The Power of Virtual Exchange: How the Endurance22 Expedition Helped My Students Find Their Voice
Preparing for and traveling to #Colombia with Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms was a small part of a much larger picture of the role global education plays in my classroom. In July while I was meeting teachers, students and administrators in Bogotá, my students were in New York City sharing their own expedition proposals with the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust with support from Reach The World. These amazing proposals came from the hearts and minds of my students after participating in a virtual exchange with the #Endurance22 Expedition and a field trip to The Explorers Club in New York City. The inspiration for this project came from the robust and playful conversations my students had throughout our virtual exchange and after our field trip. It was their conversations and ambitions that inspired me to plan a lesson in which they could collaborate in small groups to create their own expedition proposals across Google Slides, and share them with the staff at Reach The World and The Explorers Club. I was charmed by their collaborative conversation and the resulting proposals and I was really excited they were invited to share their proposals with the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust. However, even I was taken aback by the details of the event when I returned from #Colombia. Everything we do in life has the potential to be a learning experience. Traveling to #Colombia helped me to see parts of myself that I did not know existed. Using their voices to share their curiosities and engage in conversation with world famous explorers and scientists helped my students to also see parts of themselves they did not know existed and to imagine new possibilities for their future.
How Did Our Journey Begin?
In January 2022, my students and I began our virtual exchange with the scientists and explorers aboard the S. A. Agulhas II, a South African icebreaking polar supply and research ship, for the #Endurance22 expedition. The goal of the expedition was to attempt to locate the shipwrecked Endurance. The Endurance was crushed by sea ice in the Weddell Sea 107 years ago when Ernest Shackleton and his crew were attempting to be the first to cross Antarctica. Despite being stranded for almost an entire year, every single crew member survived due to the leadership of Ernest Shackleton and Captain Frank Worsley. Locating the shipwrecked Endurance has been the goal of numerous teams of scientists and researchers over the last thirty years.
The #Endurance22 expedition team used the coordinates recorded by Captain Frank Worsley, various journals and maps from Shackleton's expedition, photographs taken by Frank Hurley and the amazing technology now available to explorers and scientists to locate the wreck. This expedition was largely funded by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, but was partnered with many other organizations such as The Explorers Club, Reach The World, Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants and the Royal Geographical Society. Aside from locating the Endurance, the expedition team also wanted to connect classrooms to the expedition through live video calls and original written content documenting the entire expedition for a new generation of explorers. Tim Jacob, from Reach The World, joined the expedition team as Outreach Education Coordinator. In addition to writing the original content for students, Tim also hosted and organized all the live video calls with expedition team members; granting him celebrity status in my classroom.
From February to May, we participated in live video calls with expedition team members and I used the written content to indirectly teach and support close reading strategies from Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note - Stances, Signposts and Strategies by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst. We made connections to our content in social studies and science. Prior to Tim leaving the U.S. to join the expedition team, the students wrote Bon Voyage letters and emailed them to Tim. Later, they were very excited to learn that Tim had printed them and hung them on the walls of his cabin on the S. A. Agulhas II. The students created and maintained an interactive map on a bulletin board that shared the exact location of the S. A. Agulhas II throughout the expedition with the rest of our school community. The #Endurance22 Expedition permeated every part of our day for almost five months.
Our learning became thematic through student-led questions and conversations. The Expedition would be brought up by the students in what I thought would be unrelated lessons. For example, in one of our writing units, the students were prompted to write a narrative about someone who had shown courage. Several of my students independently chose to write about Tim and "his search" for the Endurance. Every conversation about read alouds, both fiction and nonfiction, in our reading curriculum always circled back to the #Endurance22 Expedition. Students were able to draw comparisons between fictional characters and the expedition team members when discussing character traits. They could also make text to text connections between the lessons learned by the expedition team members and other types of scientists in our thematic reading unit on natural disasters. Unprompted, the students always made connections to the #Endurance22 Expedition.
Our amazing art teacher, Shevon Gant, embraced my students' enthusiasm. She sat in on one of our video calls on the wildlife of the Weddell Sea, and used that content to teach my students to how to sketch Emperor and Adélie penguins. She also did further research Sundogs and taught the students how to use oil pastels and chalk to sketch out Tim's horizon in the Weddell Sea. They created beautiful murals that caught everyone's attention at the Spring Art Show.
In March, when the students and their families learned that the #Endurance22 Expedition had successfully located Shackleton's ship, their pure joy echoed throughout our school hallways all day. Their boisterous cheering included phrases like, "We did it! We found it! I can't believe we found it! We are part of history!" After school that day, I received text messages and phone calls from parents because their children were so excited to share "their new discovery." To make sure everyone in the community knew what the crew of the #Endurance22 Expedition accomplished, the students in all participating classes wrote news articles and created breaking news video clips.
In May, Reach The World invited us to a field trip to The Explorers Club as a culmination to our virtual exchange. Our amazing day included a tour of The Explorers Club with Lacey Flint, learning about past expeditions with club President Richard Garriott de Cayeux, touching artifacts from past expeditions, holding Seal-y Shackleton, the #Endurance22 Expedition mascot and getting to meet Tim Jacob in-person! My students had such a wonderful experience that they didn't want to leave! Before the bus pulled away, the students immediately asked me when we were going to get to come back! For the next few days, the conversations about our trip kept going in the classroom, the hallways and in the school yard. The students started discussing the places they were going to explore when they grew up. This gave me pause because I recognized that the students were starting to see themselves in the shoes of the #Endurance22 expedition team members. This realization inspired me to create a lesson that would help them to collaborate to create their own expedition proposals across Google slides. It felt like a genuine, summative capstone to both the #Endurance22 Expedition and our field trip to the The Explorers Club.
