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My Turn, Karina Reyes: Nothing can replace in-person learning

By Karina Reyes

As a teacher, I strive to bring learning into the classroom through different media: textbooks, pictures, videos and internet sites. And now students even have access to virtual reality — goggles that can give students a sensation of being at an actual site.

I think back on my own experiences as a student and remember learning from a textbook, my teacher showing film strips of famous events, and even tuning in to live coverage of 9/11 on a classroom TV.

And while visuals and videos are powerful, nothing can replace truly experiencing these places in person.  

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of accompanying 42 Knollwood Elementary School students, staff members and parents on a learning expedition to New York City. As part of Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ status as a renewal district, Knollwood has a focus on experiential learning — helping students connect the content, standards and skills they are learning in the classroom to the world around them.

In order for students to be selected for this trip to New York, they were required to do a research project on some of the sites they would visit and their significance. As I listened to student presentations several months ago, what struck me was they lacked schema — they had never seen buildings so tall or statues so significant thus they were unable to make the connection of their importance.

Schema, the background knowledge and connections to experiences or other concepts, is what really helps students grasp new concepts and make deep and lasting learning.  

On the morning of July 12, as I watched the students excitedly look out the bus windows at the tall buildings and their heads literally bobbing as we walked into Times Square trying to take everything in, I realized that this was a perspective that could never be replicated in the classroom.

Now when these students learn about population growth and crowded infrastructure, they will remember the time they were in a throng of people packed so tightly in Times Square all they could do was keep moving with the wave. As they learn about the history of America, the movements that and diversity that makes up our country, they will remember standing in the Great Hall of Ellis Island and learning about what it was like for those immigrants.  

I am fortunate that I have had multiple opportunities to travel through my life. But I looked at New York City with a fresh perspective during this trip. I saw students’ eyes grow big and jaws drop as they looked up Fifth Avenue and literally saw buildings as far as their eyes could stretch.

No photo in a book, in a projector or in a pair of goggles can replicate that sensation.  

While not every unit of study can be accompanied by such a momentous learning expedition, we have an opportunity as a community. Parents, let us take our students to the parks, statues and ceremonies that are held in our own town to help them learn about history. Businesses, open your doors and invite students in to learn about the principles of economics they are learning about in the classroom and why that math concept is important to understand.  

Technology is an amazing gift, but nothing can replace an authentic learning experience in which students can stand in the place of generations before them or put into practice what they have learned in the classroom.

Karina Reyes is a fourth-grade teacher at Knollwood Elementary School.

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