Welcome back! It's August, and thus our thoughts turn to the eternal question:
What did you do on your summer vacation?
|First Grade Teacher Susan Koch on the icy sea in Svalbard, Norway|
As writers, educators, artists, and librarians, GROG readers know it's important to s-t-r-e-t-c-h . . . to find fresh inspiration, especially over the summer months.
Today we'll talk with an educator who went outside of her comfort zone this summer—way outside. First grade teacher Susan Koch—Vermont's 2016 Teacher of the Year—traveled to the Arctic! She participated in the National Geographic Society's Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program, which sponsored her voyage aboard the National Geographic Explorer to Svalbard, Norway, "Land of the Ice Bears."
|What Susan Saw!|
SK: Thanks! The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a two-year experience. Each year, 35 educators (from an applicant pool of about 500) are named to participate in a Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic voyage. Then, we bring what we learn out there back into the classroom. The Grosvenor program is a gift from Sven Lindblad, the owner of the expedition company, to honor a long-time educator and leader of the National Geographic Society, Gil Grosvenor. Two or three Fellows sail on select voyages, along with paying guests and staff. The Fellows participate in the onshore hikes, onboard programs, meals, and every aspect of the expedition.
|Susan Koch's map, marked to show her route aboard the Explorer|
|Susan Koch (right) in Svalbard with |
her Grosvenor Fellow colleague Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver
SK: I was assigned to travel on the National Geographic Explorer for ten days in June. We journeyed around Svalbard, a group of islands in the Arctic Ocean. We spent eleven days north of the Arctic Circle; one day we sailed past the 80th parallel north, almost to the North Pole.
My roommate on the trip, Caitlin, is a teacher of recent immigrants in Boston. We were a good pair.
|Walrus in Svalbard|
SK: In March, this year's group met at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. to learn about the program and ideas about following up the experience with classroom lessons and public presentations. We met staff from Nat Geo and Lindblad, including Nat Geo photographers, shared tips on cold-weather gear, trip preparation, and photography, and connected with other Fellows.
SK: It's actually hard to find the words to describe the experience, and the vastness of that landscape. But I've been trying.
Here are some highlights:
|Polar Bear on the Ice (eating seal blubber)|
Polar bears. The ship sailed really close to bears hunting on the ice. The ice floats on the ocean, and we could watch the bears jumping between sheets of ice. In one day, we saw 13 adult bears and 4 cubs. We saw bears eating the blubber from seals they'd killed. At the same time, we were learning from the trip naturalists about the bears' lives and the food chain, and how threatened the bears are by climate change. It brings it all home when you're seeing them on the melting ice. We actually saw a dead, starved bear on the beach—if bears come ashore, it means they're lacking a food source. That was a powerful image, reminding us how precarious their situation is.
|View from the Porthole of Susan's Cabin onboard the Explorer|
Light. We had 24 hours of sunlight. It's weird how disorienting that is. The combination of the light and the excitement of being on the ship and hearing the captain announcing another wildlife sighting made it very hard to sleep, or keep a regular schedule. In fact, on June 21, the ship's chef, who is Swedish, prepared a special traditional midsummer dinner, but it was hard to convince people to come in from the ship's deck to eat, because there were so many animals to see. Even the staff was super excited to see the bears, the walruses, and the seals.
|Susan with her Kindness Rock in Montpelier|
Kindness rocks. As part of the Grosvenor program, some teachers bring tokens from home, to connect their adventure with their classrooms and students. My community, Montpelier, had participated in the Kindness Rocks Project, painting stones with inspirational messages and distributing them around town. I brought a painted rock on my voyage, and I asked guests to pose with it in various places during the trip. It was fun to see how both kids and adults were excited to hold the rock and participate in the project.
CM: Okay, I have to ask: How the heck did you get so lucky as to go on this trip?
SK: It all started about two years ago, when I was nominated as Teacher of the Year. Initially I hesitated to go through the TOTY application process. I basically think all teachers should be recognized, and one shouldn't be raised up above others. But then my mother reminded me that she'd listened to me say that teachers don't have a voice in public debates. "This is a chance to speak up for teachers," she reminded me. I realized she was right.
|What a Thrill:|
Vermont TOTY Susan Koch and President Obama at the White House
|Ice Bear in Svalbard|
CM: Okay, now for the wrap-up, Susi: What new insights did you bring back from the Arctic?
SK: I've been thinking about two things:
|Bear on Ice|
The second is that the trip has made global warming feel more immediate and real to me. We observed glaciers that had shrunk by as much as seven miles in recent years. When you're in the Arctic Circle, it's just so clear that we need to take action to address climate change. If we do nothing, nothing will improve. As I tell my students, each of us can (and must) do something.
CM: Thanks so much for sharing your experience and lessons learned with GROG, Susi.
And teachers: I hope you'll check out the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow program! (More on that in GROG's September 14 post.)
|Kindness Rock and lichen of Svalbard|