Monday, February 16, 2015

My Trip to Svalbard-A Book to Share

One of the ways I planned on sharing my experience was to create a book that could be published in the ibook store for other teachers and students to download. While I am having a few technical issues with the iBooks store, I can still share my book through a download. Please feel free to share with anyone who might be interested.

PDF Version


Monday, November 10, 2014

Reflecting on my Arctic Experience and Infecting Students with the "Explorer Bug"!

The magic of new stories came to life for me and while not necessarily matching Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass world or Odd and the Frost Giant’s journey in Norway, these experiences left me with a new appreciation for what the Arctic is and who it is home to. The reality of the summer Arctic has been instilled in my memories and my own stories that I will be able to talk about with students. 

While an initial goal before the trip was to impress upon children why this is important, I now, more specifically want to impress upon children the diversity of a place that initially or in our imaginations appears to lack diversity. Finally, I had a goal to integrate building and STEM challenges. These are still in formation, but I was able to come back with at least four concrete building/STEM challenges related to the Arctic that I will integrate with this blog and Brick Trip Web site.

I  initially hoped to gain knowledge of the people, animals and underwater world. I also was excited to learn more about the changing nature of this environment. Once on the ship, I primarily focused on the wildlife while on board. I spent many days lacking sleep but still wide-awake and ready for the next sighting. There were very few views of the underwater habitats but we did see many whales. I now have a greater appreciation for the smaller inhabitants of the Arctic. The flowers, the trees, and the birds. These seemed less significant before my trip and upon returning I have so many new understandings and pictures of this life that I can share with my students. 

On the day I returned from my trip, I had to drive up to Maine to meet my family who had already started their vacation on Peaks Island.  I instantly began to draw similarities and differences between the two environments and couldn’t help but educate my own children on every little thing I noticed. Small huddled arctic plants versus the large trees and flowering bushes in Maine, the animal species that were native to both places like the puffin, the humpback whales, and even the geology that had surprising similarities. 

I did keep a map journal but not with specific coordinates as originally planned. I also kept a daily journal on my iPad but found as the week progressed it went from full sentences to first impressions due to time constraints and a busy agenda. I was able to jot down ideas for my Brick Trip site  including a building challenge for students to try building a ship that can stand up to the freezing ice and not be crushed like the FRAM that we saw in Oslo. Pictures and video were my main source of logging each day and I got into a daily habit of downloading and reflecting on the sights of the day when I finally hit the pillow around 12:30 am. Listening to the daily speakers and soaking up all that the naturalists had to say was my primary means of building my geographic knowledge. I continued to read some of my self-chosen books while on board. 

What surprised me was the fossil record and the geology lessons I was able to take advantage of through Joe, the naturalist and geologist on board. On our beach hike in the Palanderbukta fjord, we came upon a surprising amount of fossilized sea creatures. Rather than walk with my head up, my entire walk was a beach combing activity with finds every 5 feet. I was excited to be able to help write the Daily Expedition Report that day with the other fellows. In it I wrote, 
“The hills and beach were steeply sloped and covered in rocks of various sizes. We discovered small plant life including lichens of various colors and tiny plants like the Purple Saxifrage. Fossil evidence in the limestone rocks we were walking upon included brachiopods and crinoids. Paleozoic shells were common, while the find of the day, discovered by our youngest explorer, Gwendolyn, was an ammonite. The long hike group even took advantage of belly sliding on a snowy slope, instigated by the children but enjoyed by all ages.” As a child, I collected shells and fossils. Even today, I take out my collection each June and spread it throughout my house. As teachers we must act like children more often, not forgetting how to play and how to discover. Later, on a more photographic hike is Seelisberg Bay, I used all five senses as I made an effort to touch the ground and place my hands in the sands along the side of the river with an attempt at a dribble castle. We need to offer students more opportunities to experience science through their senses.

In Longyearbyen I was able to learn about their interactions with the environment and Kenneth was a great resource and did a presentation about trapping with his wife for a year in Svalbard. It was interesting to see people walking with sticks to keep the terns from dive-bombing their heads. While originally planning to focus equally on human and wildlife interactions I actually learned more about the interactions between animal species than between humans and species. The fact that Arctic fox enjoy living close to bird cliffs for an easy meal or how bird cliffs encourage fertile tundra with blossoming saxifrage and buttercups, and the interactions between polar bear and seals and the importance of sea ice to their livelihood. I have a newfound interest in these areas and have chosen several books to extend my learning. 

When I first reflected upon how this would change my classroom instruction, I approached this question with the thought of teaching climate change and the controversy surrounding the topic. I believe now that we need to teach equally about the diversity and  the beauty that exists in our world. We need to infect our students with the “Explorer Bug” and create problem solvers. It is the positive that I will choose to focus on while always asking students to look at all sides of an issue.

As I get back to work, I will be continuing work on my Brick Trip project with a focus on the collaborative nature of the project and empowering students as explorers and problem solvers. The project is in constant change and evolving each day. One of my main goals is to not just make this fun and connected to a map but also make this true project-based learning where students can work on an existing global/local problem. Brick Trips also offers that ability to expose students to areas they might have otherwise never discovered.

