The heat and humidity of the summer has me wistfully longing on occasion for a relatively wind free and sunny December Antarctic day. We humans are never really quite happy, are we? “It’s too hot.” It’s too cold.” “It’s too windy.” “I wish there was a breeze.” You know the routine! Regardless, I do long for the continent and the magnificent, mesmerizing expanse that awaits anyone who has been blessed enough to experience it and just some of what she has to offer.
While I’m eternally grateful to have been given the opportunity to see real scientists and engineers working, troubleshooting and problem solving in one of the world’s most pristine yet extreme environments, my experience has left me with mixed feelings and struggling with this reflection.
Last summer while attending the Sixth International Conference on The State of Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, I was hit with a stark realization. I wasn’t truly an English person/teacher. Most of the Twain scholars might well have been speaking a foreign language where I was concerned. But, my special ed. career had likewise taken me far from my first love—science—and I realized that I didn’t speak that “language” any more either. And, while I’ve managed to find my niche as a special ed. teacher who has worked damn hard at making the high school English curricula accessible to identified special ed. students so that they can be successful in regular Regents English classes and ultimately pass the two day English 11 Regents, I was left with a burning question. Where did I fit, and most importantly, where was I going? And, was this experience to be a catalyst for a life transition waiting to unfold?
The short answer is “yes”, but I’ll address that throughout. I’m grateful to Dr. Stacy Kim for agreeing to take me on given that the past season’s focus was primarily that of an engineering focus. I know that I didn’t fit the bill in terms of being that upper level science teacher who could develop killer and engaging high level lesson plans and as such, was probably a bit of a disappointment. But, I am what I am…a high school special ed. teacher who is thrilled to still be teaching one General Science class to her students. I’m not a physics teacher nor did I go to college to be a physics teacher. Truth be told though, I’d LOVE to take high school physics again, especially now that my brain is fully developed! We know what current research says about teen brains and their development!
In spite of being completely overwhelmed in every way—both good and bad—I discovered a few things about myself. First of all, even though I felt as though I wasn’t able to keep up and “carry my weight” at the beginning, I became a pretty darn good workhorse. As Bob noticed near the end of our season, “Michele! You’re stronger! Antarctica has been good for you!!” It hadn’t occurred to me, but when I thought back, I realized that he, in fact, was correct! I am woman hear me ROAR!!!
In all seriousness, I also learned that there is a resolve in me that I didn’t know existed, especially without my usual support system readily available. I guess we never know what we’re capable of until we are pushed beyond what we think our limits are. The physical, mental and emotional challenges I faced were valuable gifts, as they were opportunities for me to dig down deep, pick myself up and keep moving forward. And, if you’re not growing from your experiences and moving forward, where are you going anyways? Teaching children and students that difficulties and failures are a part of life and then helping them learn, grow and move forward from there is invaluable! As you know, there are our plans, and then there’s life. Sometimes the twain shall meet….sometimes not. It’s OK.
Thirdly, I learned that you can teach an old dog new tricks and in doing so, said “dog’s” brain—namely mine—will NOT explode! I learned SOOOOOO much about so many different things!! Between all the required trainings at McMurdo and living, breathing, eating, sleeping science and engineering for over six weeks….phew!! My head spins just thinking back on it! Stacy, Bob, David, Isabelle, Francois and Kamille proved to be very knowledgeable in numerous areas. Being around that brain trust for so long has given me a new perspective and a new confidence in my own problem solving and troubleshooting abilities as I’m much better at both…and without getting flustered. I’ve even heard the nickname “McGyver” thrown out in my directions a few times.
My knowledge of technology, technological tools and utilization of these tools has grown leaps and bounds thanks to numerous hours of PolarTREC's excellent training and professional development and thanks to Bob Bone and Apple's willingness to allow me to borrow a MacBook to take to Antarctica and use upon my return; a whole new world has been opened to me. As a teacher, I will continue to utilize these tools in a variety of ways.
More than ever, I realize the importance of vision and have a much better defined vision for my classroom as a whole and have a clear vision for using 21st century technology in my classroom. As a result, I'm pursuing grant money with Stacie Harris, one of my co-teachers, so that we can begin to incorporate different technology tools in our classrooms. I've decided that I'm moving forward regardless of what anyone around me does. This past spring I allowed my students to create video projects on my MacBook as part of required class projects, and while they were working independently making a movie, I overheard one student say, "This is really fun!" And shouldn't learning and creating be both engaging and fun?!?!?
As a result of my PolarTREC experience, I’ve also committed to making my class a globally aware classroom and have found that it is well worth taking time each week (and sometimes every day) to do just that. My students are paying attention to the nightly news, newspapers and internet news feeds. This can only lead to positive changes in how they think critically and respond to the world around them and will ultimately lead to them being better stewards of the environment in which they live. I am similarly committed to making my science class a more hands on, real life class and have already started to shift my instruction in that direction.
On a personal note, this experience required me to step WAAYYYYYYY out of my comfort zone--that of a simple country girl--but in doing so, I’ve found a confidence I’ve not known before. I’d never taken public transportation before….or a taxi. I’d never camped….never traveled internationally. Heck! I’d never crossed more than 2 time zones in my entire life! As a result, this chance of a lifetime has allowed me to and forced me to think outside of the box….to imagine the possibilities! And, that’s what I want everyone around me to do—not just my students. No more putting our lives and ourselves in a box! No more allowing others to put us in a box! Just imagine the possibilities!
In closing, there are so many people to thank…my family, Mom and Dad, my friends and my colleagues at East High who believed in me when the reality of the situation began to sink in and terrified me to the point of almost backing out before I even got going. My excuse? “But…I’m not science teacher.” I was pretty intimidated by the enormity of the responsibility and by the fact that most teachers who had gone before were in fact science teachers and had already spent some time out in the field either as an undergrad or graduate student. And, a special thanks to my good friend Jamie Smith who proved to be an anchor when my thoughts and emotions were all over the place—before, during and after…and sometimes still.
I wouldn’t have even been able to leave the classroom were it not for the unwavering support of Mike Ginalski, (Superintendent), Jeff Delorme (Assist. Superintendent of Personnel), Joe Tobia (building principal), Sarah Romans (Director of Pupil Personnel Services), the Corning-Painted Post Board of Education and so many others who work in the district. After having spent time with this year’s PolarTREC teachers, I realize that not everyone works for as supportive of a district as I do. I’m blessed in that regard. Thank you for believing not only in me, but in this program and it's unlimited potential.
One unexpected outcome of all of this has been reconnecting with friends, family and even several of my former teachers. Let me say that while I may have graduated from a very small school, my teachers were top-notch!! I may not have had all the opportunities that are afforded to students from larger districts, but our teachers were passionate about what they did and that passion was passed on to me. This was your expedition as much as it was mine. Thank you! And, Nancy Waldeck and class…I am YOUR biggest fan!! You guys rock!!
Lastly, my career path as it is would never have afforded me the opportunity to do something as incredibly over-the-top as to go to Antarctica with any research team, let alone the SCINI research team. That’s where PolarTREC and the National Science Foundation come in.
I can’t even begin to express my gratitude adequately enough. My strength may not lie in producing advanced level lesson plans, but it does lie in outreach across all ages and groups of people. It lies in enthusiastically and passionately sharing about the project, the continent, why Antarctica is important to all of us and why a program like PolarTREC is so crucial to not only teachers and students, but to society at large.
Finally, Kristin, Janet and the staff out of Fairbanks…it goes without saying that you are the heart and soul of this program. You are invaluable and MUCH appreciated!! My life is richer because of you!
Thank you all for a priceless opportunity!