement exam.
McAlister introduced her students to the material by having them read an excerpt from Johnson’s “Living Century” article, watching 10-minute segments of the documentary series and answering guided questions from the Pulitzer Center. As a performance task, McAlister had her students create public service announcements about issues in healthcare and public health that they considered important or interesting. One student made an informative video about the life-saving innovation of chest x-rays. Another made a video presentation about toxic shock syndrome and the risks associated with tampons for menstruating people. “As a woman, I feel as if it is my job to partake in the education of young women about their bodies,” the student says.
McAlister spoke highly of Extra Life as an impetus for exam review, and was particularly enthusiastic about the ways in which her students captured the spirit of the project in their own works, which were, in their own ways, documentaries of the underreported stories of human lives and bodies.
Global Citizenship students in Chicago compose comics, TikToks, op-ed letters and more:
Anne Michele-Boyle, a Global Citizenship teacher from Chicago, noted that she was introduced to “The Living Century” on May 2, 2020, when it was the cover story in The New York Times Magazine, of which Boyle is a weekly reader. Almost instantly after reading the article, she knew she wanted to end her school year teaching it. She was intrigued by the way the ideas in the article connected with the “big ideas” that her students focused on in her Global Citizenship class: climate change, poverty, global health, equity, sustainability, and more. Boyle taught “The Living Century” by having her students discuss Johnson’s article in “book club” style and answering comprehension questions from the Pulitzer Center before creating mini-projects reflecting on the themes of the material. Students chose amongst nine projects to reflect their learning. Some students wrote essays reflecting on the article and the ways they personally connected with it. Others created artwork inspired by the article or wrote letters to Jake Silverstein, the editor of the New York Times Magazine. In these letters, the students spoke to the editor about what they thought worked well in the article, as well as suggestions for what they would have done differently.
Boyle also shared student cartoons depicting the story of milk pasteurization, which is featured in the article. She noted that this story was a class favorite. Some of her students created their own “once in a century” newspapers, inspired by the hypothetical headline from Steven Johnson. Still others created TikTok videos that depicted the “skyrocketing” numbers of centenarians in the last century with humor and optimism.
Boyle noted that using “The Living Century” materials in her curricula was “a great way to end the year.” The projects from her students reflect some of what Pulitzer Center executive director Jon Sawyer has to say when he refers to “The Living Century” in the classroom as “teaching a good-news story in a bad-news time.”
Eighth and Ninth Grade English Students in Cooperstown, NY Explore Social and Emotional Learning:
Chalya Pudlewski, an English teacher from New York, echoed the sentiment that it was particularly important to bring material to students that “responded to what they were experiencing.” Pudlewski, who also participated in the Center’s fall 2020 teacher fellowship, emphasized the foundational role that culturally-responsive teaching methods played in the way she approached bringing Extra Life into her classroom and curriculum. Many of her students had parents who worked, in a variety of capacities, at a local medical center where the students also took field trips and carried out different premedical projects. For Pudlewski’s students, COVID-19 had brought questions of science, life, and death into the lives of her students with an immediacy that she took care to acknowledge in her lessons.
Before having her students watch clips from the Extra Life documentary series, she used the vocabulary warm-up from the Pulitzer Center lesson on “The Living Century.” This, Pudlewski noted, was an effective way to introduce students to unfamiliar words or concepts they might encounter while watching the documentary clips. After having her students watch the clips, Pudlewski carried out a social and emotional learning lesson on gratitude, working with counselors at her school to have her students make connections between the clips and spaces of gratitude in their own lives.
Pudlewski noted that the documentary series and the gratitude lesson led to touching and thoughtful remarks from her students, some of whom noted that they were grateful for their own lives or for the scientific innovations that have made living a less intimidating proposition over the last century. Pudlewski had her students take a more active role in the way she implemented the lesson, asking them to fill out a feedback form that she would use in designing future lessons around these materials. Students expressed a full range of emotions in these forms - with some finding it uncomfortable to see images of people who were sick and dying and others enthusing that the material was new and interesting because “we don’t do this type of learning in any other class.”
World Affairs and History Students in Atlanta, GA Explore Connections Between Community Assets and Life Expectancy:
The next presenter was Pulitzer Center Fall 2020 Teacher Fellow Dr. Cleopatra Warren, who teaches World Affairs and History at the Coretta Scott Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. Warren’s implementation of Extra Life into her curriculum was rooted in a primary focus on underreported stories. “I wanted to situate this work in the lived experience of my students,” she said, “and for students to assess and analyze the big picture and how their school fits into the larger society.” Warren noted that she wanted her students to focus on the “counter narratives” and to immerse themselves in the material, despite working under a tight time constraint in introducing her students to the material after they had completed their Advanced Placement exams, close to the end of the school year.
