Inquiring Minds: Assessing Learners’ Progress

Over the past several years, I’ve collaborated with educators across CT and the United States to support the shift to inquiry as a primary form of instruction in social studies classrooms. When discussing this shift, teachers’ most common concern revolves around how to assess learners’ progress. In inquiry-focused classrooms, students are collaborating, generating inquiry questions, and developing investigations, and our assessment should reflect this instruction. This year, I have been working with a small team of educators and the CT State Department of Education Social Studies Consultant, Steve Armstrong, to develop a tool that will further support CT teachers’ shift to authentic, inquiry-based instruction and assessment.

Our team has developed a draft tool aligned with the C3 and CT Social Studies Frameworks, and we are looking for feedback from educators. Please view the draft continuum below, and share your feedback to help us improve this tool. We appreciate your support!

Strategy Share: Using Immersive Stimuli to Drive Student Inquiry

The National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship brings together educators from across North America. In order to harness and further fuel this powerful collaborative community, National Geographic Education regularly publishes “Strategy Shares” written by GTFs.

Click on the logo below to visit National Geographic’s Education blog and read my recent strategy share focused on using virtual reality to promote learner inquiry and a shift toward an explorer mindset.

Explorer Mindset: What’s Beneath Our Feet?

After working with the CT Office of State Archaeology this past summer,  I was excited to share this experience with my students. This month, our 7th grade archaeologists participated in a dig of their own! Using homemade tools consistent with our limited budget (large flower pots, curved spatulas, & colanders), each dig team expertly removed layers of soil & documented soil changes & artifact finds in collaborative field notes. This is a true example of the “ripple effect” of hands-on PD opportunities for teachers. Check out a gallery of our 7th grade social scientists in action below!

Sharing the Magic of Antarctica

It is hard to believe that it’s been more than nine months since I departed on my expedition to Antarctica. When I look at photographs or watch videos from my experience, it still seems somewhat surreal. In the months since my return, I’ve had the privilege to engage community members in hands-on inquiry activities similar to those in which my students have been participating and to share my experiences with audiences across Connecticut at libraries and universities.

As one of the deliverables required by National Geographic upon my return from Antarctica, I’ve completed the National Geographic Educator Certification process – a “free professional development program that recognizes pre-K through 12 formal and informal educators committed to inspiring the next generation of explorers, conservationists, and changemakers.”  As a culminating experience, I prepared a Capstone project video highlighting how I have communicated my experiences to students across the Portland Schools through inquiry lessons designed to challenge learners to think like explorers and social scientists. Please click on the image below to view the video and learn more about my journey from enthusiastic teacher to educator-explorer.

Click to view my 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow capstone video.

Digging Into Archaeology

This week, the CT State Office of Archaeology offered educators the opportunity to “get our hands dirty” (literally!) in the field of archaeology. Every year, my 7th grade social studies scholars start their foray into the social sciences with a journey into the world of archaeology. They learn archaeological vocabulary, sort through and analyze collections of “artifacts” (clean recyclables and objects that I find around my house and classroom), and consider how the stratigraphy (soil layers) of a pit can help archaeologists date objects they find. When I learned about this “field school” for educators, I jumped at the opportunity to move from the theory of archaeology to practice!

Before we began digging, we examined the stratigraphy – soil layers – in a test pit near the dig site

We spent the week digging in Windsor, CT on land that was once home to the family of John Mason. Born in 1600, Mason was an early English settler and Deputy Governor of the Connecticut colony who is most often remembered for leading what is now known as the “Mystic Massacre” – a devastating attack on the Pequots that effectively wiped out the tribe. Read more about the controversy surrounding Mason’s life and a statue built to remember him in this 1996 Hartford Courant article.

CT State Archaeologist Brian Jones examines a teacher’s work and advises next steps

Tents shading us from the scorching July sun made digging a bit more comfortable

On one of the hottest weeks of the summer – in the 90s everyday! – my teacher colleagues and I worked with State Archaeologist Brian Jones, along with other expert archaeologists, to peel away the layers of the land just outside the Windsor Historical Society. As we worked – digging 10 cm at a time – we encountered artifact after artifact. We documented everything we found, and the archaeologists helped us to identify the objects.  

