Michelle Bretherton discusses her Arctic expedition in Norway

Michelle Bretherton, a Rochester kindergarten teacher, visited the Arctic over her summer vacation with National Geographic.
Michelle Bretherton, a Rochester kindergarten teacher, visited the Arctic over her summer vacation with National Geographic. Courtesy

This week’s Adventurer of the Week is a Rochester Primary School kindergarten teacher who spent part of her summer vacation in the Arctic on expedition with National Geographic.

I interviewed Michelle Bretherton, a 41-year-old Olympia resident, via email earlier this week. The entire conversation was too long to publish in its entirety, so we’re posting it here:

Q: Where did you go on this trip?

A: We began in Oslo, Norway with some jet-lagged sight-seeing including the famed Vigeland Sculpture Park and the Fram Museum followed by a get to know you reception. We stayed one night in Oslo and then after some individual sight seeing (Fiona and I went to the Olympic Ski Jump) in the morning, (we) boarded the plane for Longyearbyen where we met the ship, The National Geographic Explorer. We traveled around the edge of Svalbard which is an archipelago and territory of Norway. Spitsbergen was the largest of the islands we visited, but we also landed (by zodiac) on Edgeoya as well. It is about halfway between Norway and the North Pole. On the last day we disembarked to Longyearbyen and had a tour of the town. Then we flew back to Oslo for a nights rest at the hotel before going our separate ways.

The daily expedition reports are available online if you would like more detailed information about exact locations. Plus, my blog about the experience is available too.

Q: What was the application process like and how did you learn that you were selected?

A: Basic breakdown: Apply in December. Find out in February. It’s announced to the world in March.

I found out about the opportunity during December of 2014. Almost three thousand people applied for and 35 were awarded the 2015 Fellowship. Educators in the U.S. and Canada may apply. The application window is the month of December so I waited a year, finding out more information and reflecting on my own teaching so that I could answer the short response questions in detail. In December of 2015 I began working on the application in earnest. I was required to submit references, a résumé (which I had not updated in 10 years), and a letter of recommendation, as well as answering four short response questions. In addition, applicants check off the expedition dates that they are available for. I checked off all of the expeditions except for September. Taking time off in September in Kindergarten was not something I was willing to do even if it meant not receiving the fellowship.

Many friends, family members, and administrators helped me edit and clarify why I should be part of this amazing professional development opportunity. They helped me to see me from an outside perspective. I learned halfway through February, the Friday of President’s Day weekend to be exact, that I was chosen as a 2016 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. It was a long couple of months. Thirty-five of us were chosen from a smaller pool of just over 700. When we found out, we were allowed to tell those close to us but no online posting until it was announced halfway through March. My students knew that I was going to the Arctic in February, but they didn’t know why until after it was announced. Then I was able to show them my picture and bio on the National Geographic website. I found out later that previous fellows are part of the application screening process so next year I may get to help choose the new fellows.

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 five 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. Needless to say, many students and parents alike were confused until I shared my reasoning. Kids know all about going to school, and they were enthralled to learn that I would be going to school on a ship near the North Pole to learn about the Arctic environment. I was able to elicit questions from them and will speak at another assembly this year to share the experience and give some answers. 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 in your lessons?

A: I learned so much it's hard to put it all down. I learned firsthand how stark and harsh the environment can be up there. What we do at home affects arctic wildlife. Sea ice is essential for the animals in the arctic especially the polar bear. Climate change is a natural occurrence but humans are speeding up the process. I learned about adaptations animals and plants have to help them survive there. For instance, all the plants are small and short. They use less energy that way.

I learned that there are not enough hours in the day even though the sun never set. I had to force myself to go to sleep because I didn't want to miss anything. I learned that when you do the polar plunge... it's not cold until you get out of the water. It was 32 degrees Fahrenheit in the water that day. Brrr. I learned that animals in the Arctic use as little energy as possible in order to conserve during the lean months.

When we study the five senses I will include activities that help students understand the polar bear’s sense of smell. McNashton’s Shave Ice is willing to donate the “snow.” Students will try to identify certain smells through a container full of ice and compare their sense of smell to the polar bear. Have you ever tried to communicate under water? Blue whales can hear each other through almost one thousand miles of water.

When we learn about plants I will show them the tiny saxifrage and plant adaptations. When I photographed the plants I put an RPS carabiner next to them to show size. It says, "We are linked." I thought that was fitting. We’ll grow plants from seeds in different conditions including the small refrigerator in my classroom to simulate arctic temperatures. When we study weather, we'll be comparing our weather patterns with various regions throughout the world including the Arctic. 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. So, after donning the appropriate outdoor gear, I hiked up to the bridge to observe an amazing hour of a mother teach her cubs to hunt. Magnus, the ship's Ice Officer, was credited with the sighting. He was the man of the hour. I loved watching the cubs be curious and playful, and the mom being so patient and powerful. The other guests on the bridge had fun talking about the cubs and listening to the naturalists give details about what the mom was doing. We saw at least five more bears after that but nothing compared to that early morning sighting.

The second animal encounter that made an impression was when we were able to observe a reindeer family grazing. The yearling displayed the same curiosity and playfulness as the cubs. We were very close to the three and the calf kept coming towards us to investigate and then would run back to its parents. Both of these instances reminded me of human children and how we learn about our world.

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. I never thought I would ever see a blue whale. They are the largest creature on earth! The humpback whales began feeding right out in front of the bow. The sea birds would wait together and then flock towards where they knew somehow the whales would surface. It was a feast for the birds as well as the whales. It reminded me of how connected we are and how we can help each other survive. It totally fits with what my class learned about last year when we were writing our book, "How Do People, Plants, and Animals Help Each Other?"

