Classroom in the sky
By Alex on January 14th, 2013
Barrington Irving is the youngest person and first black pilot to fly solo around the world at the age of 23. In the fall of 2014, Barrington will fly around the world again, this time as part of Classroom in the Sky, a project that will allow students worldwide to participate virtually in his journey.
Julia Graeper from the Classroom and Community Group was lucky enough to catch up with Barrington and ask him a few questions! Julia has been at Scholastic since 2000, and has been very happily working in editorial for Classroom and Community Group since 2009.
J: Let’s talk about some of the kids you meet through your organization, Experience Aviation. Have they also experienced hardships early in life as you did?
B: Experience Aviation is based in Miami, and we use the organization as a vehicle to really teach kids math and science. And a good percentage of them grew up in similar situations to me, in terms of having humble beginnings. We also have students who are in a lot worse situations than what I grew up with. I grew up with both parents, but many of our students come from single parent homes and that’s a challenge.
We have some amazing students who excel in math, but they struggle with reading or science. Or in all three areas. One of the cool things is we use aviation as the motivating factor to get kids introduced to math and science in a different way.
J: Do they come to you already interested in math and science, or in aviation?
B: We get some kids who just want to do cool things like build a plane and they don’t realize that they’re learning math and science in the process. We get other students who are great with science but they hate math or reading. But what they don’t realize is that in order to have a great understanding of math, they need to know how to read.
When I first started out, we were working with high schoolers. And now we’re working with students as young as eight, third grade. Because if students don’t have certain core skills in math, science and reading, by the time they get to high school, there are a lot of challenges they’ll face. So we’ve opened up the door to embed those skills in students.
J: When you were that age, were you into math and science?
B: I was actually better at reading and writing and language arts, but I liked math more. I remember I hated geometry. I couldn’t understand how the shapes related to real life. But when I got the airplane and flew around the world, the first subject I had to use was geometry, because I had to use it to fit a fuel tank into the aircraft.
J: It sounds like it is really important to you to help kids learn how to use academic subjects in real life.
B: Yes. If you don’t give kids a tangible finish line, it is very hard to motivate them to pursue math and science. So with building a plane – the finish line – they don’t interpret it as having to learn algebra, having to read and write and communicate. But when you can captivate a child’s mind in that way, you can teach them anything.
J: So do you have a toolkit of strategies that you use to engage kids?
B: Yes, one of our best strategies is to have the students who understand the material teach the ones who don’t, because they have to work together as a team in order to do it right. So we use peer mentoring as well as college-age instructors, and experts. If you have a student who is unmotivated, they won’t go the extra mile on their own. That’s what it boils down to.
We don’t use the word “tutor.” We use experts who teach concepts through real-life situations. I try to stay away from the typical learning environment, and instead create one in which it’s live-learning, because then students feel part of the solution and become open to learning.
J: Can you tell me how the idea of Classroom in the Sky came about?
B: It all started by asking myself: how do I create a real-life tangible experience in the virtual world? And how can I impact students on a larger scale?
So I asked myself, what am I good at? Well, I’m good at flying planes. And I have a passion for education. So Classroom in the Sky is really like a real-life Magic School Bus with wings!
This will be a real-life journey where I can communicate with students during the process, and they’ll help determine the outcome. So if I am flying and need to calculate fuel, or if I am on the ground hunting a poisonous creature, the students are voting on how I do that. It makes learning math and science and reading relevant: how does it affect our lives right now? Exposing students to 21st century career paths, these are the kinds of things we want to do.
I think what’s really important in education is that we have to look at our outreach to kids the same way we look at modern-day advertising. If you’re going to do something that doesn’t capture the attention of a young person in a matter of seconds, then it’s not going to work.
J: You’re very conscious of the pitch, how you present the learning process to students.
B: Absolutely, I think the pitch is everything. The hardest challenge we all face as educators is getting kids excited to even want to learn about the subject, or pursue a certain path.
And I treat it more like, how do I make that appealing to young people? We have to adapt to the ways they want to communicate. I send email, but email is too slow for these kids! We have to understand the noise we’re competing with, like video games and what’s going on in their social lives. I had to be honest with myself about what I could create that kids would care about and want to be a part of, and I believe Classroom in the Sky is it.
So we have to think about what can get a kid interested, but also give them ownership of the process. Just like building a car or a plane. There’s a sense of ownership: I built it. So during my journey, I want students to feel that same sense of ownership: I helped to determine the outcome of the journey. I helped to choose what he’s going to eat. I chose where he’s going to explore. My life is in their hands, pretty much! Whatever they vote on, I have to do. And that’s in real-time.
J: So clearly, you teach your students a lot. What are some things you have learned from them?
B: Ah! I learned to be grateful. There is always a story that a child is telling you and you have to fight back tears.
Kids also teach me that the problems we need to solve in education are not as complicated as we make it seem. We spend millions of dollars on identifying the problems, and I understand that, but as adults we get wrapped up in thinking from our own perspective rather than the child’s perspective. And in the end who loses? It’s the child.
And they teach me what not to take for granted. I’ll never forget, after the students built the aircraft, some of the students came up to me and said, ‘Thanks, Mr. Irving, this was the first thing I ever finished in my life.”
And I didn’t understand the meaning of that and I was joking around with them: “What do you mean? Cut yourself some slack!”
And they said, “No, you don’t understand. This is the first thing I have ever completed in my life.” And that hit me, because we often take the opportunities we have for granted.
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