Greetings and Reflections

I’m going to dive right in and introduce myself by talking about one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had.  Earlier this year, I applied and was selected to be a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with National Geographic Education and Lindblad Expeditions.  This professional development program was created in honor of Gilbert M. Grosvenor, Chairman Emeritus of the National Geographic Society and champion of geographic education.  As a Fellow, I had the privilege of traveling to Norway and Arctic Svalbard in June, and I am currently creating a new interdisciplinary course in Arctic Studies related to my experience.
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Here are some reflections on my journey:

What were my goals, and what did I learn?

My main task was to acquire information about Svalbard and “soak in” the Arctic.  I took advantage of every opportunity to learn through engaging in tours, hikes, zodiac cruises, kayak trips, lectures, and informal conversations with crew, staff, other guests, and residents of Longyearbyen – the northernmost town in the world.  While my primary goal was to get a feeling for the Arctic environment, I was also fascinated by the workings of the ship and discovered how they provide fresh water to passengers, how they treat and dispose of garbage, and how they navigate through largely uncharted and constantly changing icy waters.  In addition, I was able to collect some temperature data of my own that I will use with my students, and to make connections with staff and guests that I will carry with me.
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How was the expedition different from what I expected?

I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  I had prepped by reading about the Arctic and looking at photographs, and I had been given a list of expedition supplies that included knee-high waterproof boots and lots of layered clothing.  I knew I would see snow and ice and mountains and fjords, and I secretly hoped we would see a walrus up close.  What I didn’t dream of were the sensations of walking on the squishy tundra, the excitement of hunting for hundred-million year old fossils, the deafening squawking of 250,000 sea birds in a nesting colony, and the vastness of the pack ice stretching as far as my eyes could see.  The Arctic was full of surprises, including my wish come true: a curious walrus who swam right up to us on the beach.

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I describe this trip as “life-changing” for many reasons.  Magnificent Svalbard captured my heart, and I look forward to learning more about this special place and sharing its wonders with my students and with anyone who will listen.  Finding ways to appreciate, protect, and care for the Arctic is a new priority for me.  I haven’t travelled extensively in the past, and this expedition also opened my eyes to the wonders of our amazing planet and made me want to see more – to see everything!  I am already looking around for my next adventure, and hoping to travel with students in the future.

What were the “wow” or “aha” moments during my trip?

There were so many! I have to say that the “coolest” part was taking a polar plunge into the iceberg-dotted Arctic Ocean, with a temperature of -1 °C!  It was shocking and bone-numbing and so much fun.  As for the most awe-inspiring part, that’s tough to say.  Each day of the trip I had experiences that I felt could not be topped, only to wake the next day to have my jaw drop once again.  Several times I was in happy tears because I was just blown away by what I was experiencing; these included a first glimpse of Svalbard’s mountains and glaciers from the plane, seeing my first polar bear swimming in the golden light at 4:30am, and standing alone on the ship’s bow feeling the wind and watching landscape reflections on the water.

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How did the experience change my perception of what I’m doing, and what will change in my teaching practice?

I think the biggest question on the minds of all who visit the Arctic is: what are the effects of climate change on this sensitive environment?  Our week was amazing, but it provided nowhere near enough time to answer this question.  We saw a retreating glacier that allowed a polar bear to walk along a gritty black beach that was formerly enveloped in ice, yet without the big picture showing hundreds and thousands of years of glacial movement it is unreasonable to cite this one snapshot as evidence of a warming planet.

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As a science teacher, I constantly ask my students to examine and explain data.  In the new Arctic Studies elective that I am currently developing, one of our biggest tasks will be to find and make sense of available information related to climate change.  The study of our planet’s climate is complex, touching on not only science but also on politics, history, economics and human geography.  Unraveling this web will be an overarching theme of the class.

I think this new course is a wonderful example of the focus of 21st Century learning.  I am by no means an expert on the Arctic, so I will be serving as more of a guide and partner for my students as we learn together.  The interdisciplinary nature of our focus will take us out of academic departmental silos and allow us to make connections between natural and social sciences and become better-informed global citizens.  We will be using our iPads to search for up-to-the-minute data on sea ice, and to Skype with international experts on Arctic biology and geology.  We will harness the power of social media to help us connect with people living and working in the Arctic.  There will also be a major hands-on focus to the course, as I plan to challenge students to accomplish tasks like creating a glacier model in the classroom, and designing an ice-class ship in our school’s new “Fab Lab” engineering space.

I look forward to sharing my next teaching journey on this blog, and I hope you’ll come along with me.

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