Q: What did your pre-trip training in D.C. consist of?

A: There was a reception the first night where we met the 35 other fellows, the president of the National Geographic Society, Gary E. Knell, and others involved with the fellowship. I bunked with my new friend and Fellow, Kristin Gill, from Vancouver B.C. There were three days of training which included information about assignments required before, during, and after the expedition as well as how to prepare for the expedition itself.

Previous fellows joined us and spoke about different topics such as speaking to the media and hindsight. We also had a trainer from Google about Google Carboard, Streetview, and Google Earth. We were able to play with the Cardboard and a Ricoh Theta Camera (360 degree). National Geographic has an educator certification program and we were able to participate in the first portion of the certification process which involves a workshop. My absolute favorite learning experience of the whole long weekend was sitting with Karen Copeland, a Lindblad naturalist; while she helped me better understand the technical aspects of my camera. I wanted to take some worthy photographs while on expedition and she helped me get closer to that goal. Rich Reid, the National Geographic photographer on board the expedition helped me get even closer! In addition to all the training we were able to collaborate with the other fellows and even sightsee a little.

Q: How beneficial is it for you to be in an environment like this trip provided with a bunch of other teachers?

A: The D.C. training was with the other teacher fellows and it was amazing to be sitting in the National Geographic Headquarters collaborating with so many excellent educators. There is a wide range of fellows too; music and art teachers, elementary and high school teachers, pediatric hospital and zoo educators, and librarians. We were able to share ideas about what we currently do and what we want to do with our students to spread geographic literacy. In addition to collaborating at the training, we are able to connect through a Google+ community with all of the previous fellows as well. Next year, when the 11th set of Grosvenor Teacher Fellows joins the community the class of 2016 will then become mentors as well.

The expedition itself was not filled with a bunch of other teachers. There were only two-three fellows on board each expedition as part of the Grosvenor Fellowship. The other expeditions include destinations such as the British Isles, Galapagos, Iceland, and Antarctica. The Galapagos expeditions are happening now and Antarctica is coming up soon. Fiona Hall was the other fellow on the expedition with me, the rest of the people consisted of crew, staff, and passengers from around the world. Fiona and I weren’t staff or crew, but we weren’t typical passengers either. Our cabin was down on the lower deck in the staff area and our photos and bios were up on the staff board. We had a staff mentor, Eduardo, who helped us navigate through our special status. We were there to learn just like the other passengers, but were also geographic literacy ambassadors. I made it a point to sit with different people at each meal in order to meet as many passengers as possible. The ship holds about 150 passengers and I believe we were full to the brim with guests wanting to learn about the Arctic. There were also staff on board known as Naturalists and there was also a National Geographic Photographer, Rich Reid. The staff was very helpful to us. They answered so many questions and even allowed me to record them answering questions so I can share that with my students. This truly was a learning opportunity for all the guests on board. It was definitely not a cruise.

In case you were wondering: Geographic literacy is about understanding that what we do affects the world around us and needing to make decisions based on that. The basic idea in bullets:

• Interactions

• World Systems: human social systems and environmental systems

• Interconnections

• Geographic Reasoning: one place is connected to another

• Implications

• Decision Making: reason through the implications of a decision based on interactions and connections.

Q: I saw that you teach about taking care of the planet, how do you get such a big, important message through to such young kids? And how might your experience help with that?

A: Here’s the deal. Even five year olds can wrap their brains around the fact that what we do affects the world around us. They experience it in the classroom when a friend decides to run and ends up knocking over another friend. They see it when someone doesn’t share a resource such as Legos or snack and there is not enough for everyone. So, we start small with tangible first hand experiences and work our way out to the global perspective. In the fall my students learn about being kind, working hard, and showing integrity. Then they learn about empathy and showing you care. Empathy is key. If we don’t try to understand someone else’s perspective than knowing that we affect others is not going to really impact our behavior. Throughout the year I model and point out good stewardship behaviors such as reducing what we use (only use what we need … turning off the lights when we leave the classroom), reusing (rinse out the applesauce cups from snack to use again, using the back of worksheets for another task, providing a box of supplies that can be reused to make something new during social time), and recycling whenever possible. When we do get to the specific unit about taking care of the earth in early spring, they are ready to learn about human impact on the environment and to develop solutions for what they can do personally to help. If you would like to see a digital version of the book they wrote about their learning you can go to rochester.wednet.edu/Page/2353.

As for how my experience will help me with that, I saw with my own two eyes a beautiful landscape of ice that this year has tied for the second lowest minimum summer ice since they began recording. The lowest maximum ice was recorded this past winter. I saw the canary in the coal mine. I saw the habitat of animals such as polar bears, walrus, and seals that rely on the ice for survival, disappearing. I can show photographs of real wildlife that I took with my own camera and talk about the amazing adaptations they have for living in a harsh climate, and how important it is for us to make sure they still have that cold climate. I am more passionate now about teaching my students to take care of the earth than ever before.

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.

Q: Anything else that you think is important for people to know about this trip?

A: It is a unique professional development opportunity that I hope has helped me to become a better teacher. It has reminded me of how much fun learning is when you get to experience it rather than just hear about it. It is a life-changing professional development program.

Not only do you get to be a part of an awe inspiring expedition, you get to become part of a community of educators that has been growing for the past ten years. If you are a teacher, I highly recommend applying for this program. I feel very humble to have been chosen as a 2016 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. Thank you Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic.