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.