An archaeologist helps me to identify some of the pieces of pottery, glass, and brick that I uncovered

A collection of artifacts found in a single 10 cm layer of soil

After five days of digging, we finally encountered what we hoped to find – elements consistent with a 17th century cellar believed to have belonged to the Mason family. As we reached this depth, I unearthed a stem from a clay pipe with a very narrow hole. Based on the width of the opening, we were able to determine that this pipe was likely  from 1620-1650. As I held this piece of history in the palm of my hand, I was reminded that the stories of those who came before us often lie just beneath our feet.

Elements of the stone cellar belonging to the Mason family (c. 1640)

A clay pipe stem c. 1620-1650

Bringing Antarctica Home

I returned to Connecticut on December 29th to frigid temperatures more than twenty degrees below our coldest day in Antarctica! Just beyond the luggage carousel at JFK Airport, I opened my suitcase to retrieve my orange parka, and I’ve been wearing it in CT nearly every day since I returned. In an effort to stay warm during New England’s “deep freeze”, I’ve been reminiscing about Antarctica’s “warm” summer weather (around 32º F) and have been sorting through all of the photos and video footage that I collected during our expedition. My GTF colleagues and I have been sharing our materials so that we can begin creating content for our respective classrooms and school communities.

When I traveled to Washington, D.C. last March to meet and collaborate with the other 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellows at the National Geographic Headquarters, we were introduced to Google Tour Builder, an “interactive storytelling tool that connects people to places using Google Maps and multimedia content”. In order to create an immersive experience and provide geographic context for the photos and videos I wanted to share with my students, I have developed an interactive tour. The Tour Builder application works best on a desktop browser (not a phone or tablet). Side Note: When you zoom in, you’ll notice that it looks like we traveled across the Antarctic Peninsula. Since we were on a large ship, this part of the path is obviously inaccurate, but the landing destinations are correct. As you “visit” each destination, you can click on the image to expand and view multiple photos and/or videos. Click on the map below to begin the tour!

Click on this image to visit my Google Tour with embedded photos and videos of our expedition.

Teaching in the Drake: A Rite of “Passage”

This is the unlikely story of how a high school chemistry teacher from California, a middle school social studies teacher from Connecticut, and a Director of Innovation from Chicago found themselves teaching an inquiry lesson to 150 “learners” (ages 10-75) on a ship in the middle of the Drake Passage.

GTF teachers leading an interactive “recap” aboard the National Geographic Explorer. Photo by photographer and GTF mentor Eric Guth

On all expeditions aboard the National Geographic Explorer, the naturalists and photographers organize a daily “recap” session before dinner each night. Different members of the expedition team give presentations related to their respective areas of expertise and the day’s activities. Through these daily sessions, I’ve learned more than I ever thought possible about a wide range of topics, including the unique features of Antarctic lichens, the challenges of photographing ice in polar regions, the dive reflex of whales that allows them to hunt underwater for long periods of time, and the challenges of life “wintering over” on Antarctic research bases – just to name a few!

The experts on board the ship all bring different experiences and expertise, and many are highly-regarded researchers in their fields. Some of them work with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions full time, while others embark on only a few expeditions a year. It has been fascinating to listen their stories as we sit together at meals and during excursions. Some of them have spent years of their lives in Antarctica, and yet their excitement upon spotting a whale or encountering a particularly stunning iceberg is obvious and contagious. Aboard the ship, it is not unusual to see a photographer or naturalist whiz by in a t-shirt and flip flops headed to one of the top decks because he or she spotted an iceberg with “perfect light” or a whale off the bow of the ship – no time for warm layers!

My fellow GTFs and I were honored to be asked to lead a recap on December 26. Although recaps typically take the form of short lectures, as teachers, we decided to do what we do best – lead an interactive activity to engage the guests on board in some thinking, discussion, and reflection. We started our activity with a percentage: 0.00060526%. After a few guesses, a participant correctly identified the number as the infinitesimally small percentage of the world’s population that will travel to Antarctica this year.

Photo by photographer and GTF mentor Eric Guth.

