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Antarctica: Bringing the world to your classroom

Karina New taking the "polar plunge" south of the Antarctic Circle. Jasper Doest, National Geographic, photo.

By Karina New (she/her), teacher, Vancouver

I stood on the bow of a ship, sailing across the Antarctic circle with tears of happiness slipping from my eyes. Just a mere five days before I had been standing in front of my Grades 5–6 students in a classroom in Vancouver. How did I get to the middle of an endless expanse of ocean looking at a horizon punctuated only by ice? How is a regular elementary school teacher on an expedition with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions?

In 2021, National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions announced their 14th annual cohort of Grosvenor Teacher Fellows (GTFs). Only 50 fellows are selected annually from across Canada and the USA for this life-changing professional development opportunity. Selected educators are taken on an incredible voyage to explore some of the most remote and beautiful locations on earth. Learning from top experts in the field, world-class photographers, and fascinating explorers, fellows are tasked with bringing all they learn back to their communities to inspire students. In a small office on a gloomy winter’s day, I received the phone call that I would be packing my bags for the journey of a lifetime.

"...this has been my dream since I was a child."

Fast forward two years, past a global pandemic that put dreams on pause, I find myself stuffing Gore-Tex into a suitcase already bulging with base layers and woolly socks. I will soon begin the long journey to the southernmost city in the world: Ushuaia, Argentina, where our ship will depart for the Antarctic Peninsula. I will be joined by two other GTFs chosen for the expedition to the Antarctic. I feel numb with disbelief—this has been my dream since I was a child.

The expedition was a total of 24 days taking us from Antarctica to the remote island of South Georgia, and finally to the Falkland Islands, east of Argentina. The journey left me in awe of towering glaciers and a surprising abundance of wildlife that make the cold their home. Humpback whales waved their fins and showed off massive flukes as they dove. Gentoo penguins waddled along the shoreline, stealing our hearts with their antics. Seals basked lazily on ice floes, seemingly undisturbed by our presence. And above us, the skies were teeming with soaring albatrosses, their wingspans a testament to the wonders of evolution. I survived sailing over waves reaching six meters high, visiting a thriving king penguin colony of half-a-million strong, and jumping (by choice) into the frigid Southern Ocean wearing nothing but a Speedo.

Karina explores a gentoo penguin colony on D'Hainaut Island. Photo provided by author.

Eager to share my experiences with my students before departing, we dove into numerous projects centred around Antarctica’s ecology. Students explored the characteristics and behaviours of their chosen Antarctic species and created digital infographics that I could take along with me on my journey. Similarly, they took me along on their learning, and I discovered new species I hadn’t even heard of—gelatinous salps that have a precursor spinal cord? Leucistic penguins that lack melanin in their feathers? Students not only expanded their knowledge of Antarctic wildlife but were also completely engaged and captivated. Art, too, became a powerful tool for connecting them to this fragile corner of the world. Students painted life-sized versions of their animals, turning the hallways of our school into an Ant-art-tic experience that served as a playful reminder of the wonders that exist beyond our four walls.

"...we model how we want students to behave—why not also model how we want them to explore?"

As my journey neared, my students each added a unique task to my Antarctica bucket list. Have a snowball fight. Check. Eat instant noodles on the ship. Check. Breathe the Antarctic air. Check! What better way to feel the presence of my students than their words narrating my adventures like Sir David Attenborough on Frozen Planet. They were eager to see my photo and video updates from the ship, and they sent a list of their questions for the naturalists on board to answer. When I returned, I set up the artifacts and maps I had collected for the whole school to enjoy. Kids tried on my parka and tested my binoculars. We tasted diddle-dee berry jam straight from the Falklands. As adults, we model how we want students to behave—why not also model how we want them to explore?

While my journey allowed me the rare chance of seeing the breathtaking beauty of our planet’s frozen south, it also opened my eyes to the sobering reality of human impacts. South Georgia Island features the historic relics of the whaling industry that hunted and killed over 175,000 whales between 1904 and 1965. Seeing the rusting silos of Grytviken that once processed literal tonnes of blue whale blubber into lamp oil was a stark contrast to the beautiful green tussock grass and playful fur seal pups that call the island home. Each day, we human visitors were careful to scrub the bottoms of our boots and inspect for any invasive debris we may otherwise introduce to the island. The experience was a reminder of our collective responsibility to protect and preserve our earth’s fragile ecosystems.

One of Karina's watercolours painted while on expedition. Author photo.

Another impactful experience during the many days at sea was to sit down by a porthole and make watercolour paintings. I used water straight from the ocean that had been desalinated on board. Thus, I was able to use a small piece of the Antarctic environment to capture my memories on paper. Seeking a way to help students experience a similar connection, I initiated a mosaic mural project with the theme “Rooted in Our Place.” Each student was asked to choose a meaningful space—be it a park, a forest, or their own backyard—and capture its memory through art. They each collected objects, whether natural or human-made, from their chosen space to embed into their mosaic. By doing so, they discovered their own personal connection to our local spaces.

To further spread the excitement, I presented my expedition to the staff at my school. Through a combination of photography, videos, and storytelling, I transported my colleagues into the heart of Antarctica. Laugter and questions filled the room as I shared humorous anecdotes of gentoos stealing pebbles from their neighbour’s nests and molting baby albatrosses squawking for food. Amidst the laughter, there was also a deeper message—a call to action. I highlighted the impacts of human behaviour, of climate change, and the importance of authentic, real-world learning experiences for students.

No matter how small, bring your adventures back to share with students—it might just inspire them to become the next explorers.

So why is it so important to bring the world to our classrooms? The answer lies in the power of authenticity. When students are immersed in real-world experiences, their learning becomes meaningful and relevant. By bringing Antarctica just a bit closer to home (I literally brought back a jar of Antarctic air), I was able to capture my student’s thirst to learn more and to care more.

In a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected, it is crucial for students to develop a global perspective. When we bring the world into our classrooms, we tell the stories of diverse ecosystems, career paths, and challenges faced by different communities. This exposure nurtures empathy, tolerance, and an understanding of the shared responsibility we have as global citizens. No matter how small, bring your adventures back to share with students—it might just inspire them to become the next explorers.

A preening king penguin at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island. Author photo.


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