A "Climate Talks" Update & Apply to Be a GTF!

With my travel schedule as whirlwind as ever, it's been hard to find the time to update this blog! However, I have two exciting things that I just had to share with you this week. 

You may recall that a few months ago I was a part of an exciting documentary project called Climate Talks. This project has become an ongoing environmental education effort to get more people talking about climate change, and this week a very special someone joined in on our conversation: Justin Trudeau! The climate kids (as we like to call them) created some questions especially for Trudeau and this week he is sharing videos of his answers to them. For the next little while I will be guest-tweeting for Madeleine Co., the Toronto women's art collective who are the brains and talent behind this whole thing, to reply to any feedback you have for us. You can take part in this conversation on Twitter here or here. We look forward to hearing from you! 

You also may recall that many months ago I first found out I was selected to be a 2015 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. Applications for 2017 are now open and are due December 31, 2016 at 11:59pm EST. If you want an incredible life-changing and career-shaping experience to learn and teach about the world, you should apply! On the other hand, if you want to maintain the status quo and keep your life exactly as it is now, you should definitely not apply, because the experience will leave you changed forever.  

Photo credit: Eric Guth

Photo credit: Eric Guth

First Graders Take on Community Accessibility

I feel so privileged and honoured to have been featured in National Geographic Education's Educator Spotlight series for the second time this year. This time around, I was interviewed about my class' partnership with the StopGap Foundation, which you might have already read about. You can read the interview below, or check it out on the NatGeoEd blog!  


You’ve said that you like to think of yourself as a “teacher researcher.” What do you mean by that?
Before I was a teacher, I was an academic, and that was my first love. In graduate school, we talked a lot about the role of a teacher researcher. That just means that teachers can and should be continually learning and reflecting on their teaching practice based on what’s going on in their classroom.

So for example, I’ve gotten into the habit of documenting my students’ learning really thoroughly by taking photos and video, recording student voices, and taking hand notes on what my students say in class. This helps me measure the efficacy of my teaching practice and adjust accordingly.

How did your recent project about community accessibility come about?
There had recently been a big athletic competition held in Toronto for athletes with disabilities—the Parapan Am Games—and I was really inspired by how excited our city was about the event.

Meanwhile, I was thinking about how to start the school year, and I always like to begin with community building in the classroom. The big idea that I wanted to emphasize was that we all have contributions that we can make to our classroom community and we all have things we individually struggle with.

So at the very start of the year, we did some read-alouds that were on the topic of accessibility. The stories had characters who might typically be perceived of as having a disability. Then we did a character study where we thought about and listed the character’s strengths and struggles—the things the character was really good at and the things they needed help with. By the end of September, the students had gotten in the habit of reflecting on their own strengths and struggles.

And once I started reaching out to families to tell them about our study of disability, connections came out of the woodwork. One of my student’s parents is an American Sign Language interpreter so she arranged a community member who was deaf to come in and talk the students about what that’s like. Another parent was an architect and spoke to the class about the ways architects tackle accessibility.

And how did the accessibility study culminate in a service learning project?
Well, we go on weekly community walks where we observe things about our local area. This particular time, we decided to focus on the structures, features, and services that the architect had told us about. We were looking for things like beeping sidewalk signs, public transit vehicles that lower close to the ground, and bumps along the sidewalk that allow people using mobility canes to feel where the sidewalk ends. Students collected data by making tally marks for how many features or barriers they saw.

We walked by a wooden ramp with the words “stopgap” on it. I had heard of the Stopgap Foundation—which builds and sells low-cost ramps for single-step storefronts—and hoped my students would discover their impact around the city. They were very interested and wanted to look at the website together. We watched a video of the organization’s founder, Luke Anderson, and the kids asked if they could meet him. So we emailed him together.

Once we heard back from Luke, we set up a time for him to come in and speak to the class. Then, we discussed as a group what kind of action we could take to improve accessibility in our community. It all just spiraled from there. The students decided they wanted to sell stopgap ramps to local businesses so we started measuring for the ramps in math class, wrote our pitch script in English class, and practiced our delivery in drama class.

So you made a plan for which storefronts to visit, and then your first graders actually approached the businesses themselves?
Yes! They always went in buddies, and I was able to recruit student teachers, parents, and other volunteers to help out. Beforehand, we discussed what people might say, why they might say no, and what we would say to counteract their reasoning. We were also very open about the persuasive power of kids, so the students knew their age could be an asset in some ways.

I was impressed that the students latched on to the idea that accessibility is not only beneficial from a human rights or social justice standpoint. It’s also beneficial in very concrete, tangible ways economically. Businesses make more money when more people are able to access them. My students figured out that the ramp only costs $100, which was tiny compared to the possible increase in profits from new customers. I think that particular argument made them really persuasive.

Do you have tips for tackling issues of social justice or inequality with younger students—particularly for teachers who haven’t tried that before?
What I found is that accessibility was a really developmentally appropriate social justice issue for first graders because it’s very visible and very concrete. When we were on a community walk with Luke, the students could see that he couldn’t get into a bakery they liked. They felt it wasn’t fair that he couldn’t go. Once they have a solid grasp of this concrete, visible form of injustice, they’ll be able to apply it to other forms of injustice that are less visible.

Educators may also worry that they’ll be accused of indoctrination or something like that. I think the way you present information to students makes a big difference. It’s important to do this kind of learning through an inquiry-based lens where it’s following a student interest. You might ask questions, but let children come up with their own answers to those questions. That will sound very different when the student talks about it at the dinner table at home.

And finally, make sure the issue you tackle is relevant to your own community. Stopgap is a local Toronto organization. Now, whenever my students walk by a café that installed a ramp, they’ll be able to say their class did that.