Dr. Warren accomplished her goals for Extra Life-influenced curriculum by having her students complete the “Living Longer, Living Better?” activity from the Pulitzer Center. Prior to showing her students the video from the Extra Life series on life expectancy and public health in the face of COVID-19, Warren identified four pillars of student engagement: student cultural capital, dialogic engagement, historical literacy and media literacy, and critical aspects of self definition.
Warren grounded her implementation of Extra Life curriculum into the local context and lived experiences of her students’ lives. In keeping with her emphasis on the importance of counter-narratives, Warren asked her students to turn an “asset versus deficit” lens onto their own community. In story maps, Flipgrid activities, newsletters, and more, Warren’s students examined their city and honestly described what they saw. Some chose to focus on hyper local issues such as access to resources or environmental justice in Atlanta. Others, like Desirai Archibald, opted for a topical approach. In newscast style, Archibald cited “Living Longer, Living Better?” in an analysis of how unemployment rates and economic distress in the Black community during COVID-19 could be compared to similar racial disparities during the Great Depression. Archibald described her project as “commentary,” a label that could be applied to all of the thoughtfully constructed projects from Warren’s students.
In discussing her key takeaways from her implementation of Extra Life into her curriculum, Warren noted, “the power of thinking was not minimized,” and “we sought joy as much as we sought rigor.”
Journalism Students in Washington, D.C. Use Nearpod to Differentiate Learning
The final educator to present during the webinar was Tonita Dozier, a media specialist at Hardy Middle School in Washington, D.C. Dozier took extra steps to tailor her lessons to the virtual learning environment, and made particular use of the Nearpod Collaborative platform.
Dozier used Nearpod to scaffold the Extra Life documentary series for a younger age group. Showing one video a day, Dozier used Nearpod to collect student responses to questions specific to each clip. Nearpod also proved to be an effective tool for differentiating learning for different students’ learning styles, with some choosing to respond to the material with graphics and photos instead of in writing. Still others included additional research materials from external sources, with some particularly enthusiastic learners choosing to create three-part Nearpod slideshows sharing all they had learned about, for instance, Florence Nightingale’s contributions to the popularization of hand-washing in the 19th century.
Dozier concluded her presentation by noting that she found this incremental method of introducing the material from Extra Life to her students to be very effective in keeping the students engaged, even in a virtual environment. The use of Nearpod and other online resources gave Dozier’s students the space and flexibility to connect with the material in ways that were very individualized and encouraged collaboration.
The webinar concluded with a brief question-and-answer session with the panel of educators, moderated by Johnson.
As the author of "The Living Century" and a primary creative force behind Extra Life, Johnson expressed sincere gratitude to the educators for their work on this curriculum and in the way they and their students had captured some of the inquisitive, optimistic spirit of the Extra Life project.
“All of this is history,” Johnson said of the facts and timelines laid out in his work. “But what we really wanted was for it to feel connected to people’s lives.”
Johnson asked the educators about specific challenges they had faced in bringing Extra Life into their classrooms, particularly given the interdisciplinary nature of the project for the way it encompassed both science and society. Every educator had a unique experience with this element of the material. Pudlewski noted that she had used the complexity of the material as an opportunity to network and connect with new people, bringing Pulitzer-supported journalists into her classroom to give her students a more personal portal to the content.
In response to McAlister, who noted that she chose to give her implementation of Extra Life a problem-solving focus to align better with the culture of her Science, Engineering, Technology and Math (STEM) oriented school, Johnson noted enthusiastically that the topics covered in the series “are all little mysteries” that lend themselves to being considered and solved, by students of all ages.
Dozier, speaking to her experience teaching the material in a discussion-heavy journalism class, said, “this was an opportunity to talk about and discuss something that is impacting all of us in real time. One of the best parts of this series was the fact that students had the opportunity to witness prior health crises and to see that people got through it. That led to a certain sense of optimism for the current health crisis. We had that discussion, and the kids felt better. It was a sense that we have overcome something just like this in the past, and not just once, not just twice, and not just one one continent, but around the world.”
For a more detailed description of the work of implementing Extra Life into the classroom, we encourage you to view the whole webinar. Click here to view the webinar slides, which also include the student work and curricular resources described by the participating educators.
All of the educators who spoke on our panel had practical and creative approaches to this material. Their words of guidance, as well as curricular materials from the Pulitzer Center provide an excellent launching point from which to bring this story to students across grade levels and subjects.
The Extra Life documentary series is available for viewing on PBS.