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Out of Eden and Back

Participating in a 21,000 mile walk in the footsteps of our ancestors
By Matt Piercy
Out of Eden and Back

ACS Tunis students are connected through the Out of Eden Learn project to their peers around the world (photo: ACS). ______________________________________________________________________ Grade 6 students at the American Cooperative School of Tunis are following the footsteps of Paul Salopek, a National Geographic Fellow, as he walks 21,000 miles across the planet. His unbeaten path traces human migration, out of Ethiopia and all the way to South America’s Tierra del Fuego ( As a class, we are but five months into the epic journey, whereas January marked year five for Paul. Though he had initially planned to devote seven years to the trek, Paul recently arrived at the 5000-mile marker. This is only about a quarter of the way! Yet, that surely is okay, since the motivation and objective behind the trip are both rooted in the necessity to slow down. Having resolved to take his time, observe more carefully, share in conversation, and get to know places and people, Salopek practices what might be called “slow journalism.” This approach runs counter to what is familiar to most—speed, as we race to keep pace with an ever-quickening world and unforeseen finish line. Matt Norman, a freelance writer for National Geographic wrote, “Questioning the premise that faster is better, slow journalism is about taking the time to report the news with close attention and more depth.” Isn’t that what we want in our classrooms? Attention and depth? Taking time to pause, breathe, and remind ourselves of the importance of gratitude and balance fits well with the social-emotional needs of students. By the same token, these also connect well with the Common Core curriculum, as I integrate Salopek’s stories, photographs, videos, and maps. Through Out of Eden Learn (, a program in collaboration with National Geographic and Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, my two classes are connected with five other classrooms of 5th through 8th grade students in private, public, independent, and international school settings. As a “Walking Party,” the connected classrooms are in India and the United States (Chennai, New York, Maine, Florida, and California). Students follow a series of footsteps and learning journeys posted on a custom-built, shared social media platform. Through cross-cultural inquiry and exchange, the intention is to draw inspiration from Salopek’s artistic model of slow journalism. In my experience, middle-school students are eager to share their own stories. They post, but also are excited to learn about the stories of other students in our “Walking Party.” Teachers are encouraged to have students follow what is called The Dialogue Toolkit, commenting on tools to support thoughtful exchanges between Out of Eden Learn participants ( For example, similar to the “Like” button of many social network sites, students might want to go a bit deeper by “appreciating” another’s post. Or, they may wish to “probe,” or “extend,” providing thoughtful questions and pushing thinking in new directions. Whatever the case, all along the way students are interacting with students, sometimes sharing perspectives and life experiences that are vastly different from one another. For example, in our Walking Party, some students may live in gated communities, whereas others are bouncing between homeless shelters. Moreover, changing political and environmental climates are resurfacing topics, as students have been caught in protests, record wildfires, and floods. Further, the myriad of cultural differences shared from one student to another is nothing short of wonderful. As we move towards a smaller, more interconnected world, exchanges like those we have had on Out of Eden Learn are paramount. Salopek shared, “This is my job, I’m not doing this for an adventure or to explore new landscapes or see new destinations. What’s more interesting to me are people.” Soft skills, or key skills, continue to accrue more press; on every list of soft skills is the word “communication.” Though it appears we are moving faster and we have greater capacity than ever to interact, what lacks is depth of communication. The future is reliant on education and economic institutions in which people make time for one another, so we may cultivate greater understanding… so there can be a walk Back to Eden!

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