Climate Talks

In a mere three days I am heading off on another grand adventure to touch my toes on my seventh continent. (Australia, for those of you keeping track!) It's been a whirlwind getting prepared for it all, but I wanted to take a minute before I go to share with you the launch of an exciting project I've worked on this year. 

This spring I had the honour and privilege to partner with a local women's art collective, Madeleine Co., on a documentary series. The concept of the short films, Climate Talks, was for us to witness children having frank and candid dialogues with adults about the single most important environmental issue of our times. Along with the obvious cute factor, I think some of the many merits of the films are that they expose what our children are really thinking and feeling about climate change, and leave the audience wondering what type of world we are passing on for them to inherit. 

My role in this project was as an educational consultant. I helped develop 10 hours of workshops for students in Grades 3-6 to learn about climate change, so that they could then develop meaningful questions to ask their interview subjects. Some of the interview subjects were people the children knew intimately, like their parent or teacher, while others certainly had some star power. Why yes, that is how I got that photo with Ed Burtynsky!

While all of the films were beautiful and meaningful in their own way, my personal favourite had to be Lisha + Julie "You're bringing up my biggest fear". Lisha is such a thoughtful, fierce, and rad sixth grader who asks her local Member of Parliament some tough questions -- many of which didn't even make it into the final edit! (I can indeed attest from other past experience that our Prime Minister is an inspiring environmentalist, but that's a blog post for another day.) 

Be sure to watch them all if you have a chance, and I hope you enjoy them! 


P.S. Did you notice I have a new photo gallery

What Is Geographic Education? Part 2

Last year I wrote a post for you about just what exactly "geographic education" can look like. Since that time, I have travelled more than 24,000km to Antarctica and home again, and have shared with you someoftheways I've used the experience to teach my students about the world and about Antarctica. The purpose of the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is to help teachers learn about the world through hands-on, field-based professional development, so that they can share that learning with their students, and my expedition to Antarctica certainly helped make that possible for me and my Grade 1 class. 

But, geographic learning is not just about faraway places! Since returning from my expedition, I was asked to become a beta tester for the online National Geographic Educator Certification Program and learn about their Learning Framework. This framework highlights the importance of the Attitudes, Skills, and Knowledge needed to learn about the natural and human worlds at the local, regional, and global levels through a variety of perspectives.

As part of the certification process, I've been reflecting on a local community action project that my class undertook this year that I'm especially proud of. It was, in many ways, a teacher's dream, as it addressed a large number of my curriculum expectations, as well as the Learning Framework and my amazing school's core values (aren't I just a genius?). You can see a short video that summarizes the project below.

I think what I loved most about the project (besides the amazing empowering impact it had on my students) was that it was hyper-localized to my classroom's context. My students had been studying topics of (dis)ability since September, when we began our year by reading many stories about the topic, listening to guest speakers share their everyday experiences, and setting individualized learning goals. On our neighbourhood walks, the students noticed for themselves how many more barriers there were compared to accessibility features, and it was on their initiative after seeing one of these ramps that we visited the StopGap website and contacted Luke. And, it was along a busy stretch in our urban neighbourhood, where students had previously noted a dearth of accessible storefronts, that they chose to return to in order to talk with business owners.

Indeed, "proud" doesn't even really begin to describe how I feel about this -- I sometimes get teary-eyed just thinking about it. If we're not teaching our children about the world through learning such as this, just what exactly are we teaching them? 

If you'd like more information about the whole process behind this project, please feel free to contact me!

And, special thanks always to StopGap and Bean Friend! 💜♿️🎶 

Hello again!

For the past two months, I've been stuck at home with a bad virus, and have only recently begun exploring the outside world again. While being sick is no fun at the best of times, it certainly takes its toll when you are isolated and out of routine for so long. Unfortunately, it means that I had to give up a number of plans and step back from exciting things that always happen at the end of the school year. Saying "no" is a skill that I am still learning, but one bright point of this illness is that it gave me lots of opportunity for practice. Thankfully, my friends, family, colleagues, and students were amazing about reaching out to say hello and reminding me that I am loved and missed.

I wanted to share some excited news with you that was just announced today. This year I applied for and was chosen as the winner of the Edward Burtynsky Award for Teaching Excellence in Environmental Education. You can learn more about this amazing award for K-8 Ontario educators here. It means a lot of things, but what I'm most excited about is the funding my school will receive for environmental education initiatives. Needless to say, I'm feeling incredibly lucky and honoured! 

Completely coincidentally, I recently had the opportunity to meet Edward Burtynsky himself as part of another project I'm also working on (look out for a blog post about that sometime in the fall...), and we just couldn't resist the opportunity to take a photo together. 

If you haven't already, don't forget to sign up for the Natural Curiosity Newsletter so that you can apply for this amazing award next year! 

Thanks to everyone for your patience during my hiatus. I am now back with a vengeance and have a lot of blogging plans to make up for lost time!

Reaching Out

Part of my responsibilities as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, besides engaging in learning with my students in our own classroom, is to participate in outreach activities in the broader community. This is an ongoing process that I'm sure will continue for much of the rest of the year, but it is fun to share this with you so far. 

The most exciting parts, for me, have been sharing my learning with other children. I've been giving presentations at local schools, video chatting with classes that are too far for me to travel to, running drop-in presentations at local libraries, and most recently I gave an Earth Day presentation to my entire school (!) to share how the environmental actions we take in our hometown can have an impact even in faraway places like Antarctica. Kids are always my biggest cheerleaders and show such unending curiosity about Antarctica that I always have to cut our Q&A sessions short. 

I've also started sharing my learning with other educators. I was honoured to present at my school board's first annual STEM conference about the Antarctic measurement curriculum I've engaged in with my students. (This same learning was also shared on the National Geographic Educator Spotlight Blog.) Wow those whales are big! 

