Lessons from Antarctica

Take a moment to visualize Antarctica. If it helps, close your eyes. Did you picture penguins? Perhaps you envisioned a humpback whale raising its tail fluke above the water before taking a deep dive. You may have imagined a leopard seal ascending from the ocean’s depths onto an ice drift. Until you have actually experienced the White Continent first-hand, it is impossible to comprehend its beauty and wonder. As a Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, I was given the adventure of a lifetime in Earth’s last great wilderness. For six days I voyaged along the Antarctic Peninsula, taking in the ice, mountains, and abundance of wildlife. I was startled by the diversity that exists in Antarctica—a place so seemingly distant from the rest of the world. Now, in my mind, Antarctica is not a still image; rather a montage of colors, shapes, textures, and space.

The Fellowship
The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program was established to honor former National Geographic Society Chairman Gilbert M. Grosvenor’s lifetime commitment to geographic education. Fellows travel aboard the Lindblad-National Geographic fleet for a one-of-a-kind field experience to the Arctic, British and Irish Isles, the Galapagos, or Antarctica. The program began with two Fellows in 2007 and has grown each year. In 2016, I was one of only 35 educators from the United States and Canada to receive this honor.
Winn Brewer
Courtesy of Winn Brewer
Before the voyage, I traveled to National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. to network with other Grosvenor Teacher Fellows for what would be our one and only time together in the same room. We participated in workshops covering photography, classroom action plans, and outreach. The Lindblad Expeditions’ naturalists shed light on what to expect during a polar expedition and how to prepare. The preparation included not only the proper gear and clothing needed for this unique adventure but how to incorporate the amazing geography and climate into my elementary library curriculum.
Courtesy of Dave Walker
Pre-Departure Anticipation
Once I learned of my acceptance in the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program in February of 2016, my students’ excitement intensified with each passing day until my December departure. To endure students’ excitement for my impending excursion to Antarctica, I created a bulletin board for the library that also served as an expedition countdown. Daily, a handful of students would enter the library and inform me of the number of weeks remaining until my adventure. 
My students were quick to develop a curiosity for not just Antarctica, but Earth’s other unique places. In fact, students formulated their own questions about Antarctica that we explored using titles in the collection and online resources. There were many questions students wanted me to specifically ask the expedition’s naturalists. While onboard the ship and out hiking icy terrain, I found several opportunities to video my interviews with the naturalists. They were more than eager to answer students’ queries.

Journey to the White Continent
I began my journey on December 17 with a flight from Nashville, Tennessee to Miami, Florida. From there I traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina for a tour of the country’s capital. The next day we flew to what is known as the gateway to Antarctica: Ushuaia, Argentina. There in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, I boarded the National Geographic Explorer, a 367-foot long ship that became my home during the expedition.
After nearly two days of crossing the infamous rough sea conditions of the Drake Passage, our ship began sailing through Antarctic waters towards the South Shetland Islands. The first glimpse of land was a joyous occasion. An auspicious silence fell on the ship as we marveled at the rugged mountains that were blanketed in snow. The cracks in the ice gleamed magnificent hues of blue—a startling contrast to the darkness of the Southern Ocean
The silence soon lifted as we prepared for our first landing. In our parkas, rain pants, waterproof boots, and life vests, we hopped into a Zodiac boat for a short cruise to Half Moon Island. There we found chinstrap penguins, brown skuas, and Weddell seals. Stepping off the boat and onto the rocks of the beach gave me a feeling of true exploration. Standing on Earth’s final frontier was both humbling and motivating. The realization that most of my students will never experience Antarctica first-hand, invigorated me to do everything in my power to capture the essence of my Antarctic adventure. At present, my students’ voyage will not be by way of ship, but by way of their teacher-librarian and his photographs, videos, journals, and stories.

Even though our expedition had an itinerary, you never quite knew what was going to happen each day. Our agenda quickly changed depending on if the ice was too thick or if wildlife was spotted nearby. The natural elements made sure to have a say in our daily activities. One morning we awoke to a 5 a.m. announcement informing us that humpback whales could be seen feeding on krill at the front of the ship. Another day, the ship changed course to follow type A killer whales, the top Antarctic predator. These orcas were as curious of us as we were of them. One headed straight for the ship’s bow just to turn on its back to reveal its pearly white belly.
The continent of Antarctica can boast that it's the coldest, driest, and windiest continent on Earth. The planet’s coldest temperature ever recorded was -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit at the Russian Vostok Station in Antarctica on July 21, 1983 (“Coldest Place on Earth”). Fortunately, my Antarctic excursion was during the southern hemisphere’s summer, so temperatures ranged between 30 and 40 degrees. This is not to say that I did not feel the cold. Wearing just a t-shirt and swim trunks, I jumped into the 29-degree water as part of a polar plunge. I was determined to take in the entire Antarctic experience. I mean, when would I ever return? So, I was sure to take full advantage of every opportunity to kayak around icebergs, hike on glaciers, and photograph recently hatched chicks.