Our classroom walls expand each day. We do not have a choice when it comes to creating geo-literate citizens. Geo-literacy addresses more than just locations. Students need to understand the issues our globe is facing and understand the impact of geography around the world.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Gaming in the Classroom

(This blog post is an assignment I had for a MOOC I am in about Minecraft in the Classroom.)
How might you incorporate video games in general into the regular school curriculum?

After watching the TedEx video from JaneMcGonigal and reflecting upon some of my own difficulties with the incorporation of gaming in the classroom I have some ideas on ways to better proceed.

I have recently been mentoring another teacher in my school with our Minecraft club so these experiences have also given me a context for thinking about this.

In the case of a club, we wrote a grant proposal with the hopes that by beginning a club with interested students we could eventually branch into classroom and make it more applicable to the curriculum and a truly integrated project. The club allows us to learn more about the technical aspects while having a group of students who are willing to beta test our ideas. 

Our minecraft club has fell prey to chaos on a couple occasions with chickens raining from the skies. What I proposed to the group with that we proceed with a purpose that they define. 
Once a purpose was established everyone had something they could contribute to. While this was not tied to a specific curriculum, for these students it helped to form a group bond and an environment where they could work cooperatively together.  There goal now is to create a challenge for other Minecraft clubs to try to work through with a link to geography and continents. It is an constantly changing environment and it will be exciting to see it evolve.

So I think a club can be a starting point to work out the kinks, build some experts in the game and teach others how to use the game. It allows teachers and students to build challenges and test them.

I think it is also important for the novice teacher to understand that it is the meat of the challenge that matters and not the ability for the teacher to understand every facet of the game.

In the beginning, it is important to set ground rules. If students have played the game or a similar game at home they may not be as willing to conform to the rules at school or they could be very eager to play knowing what they already know about the game. 

Finally, I do think gaming should have that connection to real world problems. Kids have amazing idea and thoughts and games give them the creative flexibility to share these. The idea of Brick Trips could take on a totally new flavor with games like Minecraft.

For a great way to infuse Minecraft into the elementary classroom check out this amazing blog post!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Five Senses and Why LEGO?

As I was browsing through my pictures of my recent Arctic trip today I am brought back to one specific day when I decided to be fully aware of my five senses as I observed the natural environment.
Drip Castle?
Photograph by Julia Sheldon
As scientists and teachers we know these experiences are vitally important to our student's ability to learn and connect to the content yet we can take an experience like a an owl pellet dissection and make it into a paper activity by asking students to complete a packet related to what they found in the pellet. It is the experience of dissecting that has the most profound impact in the end.
We also need to get out of the classroom! We need to emphasize that the five senses we taught about in first grade are not an elementary topic but a habit that scientists use continually. Whether we are confident or not in the teaching of science, we need to display this willingness to touch and experience and even more importantly model curiosity and exploration to our students. I am reminded of a recent visit to Rebecca Cumming's class at Pelham Elementary School. Rebecca's students were building composting units with worms. She had no problem reaching into the dirt and pulling out piles of worms so her students could see what those little composters looked like. Her best line of the day was "Poop matters" as she emphasized the important role they critters play in the soil.

Squish of the Arctic Tundra
Photograph by Julia Sheldon
How does this relate to my love of LEGO and building in the classroom you might ask? Building with any material is a kinesthetic experience that allows children to cement their learning and display what they know. Building utilizes the senses. While learning can be communicated with writing it is important to provide our students with other methods of assessment. A model can instigate a conversation about the observation made, the habitat, or even the thought process in scientific inquiry. Students can build representations of a living creature in their natural habitat or a scene that depicts a predator/prey relationship. What about a model that represents curiosity in the natural environment or the changing nature of the fragile Arctic environment? When we ask children to build, it needs to be without judgement. Too often students are asked to build according to directions or steps. The types of models and builds that I advocate for in the classroom, encourage creativity and instigate conversation about issues in our environment and solutions. Please keep tuned to Brick Trips as I continue to share ideas for classrooms and promote collaborative brick trips for classrooms to join!
Polar Bear swimming between the pack ice.
Photograph by Julia Sheldon

Thursday, July 10, 2014


The first glaciers I saw in Svalbard were from the plane window as we descended into Longyearbyen.

On the second day of our expedition aboard the National Geographic Explorer, we entered Hornsund Fjord. This was the the very same area I viewed from my plane window with multiple glaciers feeding into one spot. A Fjord is a valley that is carved by a glacier and is a deep trough. This trough is fed by tributary glaciers. The glaciers form from snowfall. If there is constant cold and a build up of snow, then over time the snow compacts into ice. There needs to be 10-15 meters of snow to form glacial ice and once this piece of ice is big enough to move it is officially a glacier.