My experience has also been shared on the TDSB blog, the Queen's University International Centre blog, and was showcased in a photography exhibit with my fellow Fellows at the National Center for Nature Photography in Toledo, Ohio. 




Being a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow has opened up so many doors for me, and there are lots of exciting potential opportunities coming up for me in the next little while. I'll be sure to write about them in future posts! 

In the mean time, if you're interested in having me give a presentation to your group, please feel free to contact me

Fat or Feathers?

How do polar animals survive and thrive in their harsh environments? There are two main methods that these animals use to stay warm in their icy habitats: blubber and fur (or down). Walruses, whales, and many seals have a thick layer of blubber insulation. This blubber is highly vascularized to insulate them from the intense cold of their water habitat, while also providing buoyancy. On the other hand, animals such as penguins and polar bears rely primarily on their body coverings for insulation. (Although penguins and polar bears both have fat, this is not their major insulator.) Penguins are extra special because their outer, overlapping feathers are waterproof, while each of those feathers has a downy tuft at the base for extra insulation.

When I returned from my Grosvenor Teacher Fellow expedition, I knew I wanted to teach my students about these important animal adaptations. After all, many of their questions and ideas about Antarctica were about the wildlife there. Although the "blubber mitt" isaverycommon activity (no, I'm not that creative!), I was looking for something that would also teach students about how other polar animals, especially their favourite - penguins! - regulate their temperature. Enter the "feather mitt". I created this feather mitt with fluffy craft feathers using the same method as a blubber mitt (just in case you're curious to try it yourself). 

We began by examining some of my photographs from my Antarctic expedition. We have been practicing different types of non-fiction writing lately, so we began by labelling important parts of the animals like a diagram. The students were also able to use their prior knowledge to know that many Antarctic animals have a thick layer of blubber. 

Next, we practiced how to read a thermometer and predicted and measured the temperature of the ice water in our container. After the children had a chance to feel just how cold the water was, and also feel what each of the mitts felt like, we made predictions about the temperatures in each of the insulator mitts. Would one be warmer than the other? What if we put the mitts into the ice water -- would that change the temperature inside them? Indeed, when we tested it out, we saw that the temperature inside the blubber mitt was 30˚C, while inside the feather mitt it was only 10˚C. So, if feathers were that much cooler, why might it still be advantageous to have them instead of that warm, thick blubber?

"Penguins have feathers. Whales have blubber."

"Penguins have feathers. Whales have blubber."

"Seals use blubber. Penguins use down."

"Seals use blubber. Penguins use down."

Two students hold the mittens in the ice water for five minutes while the thermometer records the temperature inside the insulator. 

Two students hold the mittens in the ice water for five minutes while the thermometer records the temperature inside the insulator. 

To answer this last question, we turned to the beautiful underwater photography of emperor penguins by Paul Nicklen. Do you see the bubbles coming out from behind a swimming penguin? The air trapped between a penguin's feathers can be released like a jet stream when it is underwater, allowing for extra speed and maneuverability. And let's not forget that penguins' heavy bones allow them to dive very deeply, and that blubber would just make them float more. If you were a penguin, which insulator would you prefer? 

Around the World to Antarctica

Hi everyone! I have been working on something special for you. I hope you enjoy it!

This weekend I visited Toledo, OH to see the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow's exhibit at the National Center for Nature Photography. Twenty of the 2015 GTFs submitted photos from our expeditions to this exhibit, and they look great all up together on display! If you get the chance to visit the area before the end of March, please check it out and let me know what you think

This was also a chance for me to reunite with some of my fellow Fellows that I haven't seen since April. It was awesome to reconnect with Laura, Dawnetta, Shannon, and Shasta, and hear what they've been up to since they returned from their expeditions. Talking with them reminded me of some items on my "to-do" list, and I came back feeling inspired to tackle a large one: telling you all about the average day in the life of an Antarctic teacher fellow.

To share my day-by-day experiences with you, I have created a Google Tour that you can access by clicking below: 


A few things to know about this tour before you begin: 

  • If you're having trouble seeing the tour in 3D, you're going to want to get the free Google Earth software on your computer, or access the tour from a computer that already has it installed. Then, download this kmz file and open it with Google Earth. 
  • You can go through each day on my expedition by clicking the blue "Next" and "Back" buttons.
  • You can scroll through the photos by clicking the sideways arrow buttons when they show up, and see the photos in full screen by clicking the button in the bottom right corner of the photographs. 
  • Don't forget to click on the links to see other memories from my expedition that I've already posted! 


I am new to this tool and still figuring it out. I'd love to know what you think about this format for sharing, so please leave me a comment below if you enjoyed this type of interaction on the blog. ☮❤️🐧

Moving Pictures

As I continue to readjust to life post-Antarctica, one of my favourite things to do has been to relive the experience through my photographs. My #antarctica365 project has been such an enjoyable experience so far, and I love having an excuse to continue to comb through the thousands of photos I took looking for the many gems. Sometimes I catch myself thinking, "Oh, that one is so good, I should save it for later..." and have to remind myself that I literally have hundreds more amazing photos than I'll be able to post during the year. I hope you have been enjoying this little project, too!

When I set off for Antarctica, I also had in mind that I wanted to take some video footage. This is for a planned artistic collaboration with my amazing colleague and friend Jackie. She gave me the incredible advice to look for and capture textures in the environment, as well as the adorable narrative footage that comes along with taking videos of penguins waddling. As a precursor to our planned collaborative project, I wanted to look through my video clips to see how this could look. Below I have posted the results for you to enjoy! Shout-outs go to my fellow Fellow Kathy for her kayaking prowess, and to the amazing and talented Bean Friend for the beautiful music.  

