What is your favorite place? If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be? I bet that when you answer those questions, you are not envisioning a dot on a giant world map. In fact, I bet that you are not picturing a map at all. What you are picturing is an experience, a sensation, a memory, or a vision of an ACTUAL place. Maybe what you picture is the vastness of the grassland savannahs where zebras roam and lions stalk. Perhaps you are recalling the smell of fall leaves crunching underfoot as you rode horseback along a wooded trail. Geography is so much more than a place on a map or a point on a globe. It is more than the names of countries, states, and capital cities. It is “the why of a where.”
I got a firsthand chance to learn the why of a where this year when I was selected to travel to the Canadian Maritimes and circumnavigate Newfoundland as a 2014 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a professional development opportunity for educators that is made possible by a partnership between National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. The purpose of this fellowship is to recognize educators who have demonstrated a commitment to increasing geographic literacy in their students. Educators apply and, if chosen as a fellow, are sent on expeditions aboard the National Geographic Explorer vessel to get hands on experiences with the natural and cultural diversity of a region and bring these experiences back to their classroom. As the Lead Program Developer at the Cincinnati Zoo, that means incorporating my experiences into the programs that I create and the outreach that will be part of my fellowship journey. By doing so, I am hoping to increase knowledge about different places on our planet, help others develop an appreciation for the people and wildlife that inhabit these regions, and cultivate understanding about the global impact, for better or worse, that our choices and actions can have. I know that this trip was transformative for me and helped me better appreciate these things.
By circumnavigating Newfoundland, we were able to really experience the geography, topography, and culture of the region. Cruising by jagged coastlines, standing on the easternmost tip of North America, and traversing fjords turned the coastlines on a map into real and tangible places that I can visualize. The cities and waters to and through which we traveled have become more than dots on a map as well. They are the places where I tasted wild blueberries, met Vikings, felt the rough, bristly needles of a black spruce, heard the snort of a startled caribou discovering it is being watched. It is where I heard the call of circling gulls while I watched the plume of mist produced by a fin whale surfacing to swim beside the ship. They are the places where I walked the streets of a fortress, watched the “disassembly” of a cod, dragged my plankton net, and saw Alexander Graham Bell’s dreams take flight.
I have heard the different accents that are acquired when the Scottish meet the English meet the Mi’kmaq, Inuit, and Innu Indians. I have heard the heartbreak in a man’s voice when he speaks about the loss of the cod fishing industry and, with it, the heritage upon which Newfoundland was founded. This, all of this, is Newfoundland. This is what geographic literacy and the why of a where means to me. It is with this understanding that I will use my experience to make geography meaningful in my programs. I will help them draw connections geographically, geologically, historically, anthropologically, and biologically between areas while weaving in the intangibles of a place that speak to its essence and its roots.
I feel so fortunate to have been a part of this experience and inspired by the duty and privilege I have of sharing it with my community. We are all so much more than the place where we live. We are part of something bigger and, for me, that has never been clearer. So go and explore the wildness of a local park, contemplate the rain that falls and its journey from far off oceans to get to you, and be mindful of this planet and our place in it as well as on it. In the words of Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”
To learn more about the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship, click here
To learn more about how the Cincinnati Zoo’s conservation projects and how you can help conserve wildlife and wild spaces, please click here.