Our Strategy Share series features innovative ideas, projects, and approaches from our community of educators. This post was written by Kelly Koller after her expedition to the Arctic as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.
You could have heard a pin drop in the room, it was so silent. As the Lindblad Expeditions ship National Geographic Explorer made her way through the midnight blue, choppy waters of the Arctic Ocean near Pond Inlet, Nunavut, we all listened; absorbed, transported. National Geographic Explorer Jennifer Kingsley was sharing a recorded interview with the Elverum family from her project Meet the North, which involved interviewing people who live above the Arctic Circle throughout Nunavut, Svalbard, Iceland, Russia, Alaska, and Greenland.
Just miles away from the Elverums’ home in Pond Inlet, Jenny’s compassionate storytelling helped me begin to understand their happiness, pain, and culture. Months later, I shared the same interview with my sixth-graders, who listened just as intently thousands of miles away.
Jenny shared with us that, driven by her own curiosity, she launched Meet the North to challenge and expand her own perspective. I was impressed by her boldness, bravery, and sense of responsibility to honor perspectives as she shared what life is like for some of the four million people who live above the Arctic Circle.
As I reflected on her project and her interview with the Elverums, our sixth-grade English Language Arts unit on literary nonfiction came to mind. Previously, students read a biography, memoir, or autobiography and researched the person it was about. The subjects were always celebrities, famous corporate billionaires, or political and historical figures. Questions included: What did they do that was important? What is their legacy? What challenges did they overcome? What personality traits did they have that helped them succeed?
Jenny’s work made me realize that, through interviews of relatives, neighbors and community members, students could be explorers too. Through conversation, those same questions we used for our biography research could be used to look through another’s perspective and share their story, placing students in a more active role for our literary nonfiction project.
Launching a New Approach
Back home in Oconto Falls, Wisconsin, after the expedition, I introduced my adventurous fellow sixth-grade English Language Arts teacher, Lori Rowland, to Jenny Kingsley’s work and the idea for a new approach. We felt our essential questions for the unit were a good match: What characteristics help people overcome obstacles? How are we unique and what do we have in common? What can we learn from the life stories of others? How can a person’s decisions and actions change his/her life?
Lori and I began by introducing all of our classes to the Meet the North project, and Jenny’s roles as an author, storyteller, and naturalist with Lindblad Expeditions. As part of the National Geographic Educator-Explorer Exchange, a program that connects educators and explorers for school-year-long collaborations, we sent Jenny letters and she sent videos back, answering questions, and sharing her latest journey south to Antarctica with us. We asked Jenny for advice as we approached our literary nonfiction unit. How should students prepare for conducting an interview? How do we go about telling these stories?
Supporting Students in Using Interviews and Conversation to Explore
Jenny gave us several tips. One of them was to have students practice interviews with each other. I created an interview activity, and Jenny gave us feedback and suggestions. Prior to conducting it, Lori and I team-taught a mini-lesson on how to be an excellent conversationalist.
Reflection at the end was important. Comments like, “I have known my classmate for years and he’s a good friend. I was surprised there was so much more I don’t know about him,” showed us that students understood how we can use conversation to explore and expand our perspectives.
After the practice activity, students set out to plan their outside-of-class interview. We gave them a guiding document to plan whom they were going to interview and what they wanted to ask them about their lives. Our learning targets were:
- I can tell the story of someone’s life and what I have learned from the person and about the person.
- I can teach others the most important things to know about this individual.
We revisited these learning targets daily as students created video presentations of their interviews.
Takeaways for Future Iterations
The biggest challenge for students was asking follow-up questions and digging deeper to let the conversation take its own path. Students came up with great initial questions, but we could see in the evidence of their work that our suggestions to dig deeper were not practiced enough. They needed more practice with follow-up questions before conducting their interview. Additionally, students interviewed someone they already knew and, although we mentioned this in our guiding instruction, we should have emphasized more that they needed to make clear what new perspective they gained from their interview.
For the sake of time, we did not require students to record audio of their interview. In the future, I plan to include that as a requirement, as it would have made the videos turn out even better. Recording audio also would be important when adapting the activity to younger grade levels, so learners can share their interview without transcription.
Opportunities to use conversation to explore go beyond biography units too. In a Socratic Seminar, learners use various sources (text, video, etc.) to find evidence that answers an open-ended question and hold a formal discussion. While most widely done at a secondary level, this strategy can be used in elementary classrooms as well. Using this method, learners at any grade level connect ideas and connect to each other, using conversation as a way to explore the world.
One World, Billions of Perspectives
Just as there is so much yet to discover in the natural world, there is so much to explore about humans as well. What if we approached other people—even those we know well—with this in mind? How would that change the understanding we have of our human journey? Back in the Arctic, it was listening, seeing with our hearts rather than our eyes, and taking in a family’s perspective that truly made us explorers. A key takeaway from Jenny Kingsley’s work comes from the essence of exploration itself: to look around the corner, to launch into ideas, places, or people unknown to us, we need to challenge, change and expand our own perspectives to understand our shared humanity.
Kelly Koller is an enrichment specialist in Howard-Suamico, Wisconsin.
This post reflects a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow’s field-based experiences on a voyage with Lindblad Expeditions. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.