Monday, August 7, 2017

Learning While Uncomfortable: Teacher and Explorer Susan Koch Shares Insights from the Arctic Circle ~ by Christy Mihaly

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."

Susan and I sat down to chat about her amazing, all-expenses-paid adventure.

What Susan Saw!
CM: Congratulations, Susi, on being a Grosvenor Fellow! What does the program involve?

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
CM: Which expedition did you sail on?

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.

CM: What kind of training did you receive?

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.

CM: What are some memorable aspects of your voyage to the Arctic?

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.
A young guest (traveling with his grandparents) 
shows off the Kindness Rock

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.

Svalbard Ice
I'm so glad I took that leap, because being named Vermont's 2016 Teacher of the Year led to amazing, eye-opening opportunities. I met passionate, engaged teachers from all over the country. It was inspiring to find this community of people who love teaching as much as I do. We participated in educational programs—NASA Space Camp was awesome—and shared ideas and resources. And of course, a highlight of the year was meeting President Obama at the White House.
What a Thrill:
Vermont TOTY Susan Koch and President Obama at the White House
That TOTY recognition made me realize how much we grow when we seek out new experiences, and put me on the path of seeking out challenges. It also expanded my horizons, taught me about the educational opportunities available, and sparked my interest in a global connection. So, when I read on my Twitter feed about the Grosvenor Fellow program, I wanted to apply right away. I love getting kids outside to learn in nature and I've worked hard to develop and sustain an outdoor education program in the Montpelier public schools. The National Geographic Fellowship fits in with those interests, and promotes geographic literacy.

Ice Bear in Svalbard
I'd encourage other interested teachers to apply. Just check out the website, here, for information. (Note that starting this year, applicants must be "National Geographic Certified Educators." We're planning a separate post about that next month on GROG.)

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:

Svalbard Reindeer
The first is that the best learning happens when we’re a little bit uncomfortable. It’s not easy for us to do, but it's important to leave your comfort zone and appreciate a different perspective.

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


  1. I can hardly imagine what a wonderful experience this must have been! Good teachers deserve this kind of professional development! TY for sharing this w/us Chris! Extraordinary.

    1. I know -- it makes the imagination soar, doesn't it, Kathy?

  2. How neat to even know someone who was chosen for this wonderful adventure. I wonder if you can publish something about it for children, too, maybe in a kids' nature magazine. ??

  3. What an exciting opportunity, Susan . . . and congrats! Great article, Christy. ;-)

  4. Thank you, Susan and Christy! What a fascinating post! And I loved the photos.

  5. So Cool! Thanks for sharing Susi's wild adventure.

    1. Doesn't it make you jealous? The Arctic is on my bucket list!

  6. What an amazing way to restart the blog! Thank you for highlighting this amazing program. I'm excited to learn more about the certification program. I'd love to be a participant! Thank you both for sharing.

    1. Todd, you would be an awesome explorer. We'll be writing about the certification program in the September 14 post -- stay tuned!

  7. I'm so glad she took this experience. She's a teacher representative! Thank you for sharing Susan's travel adventures and insights. I will pass along to my teacher friends!

  8. What an amazing opportunity, Susan. Thank you for sharing the adventure, Christy❤️

  9. Yes it was remarkable! SO thankful that Chris could help me share this experience with readers, writers and educators!

  10. This was a fascinating post.What an honor to have the privilege of taking part in something like this. I am sure Susan has returned with much to share. Thanks,Christy, for highlighting her amazing adventure.

    1. Thanks, Sherri. I loved learning about this Nat Geo program and talking with Mrs. Koch about her Arctic experience.

  11. Such an amazing post! I love the photos and the Kindness Rock project. Going to figure out how to do this in my classroom this year :)

    1. Yay--spreading the kindness! So glad you liked it.

  12. Wow! What an adventure! I love the comment, "the best learning happens when we’re a little bit uncomfortable." Thanks for introducing us to Susi, Christy.