We are What We Teach: A National Geographic Teacher Fellow’s Perspective

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It was 2:00 in the morning and I stood in the Arctic wind, bundled in winter gear, at the prow of The Explorer, a National Geographic/Lindblad Expedition ship. Deafening explosions of breaking ice filled the air. The ship’s spotlight illuminated massive chunks of drifting ice while up above, in the bridge, Magnus, the Swedish night captain, navigated us along the difficult course of the Denmark Strait, trying to land us in the vast, wildness of Eastern Greenland. The day before I watched a finback whale rise just below the ship, seemingly only an arm’s length away. And for the following days, I hiked through mountain passes to find hidden fjords, waded through tall grasses to get to Norse ruins, jumped in the Arctic ocean in my bathing suit, and ate muskox alongside kind Greenlanders.

I was there as a National Geographic Grovesnor Teacher Fellow, with the charge of bringing the experience back to my school. The Grovesnor Teacher Fellow program selects a handful of K-12 teachers (this year, 35 of the 3,000 applicants) who are passionate about geoliteracy in schools. After training in DC at National Geographic headquarters, these educators who believe that teaching must extend beyond our four walls, are then dispersed across the globe on expeditions in groups of two or three. This is how I found myself to be on a ship in Greenland.

At first, I was concerned—as a librarian, dependent on other teachers’ willingness to collaborate with me, how would I bring Vikings, archeology, or food production—all subjects that seem to be missing from the current public school curriculum—to my teachers and classrooms? But as I am finding my fall stride, I am recognizing that my adventures are with me every step. I have shown my icebreaking video to interested students. We are creating a Viking Club for 7th graders. A fellow passenger who is a Monsanto executive has agreed to work with the biology teacher and me as we head into a GMO unit (as well as Stonyfield, a local, nationally-known, organic farm). An archeologist on board gave me ideas for our forensic science class, and another science teacher is planning a unit with me on the melting ice sheet.

Travel impacts my teaching in the most unanticipated ways.

Yet, it is not so unexpected, is it? Our practice is personal—it is an inextricable element of who we are. When we are most alive in the classroom, we are most ourselves, drawing from the collection of our experiences. And so each time we lay out a new unit, interact with a student, or collaborate with another educator, we bring not only our pedagogical and subject knowledge with us, but all of our cumulative joys, heartaches, and observations. Each undertaking has subtle implications in our work, not necessarily because it always reflects our work, but because we are our work.

The cracking of ice and the Arctic wind in the middle of the night stay with me during my days back in New Hampshire and they weave themselves unexpectedly into my practice. I have a greater understanding of the world which means I also have a greater understanding of my students. And each day I continue to unravel the multitude of ways that all of my explorations affect my teaching.

Going to Greenland isn’t possible or even desirable for everyone. But educators need to fall and remain in love with this very world through adventure and exploration, even if it is just behind our homes in the woods or wandering a city street. We must remember to find wonder through our daily, precious engagement with others. Professional development needs to immerse us in experiences that make meaning to us, because always, always—what we do is who we are, and who we are is why we teach.


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