Adventurer of the Week: Kindergarten teacher explores the arctic

Rochester kindergarten teacher and Olympia resident Michelle Bretherton visited Svalbard on a National Geographic expedition in June. Svalbard is an archipelago and territory of Norway and is located north of the Arctic Circle.
Rochester kindergarten teacher and Olympia resident Michelle Bretherton visited Svalbard on a National Geographic expedition in June. Svalbard is an archipelago and territory of Norway and is located north of the Arctic Circle. Courtesy

Twenty-one kindergartners at Rochester Primary School are getting their education from a rare perspective this year.

Their teacher, Olympia resident Michelle Bretherton, spent the summer on a National Geographic expedition to Svalbard. Svalbard is an archipelago and territory of Norway, located north of the Arctic Circle.

“It is a unique professional development opportunity that I hope has helped me to become a better teacher,” Bretherton said. “It has reminded me of how much fun learning is when you get to experience it rather than just hear about it.”

More than 700 teachers in the United States and Canada applied to be a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow on a Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic trip. Bretherton, 41, was one of 35 selected.

The June 11-21 trip started in Oslo and traveled the perimeter of Svalbard. Bretherton delayed her return until July 10 so she could explore southern Norway

Bretherton says she is using what she learned to teach her students. She recently took some time to answer a few question via email about her trip:

Q: How does a trip of this magnitude resonate with such young students?

A: How my new students will react to this experience, time will tell. Currently we are still learning how to be at school. My students last year, however, seemed to think it was a pretty big deal, especially when my picture appeared in the newspaper and online.

We were studying weather when I found out where I was headed, so they were able to see on Google Earth just how far away the Arctic Svalbard is, and how the climate is so different from our own here in the temperate Pacific Northwest.

We compared weather patterns over a week’s time using Google Weather. Plus, it’s very near the North Pole. Most 5-year-olds know about the North Pole even if it is for fantastical reasons. In June, I was able to share my upcoming experience at an assembly with the whole school (about 500 students). It happened to be beach dress-up day, and I dressed appropriately for a beach in the Arctic. … One of the most wonderful things about sharing this fellowship with students is they see that learning is a life-time endeavor. This is a powerful way to model that learning doesn’t end at graduation.

Q: What are some examples of things that you learned on this trip that you’re able to use when teaching the kids? And how do you use those things your lessons?

A: I believe the most impact this expedition has made on what I will teach will be during our Taking Care of the Earth unit. I was able to sit in on presentations about the climate and how we can start changing our behaviors to help our Earth and the life on it. I will show them photographs I took on the beach on Edgeoya of pollution that washed up on the shore from other places in the world; plastic jugs, netting, bits of random plastic.

Q: What is the most memorable moment from your trip?

A: There is not just one. I think the most memorable moments were when I encountered animals. I was surprised at how little wildlife there was. Mostly there were birds. The other animals we had to search for, and we didn’t see every animal on my arctic wildlife list. There are three moments in particular that stand out.

The first was when we were woken up at 1 a.m. with an announcement of a polar bear sighting. I had been to bed late the night before due to a polar bear sighting during which the bear came right up to the bow of the ship. That was an awesome moment. However, this announcement came with a special surprise. A polar bear mother and her three cubs were spotted. Three! That is very rare.

The second animal encounter that made an impression was when we were able to observe a reindeer family grazing. … The last encounter occurred on the last night of the expedition. The captain brought us to where shallow waters meet deeper waters and whales like to feed. Everywhere I looked whales were spraying water as they exhaled out of blowholes. Most were far, but at different times blue, fin and humpback whales were so close I felt like I could reach out and touch them.

Q: How in the world are you going to top this next summer?

A: Going to the Arctic is a really high bar to top. I’d love to travel to the Galapagos, but the reality is, without this fellowship, the Arctic, Galapagos, Antarctica, all those places are out of my reach financially. There are other professional development opportunities involving travel. I may have to look into them. I would definitely like to continue to outreach to others and share my experience.

Send nominations for Adventurer of the Week to chill@thenewstribune.com.

Read more

Rochester teacher Michelle Bretherton wrote about her arctic trip on her blog, tundratales.edublogs.org.

Read the entire conversation with Bretherton at thenewstribune.com or theolympian.com.