With this in mind, we engaged the guests in a discussion about the challenge of telling their “story” as they return home to their communities. We know that everyone on the expedition has taken thousands of photos, and we’ve heard the near-constant clicks of shutters as these new explorers attempted to capture the perfect image of a fluffy penguin chick or the majesty of a towering glacier. Everything has happened very quickly on this expedition, and there has been little time for reflection. During this activity, inter-generational teams collaborated to examine a photograph from our adventure and participated in a “slow looking” process  designed to prompt questions and deeper thinking (What do you see? Notice? Wonder?). We could not have asked for a more engaged, excited group of learners – it was truly incredible. They eagerly participated in small and large group conversations and – most exciting for us teachers – we heard the conversations continue between families looking out over the bow of the ship that evening and between photographers and kids on board as they reviewed their camera images. All three of us were approached by several different guests on subsequent days because they wanted to share something new that they’d noticed as they applied the “slow looking” process on a photograph they’d taken.

Listening to a guest share what she “notices” and “wonders” about one of Peg’s photos. Photo by photographer and GTF mentor Eric Guth

A very real teaching moment – holding onto the desk during a Drake Passage swell while trying to maintain our composure as one of our “young at heart” explorers shared a lengthy story about a penguin based on “inferences” from a photo. Photo by photographer and GTF mentor Eric Guth

Among the many, many highlights of this expedition, this experience stands out and will almost certainly always be one of the most memorable “lessons” I’ve ever taught. In the middle of a choppy Drake Passage, after days of nonstop activity fueled by near-24 hour daylight, we had the privilege to bring together our fellow travelers – from across the globe and across generations – to pause and to reflect.

A White Christmas on the White Continent

Merry Christmas! We’ve reached our final morning on the continent of Antarctica. At midnight, we stood on the deck of the National Geographic Explorer and recorded a video message for our students, families, and friends back home. It was, of course, still broad daylight, and light snow began to fall just as the clock struck midnight.

National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellows enjoy a sudden burst of light snow at midnight on Christmas morning

After some sleep, we woke up just off Paulet Island, a small island in the northwestern Wedell Sea, which, unlike the other places we’ve visited recently, has obvious signs of past human inhabitants. In the winter of 1903, Swedish geologist Otto Nordenskjold and his team had to endure an unexpected winter on the island when their ship became entrenched in pack ice and was crushed beyond repair. The team built a small stone hut and survived on penguin and seal meat. The naturalists’ presentations aboard our ship have been incredibly thorough, and, believe it or not, they have actually addressed the topic of eating Antarctic animals. Apparently, Frederik Cook, a late 19th century American surgeon and explorer, described penguin meat as “a piece of beef, ‘odiferous’ cod fish and a canvas-backed duck roasted together in a pot, with blood and cod-liver oil for sauce”.  I think I’m a fairly adventurous eater, but that sounds awful. Awful or not, the meat kept all but one member of Nordenskjold’s team alive during the winter of 1903 – which is pretty amazing given the near 24-hour darkness and frigid temperatures of Antarctic winters. Miraculously, even the ship’s cat survived the long, dark winter and left the island alive!

Penguins have made their home in the remnants of Nordenskjold’s hut

This morning, we began with a hike up Paulet Island, known for its distinct volcanic cone. As we climbed, we contended with large piles of loose volcanic rock, slushy snow, and lots and lots – and lots – of guano. We ascended the steep incline surrounded on all sides by penguins. When we finally emerged over the ridge, the size and density of the colony was breathtaking. More than 40,000 pairs – almost 100,000 penguins! – call Paulet Island their home, and there were nesting penguins with newly-hatched chicks in literally every direction (see video below). We had to be very careful not to step off our narrow, snow-covered path, as there was no penguin-free land to be found, and we wanted to be certain that we didn’t accidentally crush the tiny, fragile chicks.

Since we were guests in the penguin colony and were abiding by the requirements of the Antarctic Treaty meant to protect the wildlife on this pristine continent, the penguins dictated our every move. As it turns out, they were not the most welcoming hosts. Hundreds of penguins blocked our intended route as we were heading back from visiting the remnants of Nordenskjold’s stone hut, and so we had to turn around and climb back up the way we came. With the rivers of slippery guano and slushy snow and piles of loose, sharp volcanic rocks, the climb was very difficult, but I came out of it with just a nasty, colorful bruise on my knee from slipping in penguin poop – and the best story ever to explain my minor injury.