Back to Reality

Coming back from Antarctica is hard. 

You go to parties to see your friends, and they ask you, "How was it?" but you keep finding yourself at a loss for adjectives. Amazing or spectacular just doesn't seem to cut it. 

"Tell me all about it!" they say, but you stare at them like a deer in the headlights, wondering how you can possibly summarize the experience. 

"What was your favourite part?" They soon lose interest in waiting for you to hem and haw over your options and move on to the next question, as you begin to realize just how bad you are at this whole conversation thing.

"Did you see any penguins?" Well, yes, a few thousand...

"Was it cold?" And that is perhaps the worst truth of all: that not only have you had to return from the ice, but you've had to return to a city that has colder winter temperatures than the Antarctic peninsula at this time of year. 

Yes, it is really, really hard. 


It is never easy to return to work after a month away, but this return has especially felt like a culture shock. I am lucky that my amazing school community is so supportive and welcoming. I have been back now for a full week and am just feeling like I'm getting back into the swing of things. Antarctica feels in some ways like a distant memory, like a faraway dream I keep having each night, but I am working hard to make it real for my students and my community at large. 

So, what have I been doing since I returned, besides trying to sort through the 4,500 photos I took?

A large (no pun intended) take-away for me from this experience was the sheer size and vastness of the continent. It is so difficult for a photograph to convey the neck-craning heights of the mountains, or the way that the glaciers seem to go on and on forever. I have previously written about the size and scale of the place, but this has been even more on my mind since I returned. 

The orange dots in those zodiacs are travellers waiting to come ashore, perhaps roughly 1 meter tall each sitting down.

The orange dots in those zodiacs are travellers waiting to come ashore, perhaps roughly 1 meter tall each sitting down.

In my classroom, I have been attempting to pass this knowledge on to my students in concrete ways that they can understand. We've been measuring the heights of penguins, the lengths of seals, and the wingspans of birds. As we move forward, we'll be using online maps like this one to explore relative sizes to our own neighbourhood. (Remember that humongous ice berg I floated by, Torontonians? It would cover the width of about 7 subway stations, all the way from the waterfront to Steeles Avenue.) As I'm marvelling at just how enormous that magical place seemed, I'm also reminding myself just how small a part of it I saw. It is truly humbling! 

A group of students measured the wingspan of a wandering albatross (300cm), then painted the wings on mural paper.

A group of students measured the wingspan of a wandering albatross (300cm), then painted the wings on mural paper.

On another day, a different group of students measured the length of a female elephant seal (350cm) then built a three-dimensional structure of the same length. While on a gallery walk, one of these students commented "When we were building our seal, I thought it was really big. But when I saw the male elephant seal (600cm), then I thought that one was even bigger."

On another day, a different group of students measured the length of a female elephant seal (350cm) then built a three-dimensional structure of the same length. While on a gallery walk, one of these students commented "When we were building our seal, I thought it was really big. But when I saw the male elephant seal (600cm), then I thought that one was even bigger."

Outside of my own classroom, I am beginning to find times to share my learning with others. This coming week I'll be leading our school-wide daily morning circle to share some of my experience with the rest of the students and families at my school. I'm submitting proposals to present at professional conferences, and scheduling presentations with other groups, such as my neighbouring school's photography club, and local classrooms that followed my expedition. If your group is interested in hearing more from me, you can contact me here.

I am also still posting actively on social media. Perhaps you've already seen my New Years resolution, #antarctica365, an online photography project where I will be posting one photograph from my Antarctic expedition every day for one year. It has been a great way to reflect upon my experience and share my learning with others, even if I can't express myself well at parties. I hope you enjoy it and have a happy new year! 😄🐧🌎🇦🇶

Let's Keep in Touch

While I'm south of the Antarctic Convergence, I am going to try to be totally present in the moment and enjoy every minute of my time there. My plan (when Internet is available) is to mostly post to my Twitter and Instagram accounts, which you can see small bits of below, or the full picture by clicking on those links. You can also check out the official Daily Expedition Reports, if those interest you. I'll return to blogging again in the new year when I've been able to reflect upon all of the amazing experiences I've had. In the mean time, waddle on, everybody! 

One Last Thing Before I Go

It's not every day that I get publicly serenaded (traffic noise and winter coughs and all), but when I do it's by my school's choir on the last school day before my expedition. Indeed, all of my bags are (finally) packed and I'm (anxiously) ready to go. 

But before I do, I simply had to take one last opportunity to stop by this old blog to say thank you. 

Thank you, first and always, to National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions for believing in me and giving me this amazing opportunity. I am humbled and overjoyed to have been selected for this program, and I know that I will never truly be able to repay this generosity, but I will work hard to do so. 

Thank you, thank you to my sweet friends and family who have all along been my cheerleaders since I entered this crazy world of teaching. Thanks for reading these posts and "liking" all of my excessive Antarctica conversations, both in real life and on social media. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you to my amazing school community who have rallied around me since this big announcement. To my principal for pulling every possible string to financially cover my leave of absence, to my colleagues for taking care of my sweet kids while I'm away, to my students' families for their generosity of gifts and and hugs and warm thoughts. I am so lucky. 

I hope you'll all keep checking in with me while I'm away and as I process this experience when I return. The countdown will soon end but the learning will not. 

Waddle on, everybody. 

Peggy the Penguin Update

In my last blog post, I let you know about the most recent plushy addition to our classroom. Since that time, each child in the class has had a chance to take Peggy home to introduce it to their families. My hope here was for each child to build a strong attachment to Peggy, so as to generate more interest and understanding in the photos I take while I am away (an idea inspired by my wonderful fellow Fellow Greg Gaiera). It was also a chance for me to better understand their preconceptions, questions, and curiosities about Antarctica and my upcoming expedition.


