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Pulitzer Center Update December 5, 2013

"I am learning something fun!" Chicago Students Follow Out of Eden Walk

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As Paul Salopek journeys around the world on foot, he will follow the migration pathways of our...

If you ask, I will tell you that I have embarked on this project, which I'm calling the Out of Eden Walk, for many reasons: ...To slow down. To think. To write...I walk, as everyone does, to see what lies ahead. I walk to remember.

So writes National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek, the narrator of a contemporary yet ancient journey that belongs, he says, to all of us. Hot on his trail around the globe are students of all ages from everywhere, including third and fourth-graders at Community Consolidated School District 21 in the Chicago suburbs. District 21 seized upon the project as an opportunity to update its curriculum and, in the words of the district's integrated technology specialist Tracy Crowley, "empower [students] to take charge of their own learning." We visited three schools in the district – Riley, Frost and Tarkington – to see firsthand what they were up to.

"I think his whole walk is interesting," Riley fourth-grader Lia reported. "This is the first time I've heard of a man walking across the world in seven years! And the things that he's gonna realize, across the world, that I've only realized in one state."

Students in Jaimie Kalinowski's fourth-grade class at Riley, assisted by learning coach Kevin Olsen, completed activities from the "Emotion of Images" lesson plan for middle-school students. Then each student uploaded a scanned version of a map he or she had hand-drawn of important places in their community – their houses, their school, the local Starbucks – onto the "Student Work" section of the Walk to Learn website, a design of Project Zero.

"With this project, students are taking their technology skills to new learning levels," Kalinowski wrote later in an e-mail. "They often comment on our school blog/wiki and upload their projects on the Out of Eden website. I even have a few students that log on at home and continue commenting on peoples' projects and comments from around the world. It is amazing learning taking place!"

Holly Goldsmith's class worked with Olsen to compose tweets to Salopek so her students could participate in a live Twitter chat with the journalist that morning.

"Have you made friends along the way?" students wanted to know. "What wildlife have you encountered? Will you keep in touch with the people you've met?"

Students in Karen Boborci's classroom saw a rare photo of a Saudi woman walking alongside the men and their camels in the desert, and discussed the cultural values in Saudi Arabia that restrict women's freedom to travel unescorted by male relatives. They wondered how Saudi girls were able to attend school under these regulations.

"I think one of the best parts [of studying the Walk] is going beyond the worksheets and textbooks and bringing in some real-life examples, and kids really respond to that," Olsen said. "And I think one of the coolest parts that we've seen…is not knowing where the learning is going to go, and letting the students kind of dictate that." He and Boborci said they'd be open to researching girls' education in Saudi Arabia and discussing the issue with their students.

Third-grade students at Frost embarked on an observation walk of their own behind their school, where they took a slower, closer look at a landscape they see every day.

"How will sharp ears, sharp eyes, and observing help you become better writers?" Crowley asked the students.

"When you need an idea for a story you can think on what you saw," several suggested.

Tarkington school was on its first day kicking off the Out of Eden Walk social studies unit. The third-graders watched the introductory video and read Paul's letter to students while listening to a podcast of him reading it aloud (both available on the Creatavist versions of our 2013 Out of Eden Walk lesson plans).

Heather Popilek, the district's science and exploratory coordinator, said the study of the Walk serves a number of purposes.

It helps "to get the kids motivated to learn about explorers and social science [and] gives the Common Core literacy standards some purpose for the nonfiction reading and writing that they'll be doing," she said. "So this helping to provide purpose behind what our kids need to be learning and doing anyway."

"They're also making connections to news reports that they're hearing or that their parents are talking about because they've heard of the places before," said Goldsmith. "It's something that they can connect to."

"It's how they see the world anyway," continued Popilek. "And although sometimes we [adults] might be scared of that [step-by-step view], they're not. They're excited and motivated by learning in this way."

Fourth-grader Aly is excited that Salopek is "seeing so many things that are different than where we actually are from, and people are so different."

"What made [him] decide to take seven years of [his] life and put it at risk?" Lia wondered. "'Cause there's troubles that you could face."

"He's not just doing this, like, for fun," Aly said.

"If I were him I would do this because I want to learn more about people," said Lia.

"I think I would do something like it," Aly began, slowly.

"Maybe across our continent, but not across the whole world," added Lia.

Salopek, for his part, told NPR's Tell Me More he's enjoyed interacting with communities at the school level during the Walk.

"It's a mechanical process; it's a no-brainer. Children come up to me and it's been wonderful, it's been great, and I get to see this whole layer of human life, human activity that I often missed because I was speeding through on deadline [as a foreign correspondent]. It's enriching for me, and I think it's making my work better – and it's hopefully fun for the kids."

So far, the Walk seems popular on both ends.

Kalinowski heard one of her students exclaim as they wrapped up a day of Walk discussion, "I am learning something fun at Riley School!"


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