Deeper Connections Through Virtual Reality

by Cindy Emerson, Principal, Vero Beach Elementary School, Vero Beach, FL

Post originally posted on Cindy’s blog here.

Have you ever had an experience where you thought…. THIS… THIS IS WHAT’S MISSING IN EDUCATION?  Well, this has been in my thoughts a lot lately.  I feel like I’ve found an incredible way to build deeper connections at my school and I’m so excited to share it with the world.

At the beginning of this year I set goals for myself as a lead learner, I made a vow to get into every single classroom to connect with our students at Vero Beach Elementary through read-alouds.  Inspired by so many Administrators that I follow on twitter and connect with on voxer, I knew I wanted to be a “Principal in Action” by walking the walk.  I refused to believe I needed to spend all of my day locked in my office.  I purchased the children’s books recommended by colleagues and placed them neatly on my bookshelf in my office eager to begin my reading adventure.

I started off strong.  I reached out to the staff, created sign-ups outside my office, pleaded through our weekly principal press messages, and promoted the effort on twitter.

Sadly, it fell short.

I’m swallowing a big piece of humble pie by sharing with you that it was a huge fail forward for me as I reflected on my goals mid-year.  After acknowledging my short-fall, I realized that I what I really wanted was a deeper connection, both to the students and the content areas being taught in each classroom.  We have worked on embedding technology at Vero Beach Elementary, but what was weighing heavily on me was:  What am I doing as the Principal to really model technology integration into my school? 

I found the missing piece, leading Virtual Reality Field Trips.

I ordered the Google Expedition Kit from Best Buy.

Google Expedition Virtual Reality Kits

I had NO idea what I was getting myself into, but what better way to model risk-taking then to jump in.  Anyone who knows me understands that I’m not a patient person.  When they arrived, I was able to immediately get them up and running.  I couldn’t believe how EASY it was (I promise I’m not being paid by google).  I was able to connect them and run an experience on them within 10 minutes!

I began by trying them out with a group of students that I always use as my guinea pigs (thank you Ms. Rochon’s 5th grade class).  They loved them and I immediately wanted to guide a field trip with every single class that I could find. The next day I shared them at the end of a faculty meeting with any teachers or staff willing to stay late to check them out.  I showed them how I can take the students through the experience and I invited teachers to explore the “google expedition” free app on their own and sign up for virtual reality field trips that organically connected to the science-based units they were teaching.

I began the content connected experience with Ms. Gonzalez’ group of first graders that just began to study space.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from first graders, but they were rockstar astronomers!

The excitement.

The connections the students make to the content they are learning.

The questions that come from these experiences, leading to curiosity and exploration.

PRICELESS.

THAT is what I’m in this career for.  Building intrinsic motivation into students so they have an incredibly passionate desire to learn.

I recently had a colleague ask me how I can afford to block out an hour to get into classes to do this with kiddos.  My question is, how can I afford NOT to?

After doing this with classes across multiple grade levels I can tell you, every single student gains something from this opportunity.

Here are a few pointers for those of you willing to jump.

1. Small groups of 10 or less works best
2. The devices get really hot and loses battery pretty quickly, don’t plan on using them for more than two groups without having charging time and rest in between explorations.
3. Be very intentional in HOW you want the students to experience the field trip, explain even the simplest expectations
4. Use this as a way to model accountable talk strategies
5. Google Expedition has tiered questions that can help create incredible reflection throughout the experience.

When it comes to building connections, the small group environment and unique experience has been a catalyst to creating relationships with my kiddos at VBE.  I’ve never seen such gratitude and appreciation for learning.  I’m so blessed to have the opportunity to impact the educational experiences of so many students. I hope I never take that for granted by sitting in my office managing paperwork, there’s plenty of time for the paperwork at night once my own kids fall asleep.

In the end, I hope I never lose my desire to take risks and connect with the content our teachers are teaching… but more importantly,  I hope I always find a way to make connecting with kids a priority!

CindyCindy is a first year Principal and Lead Learner at Vero Beach Elementary, actively working to take a school of improvement and change it to a school of innovation. She is focused on student-centered learning, experiential activities, data-based decision making, and technology integration. Her heart and passion revolves around ensuring every single child has access to a high quality education that gives opportunity for each to reach their true potential. She is the mother of two boys and proud wife of a firefighter.
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