I've had a chance now to read through this homework that the children completed with their families, and have found a number of entry points for inquiry. These ideas will guide my own learning, so that I can bring information back to the classroom that the children will be inspired to learn about. 



Some common themes in the children's responses were:

  • The megafauna of Antarctica
    • "I think Ellie will see a chin strap penguin."
    • "I think penguins are good swimmers."
    • "I wonder if there are whales."
    • "I wonder how long it takes for the egg to hatch."
    • "I hope that Ellie and Peggy will see a killer whale."
    • "I hope that Ellie and Peggy will see a seal."
  • Structures and human experiences in Antarctica
    • "I wonder if there are igloos there."
    • "I wonder what Ellie will eat. Peggy will eat fish."
    • "I wonder how people don't die because of the cold."
    • "I wonder where the people live and how people stay warm."
    • "I hope that Ellie and Peggy will make igloos in the snow. I hope that they could have a snowball fight."
    • "I hope that Ellie and Peggy will swim in the cold water."
  • Weather and climate
    • "I think it's really cold."
    • "I think Antarctica is snowy." 
    • "I wonder if the snow is melting."
    • "I wonder if it will be cold or warmish."
    • "I wonder what the degrees is in Antarctica."
    • "I hope that Ellie and Peggy will find out if it will be cold."



Also exciting to read about are my students' misconceptions! Analyzing misconceptions can be incredibly eye-opening about their current understandings and how to guide their learning.




Some common misconceptions in the children's responses were:

  • Confusion between the two poles
    • "I hope that Ellie and Peggy will have a good time at the Arctic."
    • "I wonder if the penguins see Santa when he is in the sky."
    • "I hope that they will see a polar bear and a penguin."
  • Confusion about which species live in Antarctica 
    • "I wonder if Ellie will see a lion seal." 
    • "I wonder if Ellie will get bit by a shark. I hope she stays safe."
    • "I hope Ellie and Peggy will go diving and see sharks and jellyfish." 

So, how do I plan to use these ideas and questions to guide my own learning? Needless to say, one of my big jobs will be to take lots of photographs so that my students can see what I saw there. Some of these I will be able to post right away while I am there, and others I will share with them upon my return.

I can also begin to plan how I will interact with my class through social media while I am away, and how this can support learning happening in the classroom. For example, one of the things we do each day at school is measure the temperature with a thermometer and record this data in a monthly line graph. While I am on the National Geographic Explorer, I can tweet what the temperature is from the ship each day, and the students can add this as separate data on our December Temperature graph. Will it be very different or very similar to the temperature back at school? Why or why not? If we compared Toronto's and Antarctica's temperatures again in June, would our data look the same? 

I am also beginning to plan what on-board experiences to participate in, and how to make use of the ship's tools, to provide further provocations. Can I work up the nerve to do a polar plunge? Will the ice conditions be good enough for us to visit the southernmost post office or one of the research stations? Could I tag along with the underwater video specialist on an outing with a ROV? Might I be able to get a recording of the sounds from one of the underwater hydrophones? 

With less than a month to go until my departure, these thoughts are clouding my brain, along with packing lists, supply teacher plans, and constantly double- and triple-checking that my passport hasn't expired. So if you see me within the next month and I seem a little bit preoccupied, rest assured: it's not you, it's the penguins. 😉 

Back to School

Faster than you can say "No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers' dirty looks!" it feels like summer is over and fall is upon us.

Although September is an exciting time of sharp pencils, fresh notebooks, and smiling new faces, it is also a time of very little work-life balance. As teachers, we have new routines to adapt to, new students to get to know, new colleagues and families to work with, assessments to do, education plans to write, and lots (lots!) of coffee to drink to keep us going through it all. The reward, of course, is the excitement of a new year with sweet kids. 

This was my 5th first day of school as a teacher (my first-ever teaching gig started mid-year), and it was different for me than it has been in years past. Our first day, September 8, marked less than 3 months until my expedition to Antarctica! Since then, every other team of Fellows has departed and returned from their expeditions, with amazing stories to tell. 

So, what have I been doing to prepare my students (and myself) for this exciting adventure? 

The first thing is talking to my students about it regularly to try to clear up misconceptions they have. Since they're so young (ahem, sorry, they are very grown up first graders), this takes some patience and good humour. After I took my first personal day in late September, one of my students thought I was away because I had gone to Antarctica over the weekend. It is so endearing to hear them pipe up, "When you are away at the North Pole...", only to have to correct them that, no, in fact I will not see polar bears or Santa Claus on my voyage. 

But by far the most exciting thing going on in our classroom these days is Peggy. Peggy is a stuffed baby penguin (bonus points if you can identify the species!) that I picked up at National Geographic Headquarters when I was there for the Grosvenor Teacher Fellows pre-expedition workshop in April.

When given the opportunity to name the stuffie, the students brainstormed suggestions and Peggy received the most votes in our democratic process. Somewhat hilariously, Peggy was also the name of my dearly departed grandmother (don't worry, I'm sure she would approve). When I shared this coincidence with my students, two kids piped up that their grandmothers were also named Peggy. "Wow," I remarked, "Peggy must be a popular name for grandmas." From the back of the class came a voice, "Yes, and for penguins too!" 

This month each child will get a turn to take Peggy home for a night and, with their family, write in our "Peggy Homework" booklet. My plan is to use this homework as a launchpad for the inquiry-based learning about Antarctica that will be taking place while I'm on expedition and when I return. I want to use the students' prior ideas, questions, and suggestions to guide the learning that I am doing there, so that I can bring knowledge back that is meaningful to them and that they want to learn more about. My plan is to bring Peggy along with me to Antarctica, so that I can post pictures of it enjoying our voyage to further engage my students (an idea much inspired by my fellow Fellow Greg Gaiera). 