Climbing up a steep incline covered in guano and loose volcanic rock. Photo courtesy of our GTF mentor, photographer Eric Guth

All those “dots” behind us are penguins! Photo courtesy of our GTF mentor, photographer Eric Guth

Taking in the moment. Photo courtesy of our GTF mentor, photographer Eric Guth

There’s rarely an idle moment aboard the National Geographic Explorer, and so, as soon as we finished our hike, I climbed into a sea kayak with Peg Keiner, one of the other GTF teachers. The kayaks are inflatable and are equipped with a foot pedal steering system in the back seat. Since Peg is the stronger paddler, I was appointed navigator (yes, anyone who knows me well is probably questioning this decision – and with good reason). We were told that these kayaks are affectionately called “divorce kayaks” by the crew, as they require constant and precise coordination and communication between the people in the front and back seats to steer successfully. Since all of my kayaking experience has been in a solo kayak in lakes in Connecticut and sheltered inlets of the Long Island Sound, maneuvering a double sea kayak in 30°F weather in the windy waters of the Antarctic Sound was a completely new experience for me. Within minutes, our hands – with two pairs of gloves each – were numb. There was little time to warm up, though, as we had other important things to attend to – like navigating around large drifting icebergs (hitting them can cause calving and unplanned plunges into the 29°F water) and large groups of porpoising penguins leaping in front of our boat.

Kayaking in the Antarctic Sound amid icebergs, penguins, and one large ship

We talk a great deal about perspective in my classes, and this kayaking experience was an incredibly poignant example of this concept. As we paddled in these kayaks, perched just above the water’s surface, we saw the Antarctic Sound from the perspective of the penguins and the leopard seals that swam around us, and we fought the same bitter winds as the seabirds swooping low to gather food. It turns out that Peg and I actually made an excellent kayaking team, and we managed to successfully steer our kayak through the windy Sound and back to the ship without colliding with any ‘bergy bits, penguins, or fellow kayakers.

We ended the day with a lovely Christmas dinner – our second, actually, as the culinary team prepared a traditional Filipino Christmas dinner for us yesterday. Tomorrow, we begin our journey back through the Drake Passage as we head toward Ushuaia again.

The Circle of Life: Antarctica Edition

The three Grosvenor Teacher Fellows on board (Peg Keiner, Director of Innovation at a school in Chicago, Kelly Meade, a high school science teacher in California, and I) were asked to write today’s Daily Expedition Report for the ship. Typically prepared by the onboard naturalists and photographers, these reports provide a brief overview of the day’s activities and new learning, along with accompanying photographs. In today’s report, I focused on behaviors of Adélie Penguins, Kelly wrote about the unique features of glaciovolcanic areas, and Peg explored the origins and evolution of the magnificent tabular icebergs that passed our ship in the Antarctic Sound. See an excerpt from my portion of the report below, along with our full 12-24 report on the Lindblad Expeditions website.

This morning, we awoke to brilliant sunshine in the bay surrounding Brown Bluff. Sparkling sea ice of all shapes and sizes decorated the waters, as if nature herself were preparing for Christmas. We spent an hour and a half ashore at Brown Bluff visiting a large colony of Adélie Penguins (estimated to consist of more than 20,000 birds). Both on land and from the zodiacs, we could see penguins everywhere – on the beach, carefully tending to nests and newly-hatched chicks, and dotting the steep rocks of the bluff. Adélie Penguins are fascinating little creatures, and the adults can be recognized by distinctive white patches around their eyes that contrast with their dark heads and bodies.

At just a few days old, this Adélie penguin chick is already acting on its instincts to collect stones for a nest.

Adélie penguins gather on the beach and prepare to enter the water in search of food.

They stick together, not necessarily out of affection for their neighbors, but rather as a means of protection. As a primary prey of leopard seals, these little birds gather in groups on the shore and dive in to search for food only when the group has grown large enough that any one penguin’s chances of becoming a seal’s next meal is fairly small. The seals observe the penguin colony’s habits and, when hunting, they hide behind icebergs ready to capture and eat the unluckiest of the bunch. This morning, we observed a successful seal in action, as we happened upon the hungry predator devouring a penguin that he had caught just off shore. 

A leopard seal leaps out from behind an iceberg and grabs an unlucky Adélie Penguin…

And a luckier Brown Skua gets the “leftovers” after the leopard seal finishes his meal.

