Greenwich Time: Greenwich Academy teachers stop by South by Southwest

GREENWICH — Imagine: Dancing next to a life-size figure, your iPhone blaring a favorite tune. But the person facing you isn’t there. She’s thousands of miles away in Iraq, tucked in a room much like yours. And yet together, you share a moment.

Or imagine this: Turning a $3 webcam into a microscope that can film the universe blown up large. In a lab, you tinker with little pieces of technology until the focus is just right and your camera records the minutiae you want it to see. The world is your oyster, in all its detail and design.

At Greenwich Academy, two teachers have pioneered initiatives that make both of these hypotheticals a reality. And last week, they dodged a nor’easter for a few days in Austin, Texas, where they shared their knowledge at South by Southwest.

‘Empathy machines’

Kristen Erickson, a history teacher who curated GA’s Portal Project, sat on a SXSW panel last Wednesday with Lewis Lee, a formerly incarcerated Milwaukee resident who often interfaced with students at Greenwich Academy in the fall of 2016. Lee lives in a neighborhood where 62 percent of the men have been in prison, according to a video by Shared_Studios. Erickson and Lee spoke about their experiences with the Portal Project, and what the resource meant to two very different regions.

The panelists agreed that both Greenwich and Milwaukee are bubbles, isolated from other communities.

“Breaking through those bubbles, that’s kind of breaking down those barriers,” Erickson said.

And the Greenwich portal didn’t just foster connections in Wisconsin. Nearly two years ago, GA became the first high school in the United States to play host to the Portal Project. Designed by Shared_Studios, the international program uses gold shipping containers to inspire interactions between global citizens in places as far flung as Gaza or Greenwich. Inside the portal, participants find themselves in a basic room with monitors, which they to communicate with people across borders and boundaries.

During the three months that Erickson curated the project, GA students were exposed to voices from different continents and diverse backgrounds.

“We wanted to get the kids connected around the world,” she said.

In Iraq, children at an internally displaced camp told their peers in Greenwich how much they wanted to return home. When news stories about retaking Mosul cropped up months later, one student asked Erickson whether that meant the refugees would get to go back where they felt they belonged.

“You get to know humans in a place, and it’s not just a country and its politics at this removed level,” said Erickson.

Though some of the conversations grew heavy, for the most part, the children in Iraq wanted to distance themselves from their situation and enjoy a moment of escapism with their American counterparts.

“They just want to dance, and sing, and be normal kids,” Erickson said.

Other discussions dove into students’ coursework. One group focused on the global reach of hip-hop spoke with a dance troupe in Honduras. The portal opened up linguistic opportunities as well: Spanish classes practiced with native speakers, and kids discovered the Arabic they knew was more classical than colloquial.

The project also served as a jumping off point for understanding a more universal view of the United States. Erickson recalled asking someone in Afghanistan what they had heard about America. The response? People go into schools and shoot children, they said, though they did not believe that all Americans were violent.

In short, the project became a tool for knowledge throughout GA’s ranks, from the lower school to teenagers.

“I think our kids are constantly communicating, but at a very superficial level, and the portal really changes that up and forces you to engage,” Erickson said. “There’s something about committing to dialogue … our students leaving behind their phones and their own context and just kind of entering this space that requires their full attention.”

A $3 treasure

Though at first glance, Erin Riley’s work may seem eons away from a sociocultural initiative like the Portal Project, both undertakings boil down to the same thing: Sharing thoughts.

As the director of GA’s engineering and design lab, Riley has partnered with another educator in Los Angeles to spearhead new technologies that could be incorporated in any classroom. Using a webcam that’s available online for mere dollars, she has created two types of cameras — a microscope and macroscope — that can capture life on earth with scientific precision.

At South by Southwest, Riley presented her research with the hope that other maker-educators could deploy it in their curricula.

“This is all open source. Everything is freely given,” she said.

At the academy, Riley’s camera has been used for film assignments, in fourth grade science classes, and even in advanced STEM coursework. The small device has vast applications in both arts and sciences, but perhaps its most obvious appeal is the hands-on attention it requires.

“It offers another look at how to use technology in a less packaged form,” Riley said. “There’s something really powerful about building your tools, and then using your tools.”

Students customize their cameras, and they can toy with the design to fit their particular visions. Because the mechanism is so inexpensive, it represents a low pressure learning opportunity, which means there’s room to experiment.

“The first thing students do is they tear this thing apart,” Riley said. “There’s lots of different ways that these tools can be used, and it’s very homemade, and they really enjoy that. They enjoy the kind of messy, abstract quality to capturing images.”

When Riley spoke about being part of a “larger network of educators,” her mission sounded not so distant from Erickson’s. At GA, both teachers are giving local kids access to a whole new world, widening their horizons while also contributing to a more collaborative intellectual community.

“We want to offer really open-ended, accessible activities for learning for our students,” Riley said, “and ones that are cross-disciplinary.”