Besides the in-class learning, I have been working on my own preparations. I am well stocked up on anti-nausea medications and long underwear. I've been watching documentaries and doing lots of reading about Antarctica, too. Plane tickets have been booked, and substitute teachers sought out for while I am away. 

Another part of my preparations, and a big leap for an introvert like me, has been seeking out outreach opportunities. Grosvenor Teacher Fellows are expected to share their learning with the wider community upon their return, to promote the importance of geographic literacy. Do you have a community group who would love to hear a presentation? Are you a journalist looking for a personal interest story? Please contact me -- I would love to share my learning with you!  

If We Build It, Will They Come?

A few summers ago, I signed up for a workshop offered by the Monarch Teacher Network of Canada. The registration fee was being subsidized by my school board, and I figured, why not? It ended up being one of my favourite professional development workshops and has had a profound impact on my teaching.

Since then, my students have delved deeply into inquiry projects about monarchs. We observe them, read about them, draw them, map them, tag them, plant habitats for them, make films about them -- this year, I even called my class the "monarchs"! (It was a great non-gendered alternative to "boys and girls", as well as a beautiful metaphor for the learning journeys students make each year, but that's a post for another time.) In my application to become a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, I wrote and reflected upon how studying monarchs can build geographic literacy.

So with that in mind, you should know that I am a bit of a monarch butterfly nerd. When we're driving, I point out patches of milkweed on the side of the road. If we're in a park and someone says, "Hey, is that a monarch butterfly?", I can happily answer them (and even annoyingly tell them, "No, that's a painted lady/tiger swallowtail/red admiral/etc.").

Knowing that the migration this year was likely to be late, I didn't begin searching in earnest for #monarchwatch until school let out. I live in an urban neighbourhood full of people who must love monarchs, because we have quite a few milkweed patches along our street. Each time I walked to the subway station or the pool or the grocery store, you could see me peering under the leaves of the milkweed plants. My eyes were peeled for specks of orange against the sky. But despite my searching, all of the milkweed leaves I saw remained un-nibbled, and I quietly cursed all the fluttering painted ladies that caught my eye. I longed for summers past when my neighbourhood felt like a big monarch hotel.

Then this came across my social media feeds: 

I was so relieved that I wasn't the only one; I had been seriously doubting my monarch nerd skills! But of course, with that relief came more worry. If we weren't seeing any evidence of a population increase after record lows, were our collective efforts at restoring breeding habitat (i.e. planting milkweed) all for naught? 

At the same time, I was in the midst of reading Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem (a totally worthwhile book you should read or at least listen to). Mooallem writes about shifting baselines syndrome (also called environmental generational amnesia), a phenomenon in which each new generation considers the current level of biodiversity to be normal. It occurred to me that as I was teaching my students all about monarchs, the only world they knew was one in which the butterfly was a species at risk. They were planting a pollinator garden to "help the monarchs", but no butterflies were coming to it. To them, record low populations were status quo, and they were participating in conservation work for a species that they may never see flourish without significant, sustained human intervention. Was teaching my students about monarchs helping them become young environmental stewards, or contributing towards their shifting baseline? Obviously, I was having my doubts. 

With all of this in the back of my mind, I was whisked away from monarch country on a family vacation. Two weeks later I returned, jet lagged but rejuvenated.

The very next day I showed up to volunteer for the first time at a Monarch Teachers workshop, and what I saw restored my hope. The other volunteer teachers, most of whom don't live in the city, had brought in what felt like a plethora of eggs, caterpillars, chrysalids, and butterflies (all while staying within the regulations of our Ministry of Natural Resources permit, I assure you). We watched the caterpillars do the pupa dance, and tagged and released more than 15 adult butterflies. I thought back to my workshop in 2013, when the same volunteers had only been able to find a few specimens for our workshop, and I realized how tangibly the population has grown since that low. Even if I'm not seeing it firsthand, it is rebounding, slowly but surely.

More than that, I met 13 other motivated educators who were eager to learn how to bring monarch education into their learning spaces, and were inspired by the work I've done with my students. I reconnected with other educators who also have inspiring stories about how monarchs have changed their teaching. I learned from two inspiring educators at the Toronto Zoo's Turtle Island Conservation program, who taught us about how monarch teaching can connect with Indigenous education. These little insects are such a powerful and captivating teaching tool, I tell you. 

It may be that with smaller overall populations, our part of the country may be seeing less and less of monarchs over time. This seems to be the case in Mexico, where overwintering sites are growing to help with preservation, but the butterflies are congregating in fewer of these sanctuaries. Interestingly, the Midwest seems to be having a relatively strong population year, which is precisely where a new butterfly highway will be growing to provide greater breeding habitat.

It remains to be seen whether pushes like #gotmilkweed will bring back the monarchs to Toronto or Ontario in ways that we hope; perhaps our local citizen science efforts won't have much of an effect, and migration patterns will cluster more along the north-south route from Texas to Minnesota. (But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying, as having less geographically diverse habitats puts species at greater risk from events like droughts, storms, and disease.) 

Whatever the end result, volunteering with the Monarch Teacher Network this weekend has reminded me to see both the forest and the trees. Yes, we still have much work to do to (hopefully) bring monarchs back to this region. Yes, there is reason for hope on a larger scale. And yes, I still think it is worthwhile to have students young and old learn about this amazing creature, participate in environmental activism projects, and learn that our efforts may not have an immediate effect but can still make a difference in the long term.

With renewed optimism, I did some gardening this week. 

