The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Wendi Pillars, a high school teacher, after her expedition to the Arctic. Wendi is also the author of Visual Note-Taking for Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity. 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.
Imagine seeing a blue whale for the first time, a walrus atop an ice floe, or a polar bear stalking its seal prey, while witnessing just how vibrant and varied Arctic marine life is. It all brought tears to my eyes, and rather than feel silly, I was sucked in by the childlike wonder of adults all around me. Even the ship’s crew and naturalists, for whom this was sort of the norm, exuded excitement akin to a toddler.
You see, passion borne of curiosity, passion for what you love to do: that’s contagious. That’s priceless and ageless. I learned that everyone onboard—the ship’s crew, the naturalists, the photographers, the birders, the seasoned travelers, and the first-time travelers—had experiences to share and stories to tell. Each story I listened to became an integral thread of my tapestry of Arctic understanding, and my perceptions were transformed.
As a language teacher, I typically use science and history as a vehicle to teach language concepts, writing, and thinking. Every semester I write new curricula as dictated by the needs of my students, so it’s a very reflective, active, and interdisciplinary process—at once stimulating and exhausting. Perhaps content-area teachers can’t connect to that level of freedom in their curricula, but there are five big ideas inspired by my expedition that should resonate with us all as we strive to become instructional leaders within our school communities:
1. Be enthusiastic. We have to be enthusiastic and maintain a childlike wonder about what students are learning. If they see we are just “getting through” the material, chances are they won’t feel curious about it. Talk about what you’re learning personally through reading and conversations in order to model sharing what you learn. Demonstrate that sharing knowledge is how we grow together on a local, then global scale. This plants learning on an entirely different trajectory with an emphasis on applying knowledge rather than rote memorization for a test.
2. Become a classroom photographer. Traveling somewhere like the Arctic—someplace so foreign and different than anything I’d ever experienced—I wanted to bring every single view home with me. I wanted to share it all with my students, family, and community. What if we looked at our classrooms the same way? I believe that what we do in our classrooms should be picture-worthy. How does student learning reflect excitement, production, collaboration, and “a-ha” moments? How can we capture that to highlight our profession in positive, productive ways (even if only to colleagues and parents)? Even if you’re not taking actual photos, simply imagine your classroom through a photographer’s lens. What might they find interesting, innovative, and share-able? What learning activities can you add or tweak to reflect these qualities?
3. Expand your classroom. I was intimidated when asking questions of the renowned naturalists, seasoned crew members, and photographers I met on the expedition. But when I did, they bubbled with ideas, details, and more insights than any book could ever provide. It emphasized the critical nature of opening our classroom walls to experts, classroom visitors, other classrooms, and other teachers—whether near or far.
4. Slow down. Observe. Instead of rushing through content, give students permission to try a new approach. Let them sketch—doing so is far more than drawing pictures. Instead, it requires learners to think critically in order to simplify complex concepts. This can be done with margin notes, 2-3-minute recaps of reading or listening, larger sketches, or longer-term sketches which give students the opportunity to dig in, revisit, and add detail. Not sure where to begin? Start by “slow looking” in your own community with resources from Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden expedition.
5. Flip your globe. I’ve always loved using visuals and thought-provoking photos to get students excited or hook them on a topic, but it wasn’t until my expedition that I flipped my globe to view the poles head on. On our ship were two maps, one of each pole, and those perspectives helped transform my thinking. I would never again point to the Arctic “up there” and the Antarctic “down there.” Doing so also demonstrates how the ocean is just that—a single body of water rather than the disjointed way we typically teach them as separate entities. So simple, yet something I’d never done.
Challenge your students with historical maps, like this one of the Arctic, before delving into marine life. Doing so easily draws in history, science, and current events. Search for maps that depict different data and see if they can guess what it represents. Such a cool way to learn about geography without rote memorization! Try NYTimes Learning Network for new mapping and geography features plus tons of ideas for incorporating student writing and opinion; sites like this for fun map views; StoryMaps or Tourbuilder to create your own map-based story; or 3Dgooglemaps to explore in 3-D without any extra equipment.
Shifting perspective, slowing down, and connecting to the greater world begins with us—educators are also explorers. Remember: exploring includes finding ways to create classroom space for others to find magic as well. What are you waiting for, fellow #EducatorExplorers?
The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.