Today, I am co-opting my rarely used blog site to write about my upcoming expedition on Lindblad Expeditions to the Canadian Maritimes. I was lucky enough to be picked as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with Lindblad and National Geographic, and an element of our fellowship is participating in an expedition.
Fair warning: some of the blog posts will be aimed at a kindergarten class in California so that they can follow along and learn about a new habitat. There may be a stuffed puffin and legos involved.
Travel not only helps you widen your understanding of the world, but also it allows you to deepen understanding you already have. Visiting schools in other countries provides a window into the students’ lives and provides a point of reflection about our educational system and our lives.
I first visited China in 2008 as a part of a school exploration trip. The school was adding a world language program and received a grant for teachers to travel to China to learn about Chinese culture and some Mandarin basics. Excited about this opportunity, I spent a week in Shanghai learning about Chinese culture, visiting different sights in and around Shanghai, and learning some very basic Mandarin (tones, counting to 10, how to introduce myself, and not much more). We dressed up in regional outfits and ate noodles and dumplings – a very touristy experience. I extended my trip and traveled to Beijing and continued with the tourist theme of seeing the sights. I was there just before the Summer Olympics and was able to see first hand some of the measures that China was taking to get ready – metal detectors at subway stations, forced reduction of car usage to decrease pollution, and many Olympic souvenirs being sold.
In 2011, we had our first 8th-grade class and wanted a class trip that could be the culmination of student learning – intertwining world language study, learning about others, and environmental science. My principal and I traveled to Chengdu to see if we could design a learning experience that would fit our needs. Chengdu was ideal because it fit our criteria—Chengdu is one of the locations where giant pandas live (in captivity and the wild), we had connections to local schools, and of course, they speak Chinese there.
The first week of the trip is spent in Chengdu, visiting the pandas as well as several primary schools—one private, one private and attached to a company, and one public. The pandas are adorable and learning about their conservation is fascinating (as are the reintroduction efforts) but the real learning for the students and me happens at the schools. This is where we get a glimpse into the classrooms and what the lives the students who attend these schools are like.
This first week is still fairly surface level – the schools show off their best students and teach our students different Chinese traditions – calligraphy, tea ceremonies, fan painting, dumpling making, etc. These activities make for great pictures but most of the interactions between our students and theirs are brief and temporary. We exchange gifts but little else and each night our students return to the hotel. There is a family visit attached to this first week but most families focus on showing our students the best their city has to offer—taking them shopping and to different museums.
It’s the second week though where our students start to realize what it might be like to live in China. We travel about 40 miles to the city of Dujiangyan, and even though we tell the students that they will be staying in the dorms of the middle-high school that we visit, it doesn’t start to sink in until we are unloading their luggage from the bus and showing them the room and bunk beds that the will be their home for the next four nights.
And even though the school provides our students with some of the best rooms they have, it is a far cry from what they are used to. Bunk beds, an outside sink area, and a toilet/shower room (without an actual toilet) are new and different. Eating in the campus cafeteria, even with “special” food including fried chicken and French fries is very different than what they eat at home. Having classes after dinner (even if it’s tai chi) is different. And being woken up at 5:30 am to get ready for the day is also different. These experiences provide a new lens for our students to look at their lives with.
Also, these five days are an opportunity for our students to spend time with a Dujiangyan student and to build connections. Students are buddied up and this allows our students a glimpse into the lives of their Dujiangyan buddy. Together, the buddies go to classes (even if the classes are special ones like Chinese dance and block printing), visit local sights, and eat. It all culminates with visit to the buddy’s family. Most students say that the family visit is their favorite trip experience.
The last day, when we say goodbye, you can see the impact these connections have made: students take selfies together and exchange contact information and tears.
This is why we continue to bring our students to China – they learn about Chinese culture, eat spicy Sichuan food, and take a lot of photos of cute pandas, but they also now have a relationship with someone in China. Their perspective has been shifted, and China is a not far away country, but a place where they have fond memories and a personal connection to their buddies, their buddies’ families, and the teachers who taught them about China.
I am an explorer. People who know me wouldn’t disagree with the statement and would probably point to my love of travel as evidence. But I would argue that I travel because I am an explorer, not that I am an explorer because I travel. This is a distinction that I wouldn’t have made before today
But I became an educator because I am an explorer; I am curious and wanted to learn more about the world and people around me. Being an educator gives you license to learn anything and everything, but it’s also an opportunity to uncover how the world works and to bring that world to my students. I am also an explorer in the classroom, both an ethnographer and an archeologist, uncovering truths and information about my students.
