The Natural History of a Very Photogenic Bear

The following post was written by 2015 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Greg Gaiera during his expedition to the Arctic. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

“Hey, aren’t you that teacher with the bear?”

Life in a fourth-grade classroom can be exceedingly hectic. Most of the time, I can direct the chaos like a tai chi master. That said, on occasion, a lesson can go up in flames instantaneously.

A lesson can blow up for any number of reasons. For example, recess has ended, and just as I’m getting the class settled down . . . Johnny barrels in, shouting about how the dodgeball teams were not fair. A volcano of agreement (and disagreement) erupts from the rest of the class, ending any chance I have of starting my lesson. In Johnny’s mind, the dodgeball game is more important than anything I have to say. If I am going to engage him, he has to have felt heard. So as a teacher, how do I validate what he is feeling without taking too much time?

Photograph courtesy Greg Gaiera

That’s where Sam, my classroom bear, can help.

“Here Johnny, take Sam and hold him for now. I’ll talk to you at the next recess, and we’ll figure out a good solution.” The student has been acknowledged, and I can carry on with my lesson.

Over the last 15 years, Sam has been cried on, fought over, and sneezed at. Yes, he is a bit of a vector for airborne pathogens, but the emotional support he has given students far outweighs any sniffle he might be responsible for.

As Sam accompanied me on my expedition to the Arctic, where he became a virtual Swiss Army knife of usefulness: pacifier, model, conversation-starter, therapist.

He makes a wonderful model. I initially brought Sam along so he could star in some of my photographs, giving scale and context. My hope was that he would help make a very far away place seem close and homey for my students.

Photograph by Greg Gaiera
Photograph by Greg Gaiera
Photograph by Greg Gaiera

Sam is a great conversation-starter. His presence elicited genuine curiosity and interest from the other passengers on board the National Geographic Explorer.

“Did Sam have a good time on the hike?”
“Did he like the Arctic plunge?”
“How come Sam isn’t at dinner?”

The bear also acted somewhat like a therapist. When fellow passengers asked about him, I would often process my experiences by projecting my thoughts and feelings on to Sam:

“Oh, he had a great hike. He LOVED seeing the kittiwake colony, and looking at the different kinds of reindeer scat”
“Yes, Sam did the plunge. He got really, really cold, but he loved it.”

Video by Steve Ewing, Lindblad Expeditions

Photograph courtesy Greg Gaiera
Photograph by Greg Gaiera
Photograph by Krista Rossow.
Photograph by Krista Rossow.

It’s now three months later, and Sam and I are home. My world-traveling adventures are over (for now), but Sam’s are just beginning…

My fourth-graders went nuts over Sam’s Arctic pictures.

“Did Sam really do the polar plunge?”
“Was the water cold?”
“How did Sam get on that big piece of ice?”
“Why is he climbing up that ladder?”
“I think Sam is cute.”
“I wanna go to the Arctic!”

Students were so fascinated with Sam’s travels that I decided his fun shouldn’t end with the Arctic. Until the end of the year, Sam will be going home with a different student every weekend, and will also travel to strange and exotic places with them over the holidays.

Families are asked to take pictures of Sam and all that he experiences. Students then share the pictures and stories the following week. As you can see, Sam’s adventures are continuing.

Photograph courtesy Greg Gaiera
Photograph courtesy Greg Gaiera
Photograph by Krista Rossow.
Photograph by Krista Rossow.

One of the tenets of the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is that the best way to learn about the world is to see it. Experience it. In my estimation, having somebody—or some bear—share stories about their experiences runs a close second.

To learn more about Greg and his experience in the Arctic, check out his blog.

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