Antarctica: A Year On Ice (Film Review)

The anticipation is starting to get to me! I have been patiently watching the other Grosvenor Teacher Fellows depart and return from their expeditions, but mine is still more than 5 months away (check the countdown clock for up-to-the-second updates). When the current group returns home on July 8, more than half of us will have already been on expedition. But one advantage of the Antarctica group's torturously long wait is that I have the time to do a lot of pre-expedition research. 

Close friends and family know all about my love for documentary films. I am lucky that my city has an annual international documentary film festival, and a whole cinema devoted to screening docs. It is by far my favourite film genre, and I try to watch at least one a month. This week, I celebrated the official start of summer vacation by watching Antarctica: A Year On Ice.

I enjoyed watching this doc for a number of reasons, both as a teacher and as a film lover. 

The film was produced, filmed, and directed by Anthony Powell, a New Zealander who has spent most of his adult life and career on the ice, including 9 Antarctic winters at the time of the film's release. It's Powell's first film (as listed in IMDb), and he is what one might call an "amateur" filmmaker; the film took 10 years to make, and he used mostly homemade camera gear (that he adapted to the Antarctic climate with everyday items like car batteries and fur hats). But Powell's results are far from amateur! His perseverance in shooting all of the amazing footage is inspiring to any viewer, and it feels empowering to think that as an amateur myself I may be able to capture the same type of beauty.

I probably don't even have to mention the film's scenery, right?

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

It was stunning.

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

But really, that goes without saying. 

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

The storyline of the film follows the rhythms of a year working in Antarctica, beginning in October, the start of the summer season. As Powell says, there's really only 2 seasons on the ice, "a busy summer ... and a wild and lonely winter." The film follows the "regular people" who live and work in Antarctica -- firefighters, mechanics, retail workers -- who are all an intriguing cast of characters. It gives us a glimpse at their ordinary lives in this extraordinary setting. 

Amazingly, the film is a feast for all of the senses. Watching it, you really get a sense of the sound of the buildings when they're being shaken by 125mph winds, the odourlessness of an Antarctic winter, the feeling of having icicles on your eyelashes, and the taste of an apple after a six month deprivation of fresh fruits and vegetables. 

In the classroom, I would recommend using this film for students in Grade 4 and up, but many clips could be shown to younger students, too. It is rated PG, and has some mild language, mild drinking, and some images that may upset young children, such as dead penguins. Scenes that I think students -- and adults -- would especially like are about the quirks of living in Antarctica: what happens when you open the door during a Condition 1 storm? How are holidays celebrated so far away from home? Who are the "orange people"? What happens when you throw boiling hot water into -40˚ air? Any why do you need to carry a pee bottle with you when you go out onto the ice? I also love that the film talks about Antarctica's role in international peace building. Peace curriculum is very important at my school, and at others too, I'm sure. There are lots of great discussion and research directions that students could take from this, such as the history behind the 1959 Antarctic treaty and modern day efforts to further protect it.  

Overall, this was a great film that I am happy to recommend to educators or other polar enthusiasts. Do you have any other Antarctica book or film recommendations for me? Please leave me a comment below!


screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

screen shot from Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year On Ice

What Is Geographic Education?

When I first told my friends and family about my selection for the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program, they were, of course, overjoyed for me. But, well-intentioned, many have since asked me questions like, “You don’t teach geography, so how did you get selected?” It’s true that many Grosvenor Teacher Fellows are not geography teachers. We are kindergarten teachers, elementary school teachers, teacher-librarians, music teachers, math teachers, science teachers, outdoor educators, and the list goes on and on. What we all do have in common is this: we teach our students about the world. 

National Geographic is committed about ensuring that all students grow up to be geographically literate. This means more than simply memorizing countries and capitals, but rather also means appreciating the natural world, communicating across boundaries, and making informed decisions as a 21st-century thinker. The purpose of the Fellows program is to give teachers some of the best professional development on the planet that will help their students become more geographically literate. But what does this really look like in an elementary classroom? Let me share with you two recent examples of geographic education that has been happening in my classroom, and beyond its four walls.  

Our school's butterfly garden with student-created signs and fence

Our school's butterfly garden with student-created signs and fence

One student wrote signs to discourage her classmates from touching the monarch caterpillars growing in our classroom.

One student wrote signs to discourage her classmates from touching the monarch caterpillars growing in our classroom.

A student records the types of seeds he collected from a local wildflower garden.

A student records the types of seeds he collected from a local wildflower garden.

In the fall, we brought in a number of monarch caterpillars and chrysalids to our classroom. The students loved observing them and watching them metamorphose. And, really, I could have left it at that. After all, I would have checked off a number of the science curriculum expectations for Grades 1 and 2. Instead, we used the students’ enthusiasm to launch a cross-curricular inquiry project that is still ongoing, nearly 10 months later. We talked about our prior knowledge about monarchs and brainstormed questions we had about them. We read books and watched videos to help us answer our questions and learn more about their life cycle, migration patterns, and conservation efforts. We tagged the wings of the adult butterflies before we released them, so that we could track their migration to Mexico. We found their winter habitat — the fir trees of the mountaintop Oyamel forests — on maps, and wrote letters to students from the region, all winter eagerly waiting for them to write us back. We took field trips to local parks and forests to collect milkweed and native pollinator plant seeds, and then we planted a butterfly garden in our school yard. Finally, just last month, we created a stop-motion video to submit to our city’s United Nations World Environment Day Student Film Festival, to encourage others to plant butterfly gardens, too. Last night was the Film Festival red carpet gala, and believe me when I say that you have never seen a prouder or more jazzed group of 6- and 7-year-olds! 

