TT: Learn about a remarkable free teacher travel grant to the arctic from teacher Crystal Thiele who recently completed it! Crystal, tell us about your background.
Crystal: I am in my 11th year of teaching in Brooklyn, New York and currently teach 5th grade at the William Penn School, Primary School 321. Prior to moving to New York, I taught for two years in Yamaguchi, Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. Since then, I’ve traveled abroad almost every summer and prefer places that few Americans visit. I’ve even been to six countries without McDonalds! Some of my favorite countries have been Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Bolivia, Namibia, and, this summer, Greenland.
TT: Awesome! Tell us about this recent Greenland and arctic expedition.
C: This summer, I spent two and a half weeks on board the National Geographic Explorer visiting the Canadian High Arctic and the west coast of Greenland. It was absolutely thrilling! The crew, guests, and I saw amazing wildlife, including five types of whales. We even saw the elusive narwhal, which sports a long, unicorn horn like tooth. Narwhals live in a very limited part of the world and are rare to see. We saw animals of all sizes in Greenland, from a herd of musk ox to tiny lemmings. Sixty-one polar bears were sited, and one day three male polar bears walked right up to our ship, close enough to touch it. Then two of them got a little too close and one nipped the other in the bottom and the bitten one ran off. It was like being on a nature channel!
The first night, we saw the Northern Lights off the coast of Baffin Island. Then, as we traveled farther North, the daylight hours became longer and full darkness was rare. The landscapes are so large and peaceful. It’s hard not to feel calm just remembering them. We saw many, many icebergs and glaciers that were shaping the landscape. We walked on the Greenland ice cap that is quickly melting and may cease to exist if global warming is not checked.
TT: WOW! How did you find and fund this travel opportunity?
C: This trip was funded entirely by National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions through the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship. Every year, they take a handful of K-12 teachers to various places in the Arctic to gather resources to bring back to our classrooms. The Grosvenor Fellowship looks to honor those that have a record of teaching geo-literacy. A teacher friend of mine had gone to Svalbard, an island of Norway that is above the Arctic circle and is known for a high concentration of polar bears, with them and told me about the opportunity.
Lindblad Expeditions is a great company from which to learn about the world. Through their partnership with National Geographic, they have naturalists and National Geographic photographers on board ready to teach you through lectures or one-on-one interviews. Many of them gave me their personal slideshows to modify for my own classrooms. Everyone was excited about having teachers on board and was willing to share. We even got to interview the captain, who told us about the challenges of navigating above the Arctic Circle. Besides avoiding ice, directions had to be recalculated due to the magnetic north pole not actually being in the north pole and from the distortions of polar regions on maps.
TT: Love it! Tell us moments from your travels that were particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.
A few of us jumped into the water above the Arctic circle which was referred to as “polar plunging”. It was very cold! The ship’s crew joked that if we did the same in Antarctica, then we could call ourselves bi-polar plungers. I think this might be my new, most fun, goal in life!
One day we went out kayaking under a cliff full of bird colonies. There were Thick Billed Murres diving into the water all around us and many were teaching their chicks to swim. They are funny creatures that look like fat, black and white cookies and only have one speed- zoom! It was amazing to see so many of them and to be so close.
Visiting the cities in Greenland was also a highlight. The houses are brightly colored and built on the hilly terrain. My photos of the Greenlandic cities look like they should be turned into peaceful scenery puzzles. On the outskirts of the cities, people keep their sled dogs chained up because they are so loud. However, they don’t chain up the puppies, so you can often find yourself being followed by a herd of puppies, begging for attention as you near those areas. The Greenlandic people were welcoming, friendly, and seemed quite happy.
TT: How have your travels impacted you as a teacher?
C: This trip has greatly increased my knowledge and enthusiasm for teaching about the Arctic. I now have a clearer understanding about the science of glaciers and global warming. Now that I’ve seen such a beautiful and fading part of the world, I am vested in wanting to protect it and in getting others to share my concerns. In our curriculum, this part of the world will be covered in January. I am constantly day dreaming of ways to present the experience I had this summer in a way that will inspire and motivate my students to love it as well.
TT: Well said. How have your travels impacted you as a person?
C: The world is the best classroom. Every time I see a new part of the world, I can feel my understanding of how it all fits together expanding. Travel is essential to being a global citizen and I take passing on that role to my students very seriously.
TT: What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?
C: I encourage everyone who can to apply for a Grosvenor Fellowship! Applications are available in early December and are usually only up for 4-6 weeks. They can be found at this website.
Also, here is an introductory video made by National Geographic about myself and the other Grosvenor Fellow aboard the ship, Betsy Wilkening. NBC news even interviewed me when I returned to New York!
TT: Thanks so much for this useful and fascinating interview, Crystal! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?