Filmmaker Ken Burns knows Jackie Robinson’s story inside out, having made it his mission over the past few years to tell the narrative of the baseball legend that people don’t know.
And yet, there was still room for Burns to be awed on Monday when he joined a classroom of fifth-graders at P.S. 375 Jackie Robinson School on a virtual reality field trip curated by Google.
”They’re going, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool! I can’t believe this is happening,'” laughed Burns, whose four-hour documentary on Jackie Robinson premiered in part on Monday evening and will conclude Tuesday on PBS. “And I was saying the same thing.”
“It’s a vicarious experience. It takes them way back when and they see a glimpse of what they’re used to hearing about.”
Burns and the Brooklyn fifth-graders looked through Google Cardboard, technology that allows wearers to explore their surroundings without ever leaving their seats. Google’s new expedition, called “Life Is Not a Spectator Sport: The Jackie Robinson Story,” transported the group to Ebbets Field, where Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 to become the first African American player in Major League Baseball.
The first glimpse through the goggle-like viewers puts the children in a place they know well. Excitement grows as the kids recognize the apartment buildings they pass on their way to school and the local automotive shop on the corner. Just as they've acclimated to the familiar surroundings, they turn and suddenly Ebbets Field materializes.
The students may know Jackie Robinson is their school’s namesake - a school built on the very property the Brooklyn Dodgers once called home - but the virtual reality expedition helps bring abstract concepts to life, said Jennifer Holland, a Google program manager.
“It’s a vicarious experience,” said fifth-grade teacher Esther Powell, who led the group of explorers through the journey. “It takes them way back when, and they see a glimpse of what they’re used to hearing about.”
Powell asked probing questions along the way, calling on students to draw comparisons between Robinson’s life and their own. She said Robinson helped open doors, but life isn’t always so simple for her students, majority of whom are Black or Hispanic.
“Sometimes they face a lot of challenges, and they all come with different experiences,” said Powell. “And you just don’t know what they’re going through on a typical day.”
Powell said it was important for the children to see Robinson as an example, as a man who looked like them and had overcome the challenges in his way. At one point, Powell led the students in a chorus of the mantra, “If Jackie didn’t quit, I’m not going to quit.”
Fifth-grader Toni-Ann Powell had trouble articulating her reaction to the expedition.
“I couldn’t speak...I was amazed,” 11-year-old Powell said. “I just couldn’t say a word, I was--”
“Speechless?” offered Toni-Ann Powell’s classmate, who was sitting a couple of seats away.
“Yes,” said Toni-Ann Powell. “Speechless.”
Sharon Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s daughter who works as an educational consultant for Major League Baseball, said she enjoyed watching the kids’ reactions.
“To me, connecting my father to kids is the way it needs to be,” she said.
Sharon Robinson hoped the kids would have a new sense of pride and better understanding of how connected their school is to Ebbets Field and her father’s legacy. She also encouraged the students to watch the new documentary on her father, which Ken Burns directed and produced with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon.
Ken Burns said it was particularly meaningful to tell the multigenerational story of Robinson’s family while working alongside his own.
“It was wonderful,” said Burns. “I mean, I remember when [Sarah] was a little girl in her diapers crawling underneath the editing machine. Now she’s bossing me around, it’s great.”
The virtual reality experience brought the history of Jackie Robinson to life, and Burns said there seemed to be a “collective getting it” as they went through the expedition.
“These kids get to live in a world in which some of these barriers have been broken down, but as their teacher correctly said, they’re going to face these barriers, and you just need to like Jackie, you need to plow forward,” said Burns.
Fifth-grader Toni-Ann Powell said she sees Robinson as a role model. Gaining a better understanding of the adversities he faced and overcame made her want to pursue her own dreams to become a movie star.
“I’m never going to quit, I’m going to keep on trying until I get what I want,” said Toni-Ann Powell. “I’m going to reach my goal, thanks to Jackie.”