“Why do we have to learn this?” is a common question teachers get from students, in all grades. It seems to come from a sense that there is no obvious connection between the student and the subject — how is this relevant to my life? In recent years, teachers have started to adopt a model that allows students to explore topics they are interested in and demonstrate skills in projects about those topics. Some schools call it a Passion Project; others might call it a 20% Project. At St. Anne’s-Belfield, it’s called FABLab. Every Wednesday from 9 – 10:15, students in Grades 3 and 4 apply skills they’ve learned in class to projects they care about, with the help and guidance of their classroom teachers, specialist teachers, the heads of the Lower School, and the Dean of Academics. The educators lead the students through a process of brainstorming, inquiry, questions, planning, reflection, and presentation.
Back in September, Assistant Head of the Lower School Francis Atemo recommended the film "Albatross" by photographer Chris Jordan for third graders. He’d used it at a school where he previously worked, and he knew these astute students would appreciate it. The film depicts, in beautiful and heartbreaking detail, the life of the albatross and the effect plastic pollution has on its health. After watching the film, the inspired students worked in groups to create all sorts of models, posters, and presentations aimed at creating awareness about ocean pollution. One group’s idea involved learning about Chris Jordan’s life and work, and what better way to do that than to ask him about it directly! After a preliminary email to gauge Chris’s willingness, the students were thrilled when the artist himself offered a Zoom meeting with the entire 3rd grade.
Students in Ms. Corbin’s, Ms. Smith’s, and Mr. Raffinan’s classes met with artist Chris Jordan via Zoom, broadcasting some 6,000 miles away in Punta Arenas, located at the southern tip of Chile. The students took turns asking Chris a wide range of questions, starting with the basics (“when and where were you born?” 1963, San Francisco) to astonishingly sophisticated and thought provoking queries.
Chris Jordan, a photographer who has documented decades of discarded plastic bottle caps, cell phones, cigarette butts, plastic bags, and other emblems of American consumerism and pollution, believes that art can awaken emotions that catalyze change. When students asked why he made the film Albatross, he explained that he is “interested in things that break my heart.” About 14 years ago, he began to learn about plastic in the ocean, and as an environmental photographer, he felt drawn to that topic. During his research, one of his friends — a biologist — told him if he really wanted to see the effect of plastic on wildlife, he should visit Midway Island, a very small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Albatrosses on the island mistake bits of plastic floating in the water and on the shore for food. After eating these pieces of plastic, the birds die. Not just a few birds. Hundreds of birds.
Chris decided he had to see it for himself. He went to Midway Island, not once, but eight times over the course of four years. Then he spent an additional four years making the film. What started as a story about plastic and its effect on the natural world became, over those eight years, a love story about the birds — their babies, their habits, the totality of their lives, not just their deaths.
When you watch the trailer for Albatross, your heart will sink. But Chris delivered an important message to the young students: “We have to hold the bad news of the world… and hold all of the good news.” When a student asked about the sadness of the film and of the work, and of things happening in the world, Chris assured students that it’s okay to feel sadness. In fact, one goal in making the film was to enable viewers to feel their sadness. He explained that crying is really just a symbol of love. “Sadness is a doorway that takes us to the deepest part of ourselves — our heart… Sadness connects us with love.” Or as Kahlil Gibran expressed it, “When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that, in truth, you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
And that, Chris believes, is transformative, because people want to help the people and creatures they love. “When we feel sadness, we feel motivated to do something.” In a time of a global health crisis, and multiple environmental challenges, and uncivil political behavior, when there IS a lot to be sad about, what a blessing to be reminded not to be afraid of sadness, for that’s where courage lies in wait.
Instead of “why do we have to learn this?” students came out of the project asking, “What can I do to make a difference?” Chris Jordan’s film did what art does: it helped the students see how they are connected to the ocean, their own trash, those hundreds of albatrosses, and each other. That sense of connection makes it possible to love and feel sadness toward people and places they don’t even know.