Strategy Share: Immersing Your Students in a Place They’ve Never Been

The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Jackie Grannis-Phoenix, a pre-K and kindergarten teacher at the Children’s House Montessori School in Camden, Maine, after her expedition to Southeast Alaska. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

jackie grannis-phoenix
Jackie poses with her student puppets in Southeast Alaska. Photo by Ian Strachan

Have you ever traveled somewhere and thought to yourself, “Oh, my students would love to see this! I wish they could be here!”—but knew that it was not possible? As educators, we do our best to bring faraway places to life for our students so they can feel a connection to other people, cultures, and landscapes. In some cases, the place of interest may not be so far away, but for whatever reason it is not feasible to bring your students there.

Last year, I had the good fortune to travel to Southeast Alaska as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. My students were excited about my expedition and more than anything were curious about what animals I might see. Before leaving, my assistant teacher and I brainstormed how I could somehow bring my students with me. We fantasized about shrinking them so that they could fit in my backpack.

The night before I left, my coworker delivered a package to my house. She had photographed each of our kindergartners in a pose of their choice. She printed the photos, cut them out, and mounted them on cardboard. She then taped a bamboo skewer to the back of each one, making small puppets.

During my expedition, I saw many animals, but it wasn’t realistic to get photos of the puppets with the animals. What I could do, though, was take a photo of the puppets next to evidence of animals. For instance, I stuck a puppet in the ground next to grizzly scat, another puppet in the ground next to grizzly tracks, and another next to a plant that grizzlies eat.

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Upon returning from my expedition, I gave a slideshow for my students and their parents. I set it up as a detective game and sequenced the photos as a series of clues leading to a photo of the related animal. I paused at each slide so that the children could make observations about the clues. They collaborated by offering their ideas out loud and building upon each other’s thoughts. If they got too far off track, I asked a clarifying question, such as “What do you remember about mammals that live in the ocean?” or “Is the animal you are thinking of an herbivore or carnivore?”

After seeing and processing a few clues, the children guessed what animal I had seen. The next slide would reveal the animal in question. This would be a fun game under any circumstances, but the addition of seeing themselves perched on a whale skeleton or stuck in a patch of skunk weed brought the crowd to an uproar of giggles and squeals.

Student puppets can be used even if you don’t travel. A variation of this strategy would be to use it to enliven a pen pal relationship. Two teachers could send digital photos of their students to each other, and each teacher would make the puppets of the other group of students.

If you were my pen pal, since I live on the coast of Maine, I would walk my students down to the harbor to photograph your student puppets in the place where we live. Your students could ask us questions about our home, and our answers would include the photos of your students. Let’s say you lived in the Rocky Mountains. Wouldn’t your students get a kick out of seeing photos of themselves perched on a lobster trap (near a wiggling, live lobster), on a schooner at full sail out on the bay, at a lighthouse, or next to anything that represents our home but seems exotic in your geographic locale? You could do the same for us.

While I couldn’t really take my students with me to Alaska, photographing them there was the next best thing to a field trip. I referred to the experience as “our expedition to Alaska,” and in their fertile imaginations, they believed they had been there too. Incidentally, having the puppets aboard ship was a curiosity for the other passengers, and they were delighted at what I was doing. They became invested in the project and offered to hold the puppets or suggested ideas of where I should photograph them. Those who were grandparents thought they should make puppets of their grandchildren to take with them on their travels as another way to maintain a connection with their loved ones.

So, any teacher, anywhere, who has access to a smartphone or digital camera, a printer, and some tape could access this idea and adapt it to bring your students to just about any place on earth. The possibilities are endless. Happy traveling!

Lindblad and NGS

The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.

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