Image via Reach the World and Pixabay.

New Program Takes Kids on a Virtual Journey Outside the Classroom

Shifting education away from normal curriculum could prepare students to meet challenges on a global scale.

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Jul 6 2017, 4:15pm

Image via Reach the World and Pixabay.

For some of the elementary-aged kids stepping into the Explorers Club, it was their first time outside of the New York borough where they live and learn. Brianna Rowe, Explorer's Club member and managing director at Reach the World, wanted the kids participating in the Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation after school program, to benefit from the treasure-filled building that houses the Explorer's Club in Uptown Manhattan.

Reach the World fosters experimental education for economically disadvantaged children by making them feel part of adventures unfolding in places far off, from Arctic Inuit communities to Syrian refugee camps in Germany. In a time in which a global perspective is increasingly required to solve the complex problems facing humanity, educators who push the boundaries of both discovery and cultural exchange, offer youth in otherwise isolated communities the chance to become curious, confident global citizens.

"Reach the World facilitates authentic connections between people abroad and students in the United States," Rowe told VICE Impact. "We match volunteer travelers who are working, studying, or traveling abroad with a K-12 classroom. Students go on a virtual journey with their traveler and develop an 'I can do it too' attitude."

The nonprofit was founded in 1998 on the premise that combatting ignorance and intolerance begins with preparing students to cooperate on a global scale by learning through other cultures.

It's key to invite them into the discussion in a way that feels inviting and relevant, so they are primed to become knowledgeable.

Part of their visit to the Explorers Club, founded in 1904 by seven leading polar explorers of the era, is to interact with UNESCO youth world representatives presenting climate change adaptation action plans for their coastal communities. Given that educational curricula has not yet universally adopted climate change education, chances are these kids have learned little about ocean conservation in their traditional classrooms.

For young students, it's key to invite them into the discussion in a way that feels inviting and relevant, so they are primed to become knowledgeable. To that end, Christine Dennison, Explorer's Club fellow, Ocean and Polar expedition specialist and founder of Mad Dog Expeditions, shares footage of one of her expeditions to learn from an Inuit community. These children live in an isolated region, where melting polar caps means crucial changes in lifestyle.

"Without this approach, says Reach the World founder Heather Halstead, "students are more likely to think, 'That environmental problem in a far-away place? Why should I care? It doesn't affect me.' However, when they follow a real traveler, who they get to know personally, into the context of that environmental issue, then they begin to develop reasons to care, engage and develop ideas about solutions."


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For Dennison, she benefited from viewing her multiculturalism upbringing as a plus. She was born in Manhattan into a bilingual family, her mom is from Mexico and her dad is from Colombia, and she often traveled to Mexico City. This emboldened her to break barriers in the world of exploration which is, characteristically, white and male. She was the first woman to dive and explore the Arctic Sea ice and ice caves of the Canadian High Arctic and the first woman to dive the piranha-filled waters of the Amazon's Rio Negro.

"What travel is all about to me is respecting and understanding another way of life."

During the visit, she asked how many of the students speak Spanish. When most say they do, she prides them in the fact that they already have the great advantage of communication beyond only English.

At the 2016 world language conference educator conference in Louisville, Kentucky, Rowe recalls, one skeptical teacher proclaimed that students don't need to learn about other languages because "In America, we speak American."

"What travel is all about to me is respecting and understanding another way of life," Dennison said. "Already having another language allows you make a connection with so many places in the world."

Halstead explained how for the previous two decades, the Common Core movement has dominated K-12 public education in the U.S. While results for literacy and mathematics learning have been strong, this also resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum. Enrichment subjects such as global, the arts, P.E., and more, were pushed out. These "enrichment" subjects are now starting to come back in, as policymakers realize that a narrow curriculum is neither engaging nor beneficial to today's students.

"Passion doesn't transfer in a book," she Dennison. "To talk and to listen is a powerful tool, it's impactful showing them what I've seen and what they may want to see one day."

The Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015 under the Obama administration, encourages local innovation initiatives like the work of Reach the World, which give teachers more options to incorporate experiential learning programs.

"No matter what students go on to do, they will need to communicate with people outside of their immediate community."

Also in 2015, the UN launched the Sustainable Development Goals, a series of goal and targets that serve as a framework for global development. These targets provide a framework with international consensus on what are the most important items to achieve sustainability in the future. Central to the achievement of the SDGs is an emphasis on global education. Reach the World continues to expand across the nation to help meet this goal.

Since 2009, Reach the World has served more than 17,000 youth, 900 travelers, and 500 volunteers. Their community has created more than 16,000 primary-source travel stories, chronicling daily life around the globe. Their impact report notes their youth show advancements in self-efficacy, geographic literacy, interest in learning a foreign language, ability to connect schoolwork to future career pathways and empathy for foreign countries and cultures.

"No matter what students go on to do, they will need to communicate with people outside of their immediate community," Rowe said. "How many times a day to you use your global skills? These skills are necessary to succeed in today's economy. But beyond that, it is imperative that students show compassion and empathy toward people who are different from them. How else will we cooperate in a global society?"

"There is a long road to travel to bring this forward-thinking model into the majority of American schools," says Halstead. "Reach the World is at the forefront of this advocacy movement."

If you're an explorer and want to share your adventure and enrich the lives of kids, Reach the World urges you to get involved.