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Life as a Student and Life on Mars

Thursday, November 16, 2017

“I needed to take risks within an environment full of people I did not know and grapple with material outside of my comfort zone. I had to ask myself to go one step further and not settle within my own context, while always remaining true to my own voice. These are the same challenges I task my students with each day.”

Originally published by the Association for Childhood Education International in November 2017, as part of a special global citizenship issue of Childhood Education: Innovations.

Kelsey Thingvold reflects on her experiences helping her students to think critically and consider their role in the world, and how those experiences served her well in her own collaboration with a global group of education leaders.

Kelsey Thingvold, Lead Advisor for Independence Level 4 at Khan Lab SchoolMyanmar, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Switzerland, China, Holland, Korea, Singapore—the list rolls on and on as I sit, nervously, in my first educational leadership class in Bangkok, listening to my colleagues identify their home countries and the high-ranking positions they hold in these places. My professor opens the course by asking us: Why are you all here, and what do you feel you can contribute to the larger education community?

I do not consider myself a nervous person; in this moment, however, I begin to feel anxious about how my answer will hold up against these veterans and their impressive backgrounds. I stare out onto the tropical playing field in Bangkok, seeing children racing, tagging, chatting, and chanting, and I am reminded of my own students, which jolts me back into “teacher mode.” I think about the advice I would give my students in situations like this, and I decide to approach the rest of the course by following the principles I continually ask my students to practice:

  • Think critically

  • Assume best intentions

  • Listen to one voice at a time

  • Engage in critical conversations and practice answering difficult questions

  • Most important: be an advocate for your own learning.

These principles, developed with my students over the course of our school year, are especially important in the context of global learning. Global consciousness is vital to teaching effectively in today’s world. This is a key reason I chose to pursue my master’s degree in educational leadership at a graduate program that allows for study in multiple countries over the course of three summers (The College of New Jersey’s Off-Site Graduate Programs). This experience allows me to practice utilizing the same skills that I, as an educator, purposefully and intentionally build into projects so that students gain an understanding of what global citizenship looks like and feels like. During my first summer in Spain and the subsequent summer in Thailand, I needed to take risks within an environment full of people I did not know and grapple with material outside of my comfort zone. I had to ask myself to go one step further and not settle within my own context, while always remaining true to my own voice.

These are the same challenges I task my students with each day at Khan Lab School in Mountain View, California, where I work as a Lead Advisor for Independence Level 4 (ages 9 to 12). Our school is open 12 months of the year and runs on a five-term schedule, with each term’s project designed around a unified concept. This past year, I based our projects on the macro-concepts of borders and constraints, with each term addressing borders and constraints though a different lens: arts and culture, science and technology, ethics and justice, government and economics, and service learning. During the second term, I asked students to examine the constraints humans face when exploring life on other planets. I tasked them with answering the question, What would it take to live on Mars?

Students in Kelsey’s group hold up signs during their Mars presentations.
Students in Kelsey’s group on the evening of their Mars presentations.

During the Mars project, students explored six major constraints for human life on Mars: water, oxygen, atmosphere, food, shelter, and clothing. As a group, we analyzed books, articles, and videos, and enjoyed a visit from a NASA Mars Rover specialist. These activities helped inform and inspire the prototypes that each group designed in the hopes of tackling and addressing one of the assigned constraints.

Although the students had ample resources and avenues of knowledge, many nevertheless struggled to decide what to present, how to connect the dots, and why they should align a variety of ideas from different teammates within their small groups. For example, one of the teams chose to design a geodesic dome in order to sustainably grow food on Mars; throughout the term, they faced conflicts with their different communication styles and ways of working through this difficult project. They argued over whether or not they were going to put forth hydroponics or aquaponics in their “grant proposals,” and they struggled to find consensus about which structural shape would make their prototype the strongest. One of the team members wanted to build the dome out of Legos, and he declared that he was going to build the prototype at home by himself. The continual arguments among the team members put them behind schedule, eventually reaching a point where they needed to put their disagreements aside and collaborate to prioritize the completion of their prototype.

Students decorating and preparing their space for their presentations.
Kelsey’s students in the learning space the day of their Mars term exhibition.
A younger sibling looks inward at student's final Mars presenation.
A younger sibling watches one of the Mars final presentations through the window.

I reminded this team of our principles, especially about listening to one voice at a time and assuming best intentions. Once they started listening to one another more purposefully, they were able to build seven prototypes of their dome. They spent hours prepping and practicing in the room where they would present to their families and friends. On the day of the final presentation, they were unexpectedly asked to change the location of their presentation, and they had to work together to familiarize themselves with a new setting. They were disappointed by this disruption to their plans, but they were able to think on their feet and move on quickly. The team had one of the most successful presentations and received exceptional feedback from the school staff who were evaluating the final projects.

Lead Advisor Kelsey Thingvold and her Independence Level 4 students.
Kelsey with her advisory at Khan Lab School (Independence Level 4) on the day of their Mars term exhibition.

I reflect on my students’ experiences when I’m asked to engage as a student myself. As educators, we sometimes forget to task ourselves with the same challenges we assign in the classroom. We are able to identify what our students need to do in order to learn and grow, but we have more trouble identifying this for ourselves in our own learning. When it was my turn to answer that question—Why are you here, and what do you feel you can contribute?—I reminded myself that my students were just as nervous as I was about being advocates for their own learning. I shared with my fellow leaders and administrators that I am in this program to think critically, to practice answering difficult questions, and to listen.


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