Innovation in Education!

Coming back from dinner last night, I thought maybe the internet would be faster down in the hotel lobby. All I wanted to do was to keep myself awake for a few hours before the jet lag cotton-brain descended. There were two women sitting in the lobby. I asked if the internet was faster down here and they said yes, so I grabbed the computer and came back down.

As I came into the lobby, I saw a few others had joined them and I had a second or two of,  “Aw Darn…I was planning on some nice quiet computering…” But soon I was caught up in listening to them talking about their experiences working in hospitals and doing nursing training here.

At one point, the short-haired one, (turns out her name is Kerry–same name as the woman who invited me to come to Pokhara) was telling a story about shocking a group of urologists somehow, and they caught me frankly eavesdropping. So they began to tell me what Kerry Reid Searl does, what she has pioneered as a teaching technique. She calls it Mask-ED.

She dons a polyurethane costume—they are anatomically correct and full body—and is, like Mrs. Doubtfire, transformed into a totally different person. In fact, the guy in LA who created Mrs. Doubtfire did Kerry’s costumes. Each of her characters has a full history, a whole life, and has found himself or herself in the hospital.

The nursing students or the doctors at conventions come into the room to meet Cyril or Bob or one of the other characters. These are everyday folks, with fears about what’s happening to them, but fiercely protective of their own dignity. Some of them are “retired” people from the field, so when the nurses start to practice, they remind their caregivers about washing their hands or admonish them about speaking to their patients with attention and respect.

The story about the urologists at a convention was hilarious. Cyril wandered in with his pj’s and his “bits,” as Kerry put it, hanging out of his pj bottoms trailing a catheter. “Which one of you wankers did this to me?” he demanded. “Was it you?”—pointing out to one of the surprised surgeons. From there, Cyril proceeded to tell them all the stuff they’d left out of his pre-op briefing, all the problems he was going to face, the impact on his sex life.

The doctors started off essentially dismissing him—How did THIS guy get in here, who is he to stand up there and yammer on??? But after Cyril had their full attention and they were squirming in their chairs, Kerry pulled off the mask and revealed herself as the keynote speaker they THOUGHT they were going to hear.

Everything that involves training students to be present and human in their interactions with their patients and clients can be demonstrated more effectively with MaskEd, says Kerry. She uses the full-body masks to allow students to practice procedures that, before, were practiced with disembodied plastic body parts. Because the buttocks they are tending aren’t attached to a real human, they don’t really learn what it is to nurse full human beings until much later in their training, maybe too late for the folks who need that most—the elderly, the deeply fearful….

…And, I realized, the people with disabilities. What if special education teachers had practice teaching sessions with folks who looked, spoke and moved like the students they would be dealing with for the rest of their careers?

And my mind leaped directly to the other Kerry, Kerry Bissenger, the woman who so generously and spontaneously invited me to hop on the bus with her and a group of 19 students going to teach in the schools in Pokhara, a city 200 miles away from Kathmandu. Kerry B. has been working with thought leaders in the field of disability policy, and educational inclusion for some years.

Kerry B. would have the resources to incorporate Kerry R-S’s amazingly innovative work into the toolbox of special ed teacher training. I went directly upstairs and emailed her Kerry R-S’s Ted Talk video.

Mask-ED is a kind of improvisational theatre. As a professor of prospective nurses, Kerry Reid Searl knows what students often slide past, what procedures they can give short shrift to, what topics they NEED to memorize but are perhaps weak on. With her real-people characters, she can show the young nurses the consequences of losing touch with the very real human side of nursing, of too hasty hand-washing, of poor communication. With the mask on, the professor disappears and the future patient appears—to admonish, to flirt, to show his fears and embarrassment.

Then, Kerry R-S unmasks and uses the experience her students have had with Cyril or one of the other characters to emphasize the lessons, to talk about what just happened and what could be better or different.

This is role-playing taken to the max. It’s like Candid Camera in the classroom, except that the students KNOW that Cyril is being played by their professor. It’s just that Cyril is so real, they can suspend their disbelief. That, finally, is what theater is about—convincing the audience to suspend their disbelief. Traditional actors find it difficult to play Kerry’s characters because they have been trained to project OUT, across the proscenium arch and into the back row of the balcony. Traditional role-play keeps all the baggage that comes with practicing on one’s friends or professors. Cyril replaces the history and emotional environment of one’s teachers or friends or fellow students with Cyril’s own history, his own context, his backstory.

Of course, these masks are not cheap. And getting the proper training in their use would also require an investment. But the implications for disability work are far-reaching. This is one of those—“The World Needs To Know About This” moments.

Ain’t travel just grand?