While I have always lived in New England and witnessed snow year after year, I had no idea that different types of snow have different names. A glacier begins as regular snow but as it compacts it goes through stages. Stage 1 is fresh snow. Stage 2 is Corn Snow and is defined as snow that goes though repeated melting and freezing. The snow resembles large-grained rounded crystals. It is the type of snow that forms a nice crust that you can walk on top of. Stage 3 is firn. Firn snow has the appearance of wet sugar. It is the snow that has been left over from previous seasons and has recrystallized into a denser substance. Finally, there is the glacial ice.

Try this LEGO Activity: Build up the four layers one brick at a time and then have the students compress their "snow" into a glacier by exchanging the four bricks into four plates. As students replace each layer discuss the transformation from regular snow into glacial ice using the terms corn snow and firn. This model will help cement the idea of how a glacier is formed. Don't be afraid to write labels on the LEGO bricks with a Sharpie and keep the model around for future lessons. In addition you could talk about how glaciers calve into the ocean revealing blue ice.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

6/22/14 Longyearbyen and First Day at Sea

This morning we headed back to the same airport to board a flight to Svalbard. The flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen will take approximately three hours. The view of Norway was beautiful as we flew over the northern part. I was not prepared for how beautiful Svalbard would be from the plane. I had a seat next to the window and was able to take some pictures of glaciers as we descended.
It was difficult to grasp how we would land anywhere with civilization. All I could see around me were mountains, snow, and glaciers.

And then around a corner was Longyearbyen, a colorful landscape of buildings, snowmobiles and residents nestled in the mountains of Svalbard.
Photograph by Julia Sheldon
We spent the morning visiting the Svalbard Gallery where  art was on display. There was also a fascinating room where you could observe the changes in maps over time of the Archipelago of Svalbard. Next, we visited the Svalbard museum where we were able to view not just the wildlife and environment but also a history of Svalbard which portrayed the trapping and hunting history as well as the culture of the people that chose to live here.
Svalbard Museum
In the afternoon we boarded the ship! We were instantly greeted by the crew as the "Teachers."We settled into our "Teacher" cabin in the staff quarters and quickly made it up to the decks to see the ship leave the dock.
Photograph by Julia Sheldon
The view reminded me of a trip I took to the Badlands as a kid and this was my first taste of how geology's history and impact can be seen anywhere you visit.  Upon leaving Longyearbyen we saw our first wildlife sighting, a rare one we were later told. A pod of Beluga whales was swimming out to sea with us and we spent 30-45 minutes just taking in the sight. They appeared like ghosts under the water.

Photograph by Julia Sheldon

Photograph by Julia Sheldon

Later after dinner, we visited our first glacier, Tunabreen and I used the Theta camera to take some 360 degree photos that you can see here in Google Maps.

Julia and I decided to stay up until midnight to experience our first midnight sun along with a couple other shipmates and we made sure we took our picture to mark the occasion.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

6/21/14 Arrival in Oslo

We arrived in Oslo around 8:20 in the morning. Upon exiting the airport we had a 45 minute bus ride to the city. I first noticed the trees. This landscape is similar to New Hampshire. Very deep green in color, there were fir and birch trees lining the sides of the road. The blasted sections of the road highlighted the rock that had to be carved out in order to create the roads.

The city of Oslo is home to the King and Parliament and we had the chance to see some of the beautiful architecture on our ride from the airport to the hotel. Once at the hotel, we decided to catch up on some needed sleep before our tour of the city. On the tour we visited the famous Vigeland park that displays the life work of Gustav Vigeland. The sculptures were arranged in a way that you felt you were walking through the history of his life and work. A bridge of sculptures let to a fountain that told the story of life and death and then we walked the final steps to the monolith of 121 figures struggling to reach the top.

We also toured the Fram museum where the historic Fram boat is on display and visitors can tour the insides as well as observe the engineering feat that allowed a boat to rise above the ice rather than be crushed when the ice froze.

As a result, I have begun developing my first engineering challenge for students based upon the story of the Fram. I would like them to develop a ship that can withstand the hardships of a trip to the Arctic. I may give a piece of the story to them before the challenge and then complete the story when they have completed their testing. How to test a LEGO boat? I think I will need to come up with a way to squeeze the boat in at the sides. Whether LEGO is the best tool, not sure? The other strategy might be to show the students the arches that were created in the interior of the boat and ask them to think about how arches are used in everyday engineering challenges. A LEGO arch would be a very cool thing to construct and a strong LEGO arch might be even more challenging.

 Across the road from the FRAM museum was the Thor Heyerdahl Kon-Tiki Museum. Although we did not have time to go inside, the museum is host to Thor's ships he used to cross the Pacific as well as Easter Island artifacts. Thor wanted to prove that earlier cultures could cross the ocean in simple boats made of reed so he built his own reed boat. If I ever come back When I come back, I will need to come here. Since I was a little girl, I have had a fascination for ancient cultures and exploration. I wanted to be an archaeologist before I became a teacher. Egypt was my first fascination and I managed to get there in college though a Semester at Sea. ...And now I prepare to explore a part of the world I never dreamed possible; following in the footsteps of explorers like Amundsen and Nansen but without the hardships.