Although it can be sad to see an animal become another creature’s dinner, observing this process was a powerful reminder of the interdependent relationship between the many species living in the rich, yet fragile ecosystem of Antarctica.

Bright Nights & Humpback Whales

Last night, despite – or perhaps because of – yesterday’s nonstop activity, the other teachers and I couldn’t fall asleep. The bright skies in the evening definitely have a significant effect on our bodies, and we’ve been finding that we feel wide awake late at night. I’ve been doing the majority of my blog writing in the ship’s library at 11:30pm or after midnight, and I still have a great view of the water and the porpoising penguins that frequent this area. Last night, our team of GTF teachers spent some time on the ship’s Bridge with the Safety Officer and a navigator spotting wildlife and learning about the complex processes involved in navigation of a large ship in iceberg-laden waters. We finally returned to our cabin, closed our porthole, and went to sleep just after “sunrise” this morning at 2:14am. Of course, the sun “set” (barely) at 12:07am, so I suppose you could say we technically stayed up “all night”!

Officers on the Bridge of the National Geographic Explorer

Later this morning, we awoke in the middle of Neko Harbour to cloudy skies and temperatures in the low-mid 30s. We began the day with a zodiac cruise around the harbor with photographer and GTF mentor Eric Guth. Each photographer and naturalist has a very different focus and area of expertise, and so every zodiac cruise is different. Eric is fascinated by and incredibly knowledgeable about ice, and so we navigated around icebergs and other “bergy bits”, always keeping a safe distance in case of calving (when a chunk of ice breaks off a ‘berg and falls into the water, sometimes causing a wave). We observed the different parts of the icebergs and hypothesized about how and when the icebergs might have formed. We also located a large piece of “black ice”, a perfectly clear chunk of ice with tiny rocks embedded in it that looked black against the water and likely picked up debris and broke off from the underbelly of an iceberg as it scraped along the bottom of the ocean. Although I imagined Antarctica to be overwhelmingly silent, it is actually alive with sound. Even the icebergs surrounding us in the harbor were surprisingly noisy and, when we all sat perfectly still, the ice sounded like a crackling campfire or a sizzling saute pan.

GTFs in Neko Harbour. Photo by our mentor, photographer Eric Guth.

A Wilson’s Storm Petrel dances on the glassy water of Neko Bay

Our zodiac cruise ended on land, and we disembarked and then moved up the slope a bit. We were told that we couldn’t stand around on shore at this site because a glacier calving event in November caused a small tsunami that was powerful enough to sweep the life jackets sitting on shore into the bay. We ascended a snow-covered hill in Neko Harbour and encountered several colonies of chinstrap penguins. Brown skuas – large predatory birds – kept swooping down over the penguin nests menacingly attempting to steal the last eggs of the season before the little guys hatch. I climbed to the top of the hill, and the view was incredible – white-blue glaciers on every side and the occasional echoing crash of small calvings happening around us.

A Brown Skua gets dangerously close to a penguin nest with eggs

While I was hiking, my colleague and fellow GTF, Peg Keiner, went out with the dive team and had an opportunity to operate the ship’s Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV). She climbed into a small black box that contains the steering equipment, and stayed warm and dry above water as they remotely dropped the robot to depths of 75-80 meters. She captured some incredible footage of the creatures living below the water and ice, and I can’t wait to share it with my students since I know some of you were very interested in the ROV when we saw it in action in the videos we watched!

National Geographic Explorer‘s ROV

After a busy morning, we spent the afternoon watching for whales off the ship as we passed through Wilhemina Bay. As it turns out, we didn’t need to do much searching, as our ship was surrounded by humpbacks for nearly an hour! These giant water mammals engage in a fascinating feeding ritual during which they work in small groups to create a “net” of bubbles under the water that siphon krill to the top, and we had the opportunity to watch them do this over and over again – so cool! At any given time, there were forty or so whales around the ship, and it was hard to know where to look.

A Humpback Whale surfaces during a feeding ritual in Wilhemina Bay

Humpback Whales’ flukes can be used to track their migration. Check out to learn more about scientists’ efforts to track whale populations using crowd-sourcing.

Tonight, after our very long day and early morning yesterday, we were finally tired, and so we closed the porthole, put on our eye-shades to block the sunlight still peeking in, and went to bed bright and early.