Tweeting about geographic education from my Twitter account @penguinlearners 

Tweeting about geographic education from my Twitter account @penguinlearners 

Then in the spring, I took eight 4th-graders who are part of my school’s Eco Club to a screening of the film “The Dark Side of the Chew”. We learned many incredible facts about gum. Did you know that chewing gum is the second most common form of litter in the world? Each year we litter enough gum around the world to build a road to Mars! Although gum used to be made from the sap of the Chicle tree, our collective consumerism for gum almost completely depleted this natural resource, and now almost all chewing gum is made from plastic. That means we are littering tons and tons of plastic onto our earth and into our waterways each year. Animals, birds, and fish can, of course, get sick by eating all this gum accidentally. The Eco Club students came back from this film as passionate advocates against gum litter. Completely coincidentally, the next day was a spirit day at our school where students were allowed to chew gum in class. On their own initiative, the Eco Club students wrote and delivered announcements over the school’s PA system to encourage others to throw away their gum responsibly, or choose not to chew gum at all. At an Eco Club meeting the next week, the students were still buzzing and talking about the film. They expressed how much they wanted a chance to use the app GumShoe Map, created by the filmmaker of “The Dark Side of the Chew”. Anyone anywhere in the world can use this app to upload photographs of gum litter on sidewalks, which is then compiled into a real-time, dynamic map of where gum litter is located. When my colleague Lori let the filmmaker, Andrew Nisker, know about their initiative, he chose to come to our school to film the students and create a video encouraging others to download and use the app. Many students have now downloaded the app onto their own devices and continue to upload data to this citizen science mapping project completely on their own. 

Throughout these two examples, the students were thoughtfully considering multiple perspectives; noticing the interactions between their lives and the natural world; considering the environmental implications of simple, everyday actions; taking initiative to share their learning with others in their community; and creating persuasive messages to communicate with wider audiences around the world. And this is from students as young as 6-years-old. Imagine what could happen if all classrooms from K-12 were committed to this type of learning! These projects do not reinvent the wheel, and are not necessarily difficult for teachers to implement. However, for geographic learning like this to happen, it does take commitment from educators who believe in the importance of expanding their students’ worlds! 

The Countdown Is On!

At this time of year, many teachers have a number of "countdowns" going on. Now that my shipboard travel and flights have been officially booked, I am very excited to begin counting down for my Grosvenor Teacher Fellow expedition! My to-do list to complete before then is very long -- including getting a complete medical physical and being deemed well enough to travel, creating and printing business cards to network with fellow passengers, and reaching out to media sources to report on my fellowship and expedition -- but I hope the anticipation will help get all those jobs done quickly. As of today, my countdown is 6 months, 2 weeks, and 1 day, but below you'll find a countdown clock to give you up-to-the-second information. The countdown is definitely on! 

Understanding Size and Scale

This past weekend, I went to National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, D.C. for a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program pre-expedition workshop. It was an incredible weekend of networking, collaboration, and excitement amongst like-minded colleagues, some true chicken soup for the teacher's soul. While I was away, I learned more about my upcoming expedition to Antarctica, and while I still have much more to learn, I wanted to share some of this with you.

The 2015 Grosvenor Teacher Fellows at National Geographic Headquarters, photo credit: Mark Thiessen 

The 2015 Grosvenor Teacher Fellows at National Geographic Headquarters, photo credit: Mark Thiessen 

So many of us know so little about this place, that we don't understand the true size and scale of Antarctica. Of course, one of my goals for this fellowship is to learn more about this so I am able to bring it back into my classroom. Here's some of the research that's getting me started. 

Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent. The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth, -89.6C (-129.3F), was recorded at the Russian research station called Vostok. Just in March, a new warmest temperature record for the continent, 17.5C (63.5F), was reported along the peninsula coastline. Although most of us think of it as a snowy place, Antarctica is a desert. On average, the South Pole gets less than 10cm of snow per year, which is less precipitation than the average rainfall of some parts of the Sahara desert. It also has the record for the fastest daily average windspeed. Yikes! Better pack the parka and the moisturizer! 

Antarctica is the 5th largest continent, bigger than Europe or Australia. Most of Australia could fit just within the Eastern side of Antarctica, especially during the winter when the size of the continent grows larger due to increased ice. The transantarctic mountain range marks the boundary between the East and West portions of the continent, and there are at least two active volcanoes. Speaking of which, do you know the reason Antarctica is a continent, while the arctic is not? It's because there is a landmass under all that Antarctic ice, while the arctic is only sea ice. 

Although it was greener millions of years ago, Antarctica now has no trees or bushes. It also has no ownership from any other country, no time zone, and no permanent residents

What it does have is one ATM, one post office, the coldest marathon on Earth, hot springs, and the southernmost bar on the planet (among some of the most spectacular scenery and fascinating wildlife).

But what's important to remember is that these things are not so close together! Although we tend to think of Antarctica as one place, we need to remember the size and scale to truly appreciate what this pristine continent has to offer. One difficulty with this is the maps that are available. Often, maps show Antarctica cut and stretched, which really skews our perspective. And, strangely, the Google Maps Camera Car has not made it there (yet!) so that is not much help either. But zoom in to take a close look at this National Geographic Antarctica map. The ATM is down at the U.S. McMurdo station, by the Ross Sea, south of New Zealand. The hot springs are on Deception Island, just off the west coast of the northern end of the peninsula, south of Argentina, around the same area that I will be travelling to. Meanwhile, the marathon takes place on Union Glacier, below the Ronne Ice Shelf. From my rough estimates on Google maps, Deception Island and Union Glacier are just under 2000km apart as the crow flies, or about the same distance from Toronto to Miami. That definitely makes a quick stop to the ATM out of the question, at least during this expedition. 

To keep following me as I learn more about this amazing place, be sure to check out my Pinterest board