Labeling educators as explorers can be an important shift in how teachers and the outside world think of teachers. On one hand, some people see teachers as experts in a subject matter who then impart that knowledge to students. Another view of teachers is as regurgitators of information that someone else has deemed important. A third view is that of a teacher as a facilitator of learning experiences. Which view is most popular seems to ebb and flow with time and which education trend is currently in fashion. Educators as explorers is obviously most complementary with the third view of teachers –- a view where teachers are continuing to learn and gather knowledge and can use that knowledge to craft engaging and empowering learning experiences for their students.
Explorers venture off into unknown (to them) territory to learn new information; information that they then translate into a medium that others can understand. Traditionally, they also play a role in exposing you to new people and new experiences you didn’t even know existed. And since many organizations understand the value of having teachers value what organization values (geography, a tech tool, India), teachers are given opportunities to explore in ways that other professions aren’t afforded. Often these are geared toward specific content areas and/or age groups but it’s amazing what I am allowed to spend time learning (often for free and sometimes even paid to learn.)
The teachers who are explorers learn for learning’s sake, those who know that no knowledge is wasted, seek out these opportunities. Russian history workshops taught by experts (i.e. university professors) passionate about the topic –sign me up. Studying butterflies in Costa Rica — I am there. What role plankton plays in the ocean and on our planet? — I can’t wait (especially if it has an in the field aspect).
As a teacher, I tromp off to these conferences, experiences, or online opportunities to gain knowledge and skills that I can bring back to my students. I translate my learning experiences into a medium where the students are exposed to this new information and ideas — my role is open their eyes and to provide experiences that might be contradictory to their world view so that their understanding of the world and how it works is widened.
As an educator who wants my students to have a voice and choice in their learning and who crafts inquiry-based learning experiences, I need to have a diverse knowledge base. My gain in knowledge is their gain.
Having an explorer’s mindset allows me to craft learning experiences where my students’ curiosity drives the conversation and learning. I am okay with the unknown and have a skill set where I am confident (perhaps unreasonably) that I can figure out enough information to help students with what they need help with. My role becomes one of a connector — I connect students to information, to experts, and to locations where they can learn the information that is needed. I translate the unknown into explorable bits so that students themselves are explorers of new information, new skills, and new learning experiences.
Today, I participated in a meet-up sponsored by National Geographic. I was lucky enough to hear the stories of explorers (both educators and explorers in the more traditional sense) and as with other learning experiences, my brain went into overdrive on how to share this information with others — how might I translate my experience and learnings into a format my colleagues and students could understand?
Archeology? I love archeology and learning about the past. This love carried me through nine years of Latin, three years of classical Greek, and one fabulous dig in Ecuador but today’s insight and learning was tied to STEM. I had never thought about how much STEM is involved in archeology. Listening Christine Lee, a bio archeologist, talk about her work in Mongolia all I could think about was how this could be a path to bring more students who traditionally are not involved in STEM in college and as a career into the STEM world. How might we use archeology to inspire K-12 students to be curious problem-solvers? How might this lead to more diverse and varied understanding of what it means to be a scientist?
Examples of how technology can solve problems that are facing the world today? Yes, please! Shah Selbe provided a wow factor of what can happen when you bring technology and engineering into conservation projects as well as a eureka moment. I helped run a hack-a-thon last year for our middle school students where they utilized the Internet of Things (IoT) to solve local problems. His examples of how he and his collaborators are utilizing IoT to solve global problems helped push my thinking what the students might focus on and might actually prototype (check out http://conservify.org/). It also was an example of the value that technology can add to conservation work, and that by compartmentalizing disciplines and subject areas, we limit out-of-the-box and innovative thinking. He doesn’t know this but I have already started to brainstorm ways to use what he is working on to inspire and to push my students’ thinking.
Broadening my understanding of US history? Learning information that expands my understanding of US history is always a bonus. Tom Herman presented on resources about the Anza Expedition, a journey by Juan Bautista de Anza (and 240 men, women, and children) in 1776 from New Spain to establish a settlement at the San Francisco Bay. This could be a perfect new project-based learning unit for either the 4th or 5th grade classes — 4th grade studies California history (and visits the Bautista mission) and 5th grade studies the formation of the United States. Thoughts are swirling about head about where to take this next.
So as I set off to work this morning with my trusty backpack, I think about the new possibilities out there. What might I explore next?
All I know is that having opportunities to interact with other explorers and experts in the field allows me to continue to learn and provide better learning experiences for my students, and I thank National Geographic for allowing me to spend two days uncovering new insights and discovering that I too am an explorer.