Promoting Geographic Education
During the expedition, I struggled with the idea of how to translate all the wonders of Antarctica with my elementary students. Seeing the beauty of Antarctica was what transformed my perspective of not just this polar region, but of all Earth’s geography. My photographs and a 360-degree camera supplied by National Geographic enhanced my students’ experience of the ice, the terrain, and the wildlife. When I got back, a Google Cardboard virtual reality viewer caused my students to cry out in joy as they turned around to find penguins wobbling down a hill towards the ocean’s shore. 
One of my major goals of the Grosvenor Fellowship was to develop a library curriculum that embeds opportunities for students to research places in order to nurture a global perspective. The knowledge I gained about geography has supported student research projects that embrace aspects of physical Earth and the animals who settle it. For one classroom action plan, third graders wrote narratives in the form of puppet shows, comic strips, and digital picture books about an Antarctic animal who leaves to go to another continent to meet other animals. The story’s Antarctic protagonist tries to adapt to its new environment before returning home. Students used print and digital resources from the library to seek information on their featured animals and habitats. Students applied their research to the narrative to make events and dialogue convincing. The infusion of narrative writing in a captivating research project heightened students’ motivation for learning about Earth and its major regions.
In another lesson, students measured Antarctic animals and compared them to other wildlife by marking their length on the floor of the library. Students were shocked to learn that a humpback whale wouldn’t even fit between the library walls. During library centers students built penguin habitats with building blocks, read eBooks on whales and seals from Epic!, followed step-by-step directions to draw a penguin, and measured distances from Antarctica to other continents using the National Geographic Mapmaker Interactive. 
My Antarctic expedition has been invaluable to my students’ mastery of information-seeking strategies. The fellowship even instigated a special student program called, Research Ambassadors. The program is designed to give one student from each third grade homeroom the research skills necessary to help fellow classmates conduct research back in the classroom. Ambassadors learn and practice the skills of a good researcher by engaging in a project where they use a variety of sources to learn about a country of their choosing. Students become explorers as they retrieve and use information presented textually, visually, and digitally.

Being selected a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow has been personally satisfying and professionally rewarding. This expedition has given me the confidence and knowledge needed to develop a strong geography library collection as well as instructional sequences that foster students’ appreciation for nature. I have identified three major takeaways from the excursion that will forever impact me and my teaching practice.

First of all, I learned to dive in head first. Yes, it is important to prepare for adventures and be diligent about professional development opportunities, but there comes the time when you simply have to immerse yourself in the experience. My documentation of the trip via photographs, interviews, and journaling allowed me to capture Antarctica in all its glory. Secondly, expect the unexpected when you journey to a new place. I thought I knew what to expect while in Antarctica, but I was hugely mistaken. For instance, when the ship began its way back north that last day in Antarctica, we were presented with a magnificent feat of nature: humpback whales breaching. Veteran crew members told us that in all their years serving on the ship, they had yet to witness humpbacks jumping high out of the water. Hence, always keep an open mind so as not to miss life’s spectacular moments that can happen anytime, anywhere. Lastly, I discovered that it is of utmost importance to never stop exploring. Even when you think you fully grasp a topic, nothing compares to exploring first-hand.

This expedition proved to me the power of first-hand experiences. I had the honor of traveling to one of the most remote and pristine landscapes on Earth—a place very few people have ever been. I have developed a greater admiration for the animals that inhabit the world by witnessing the most remarkable events: humpback whales breaching, gentoo penguins nesting, and Weddell seals vocalizing. I may have bid farewell to Antarctica from the ship’s stern in late December, but the journey has just begun. I will continue to share my voyage with students, colleagues, and the community. Each time I do, I relive those special moments that permanently reside in my memory.
Courtesy of Steve Morello
"Where Is the Coldest Place on Earth?" Wonderopolis. National Center for Families Learning, n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.
  • You can read about my entire Antarctica expedition by visiting my blog www.journey2antarctica.blogspot.com. There you will find stories, photos, videos, library instruction, and more.
  • To learn more about the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program, visit their website
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