For about 3 weeks, the students worked on their proposals during our social studies block. The students were able to choose their groups and they used planning sheets to identify the goals of their expedition, their team members, the special equipment they would need, their time frame and the dangers or risks they would need to consider. One group decided that they were going to travel to both Iceland and Greenland to compare and contrast both islands. Another group decided they would travel to the site of the Titanic to determine how long it would take for the shipwreck to decompose. The third group decided to go to Egypt to locate the undiscovered pyramid for the most powerful pharaoh. I did some explicit teaching on manipulating the features within Google Slides, but most of this work was completely student-led and required very little management or interference from either me or my Educational Associate. Again, the conversations were so lovely to listen in on. This was learning that felt like play and it was evident in the way they interpreted the question about team members on their planning sheet. I thought that they would just share titles like "Chef" or "Archaeologist." Instead, they had conversations like this:
Johnny: "Alex, you should be the mechanic! You are really great at fixing things and we are bringing a lot of vehicles!"
Alex: "Yeah, that's true. But we are going to be gone for 10 years! We are going to need someone to cook for us in our food truck!"
Elisha: "That's true. We are going to get hungry doing all this important work."
Johnny: "Logan can you be our chef? Can you cook the chicken tenders?"
Logan: "Sure I can!"
Alex: "Wait a second guys! We are bringing like five vehicles and we don't have a driver's license. We don't know how to drive!!! This is a huge problem!!!"
Johnny: "That's okay. By the time we leave for Egypt, we will have our drivers' licenses! Don't worry!"
These playful conversations revealed that they had internalized so much more than facts about the ecosystem of the Weddell Sea or facts about the original crew of The Endurance. Their identities had changed as a result of our virtual exchange. They weren't just students anymore; they were explorers. This was learning that felt like play, but these plans are not pretend. These expeditions are real and attainable. They are real and attainable because of the relationship they developed with the #Endurance22 Expedition team members.
Making Our Expedition Proposals Public
I emailed the completed proposals to the staff at Reach The World and The Explorers Club with a link to a padlet for feedback. Several staff members (including Tim), left the students meaningful and high quality feedback. The students were so excited to hear this feedback and so responsive to everything that was written on the padlet. They immediately wanted to make revisions to their proposals after listening to me read the padlet. Above all, the feedback made my students feel seen and so important. It was such a lovely way to bring our year of exploring to a close. Or so I thought...
During the last week of school, I received an email from Reach The World inquiring if some of the students and their parents would be interested in sharing their expedition proposals at a WeWork in Manhattan to some members of the #Endurance22 Expedition team and the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust. They wanted to share our expedition proposals as part of their student impact report to the the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust. They knew that I would not be able to attend due to my field experience with Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms, but really wanted my students to participate in this event. With support from my school administrators, parent coordinator, and the staff at Reach The World, four of my students and their families were able to participate in this event.
I had great faith that it would be a wonderful day for my students and their families. I was a little worried that some of them would be very shy, but I knew that they would be well supported by their families, my colleagues from PS 1 and the staff from Reach The World. Aside from sharing student work and initially reaching out to families, I had little to do with this event. It was difficult to get much more involved than that because I was also preparing for my field experience in #Colombia. At moments it felt like I had one foot in Colombia, one foot in New York, but my mind was still in the Weddell Sea. I carried this mindset into the first four days of my field experience in #Colombia. Knowing my students would be participating in this event without my support tested my need for control, but it also made me proud. My students knew I wouldn't be there, but were still willing to publicly present their work to world class scientists and explorers. This would be difficult for any 10-12 year old, but considering that my students also have disability classifications and many are English Language Learners, this was an even more impressive choice. I always tell my students that their choices matter more when I am not there and this scenario demonstrates what we all want as educators. We want our students to be independent, develop agency, take risks and be more successful without our presence. According to the emails and text messages I received while in Bogotá, and the conversations I participated in when I returned, they surpassed everyone's expectations.
I'm told that when the students arrived, they were very quiet. Both the space and the faces of unfamiliar adults were intimidating. I imagine that many of them were regretting their choice to participate. However one of my students latched onto a familiar face, pointed and yelled out, "It's Tim! It's Tim!" For just a few minutes, Tim stole the spotlight from the other members of the expedition team. The students and their families were able to share lunch with the expedition team members and representatives from the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust. My students presented their proposals and fielded questions while standing in front of this impressive group of adults and through informal conversations. I'm told that some of the questions ranged from, "What are chicken tenders?" to "What is a PS5?" to "If you can't send a diver that deep, how are you going to examine the wreck?" With time and patience, the students were able to respond to all these questions. They enthusiastically explained what a PS5 is to the expedition team members, to which the team members pointed out that aside from the entertainment value, bringing a gaming system could be another way to make their expedition findings public. This was not something the students had considered!
However, the conversation around not being able to dive to the site of the Titanic is one of my favorite anecdotes shared with me by my administrator. The student to whom the question was posed, took a few minutes to think about his response. He genuinely did not realize that the Titanic was too deep for human beings to safely dive down towards. He looked up and said very blatantly to Dr. John Shears, "I don't know." My student was probably feeling so much doubt and shame in that moment, but I'm told that Dr. Shears' response turned this into an amazing teachable moment. Dr. Shears said, "That's great! You are exactly where I was at the start of our expedition to the Weddell Sea! I had no idea how I was going to carry out this expedition. I had no idea what kind of ship I would need. I had to go to South Africa, research and ask a lot of questions. You could find your answer to this question tomorrow, making it all possible." What a brilliant life lesson for anyone, not just for a fifth grader in Brooklyn, New York! This one moment showed my students the value in being curious, seeking answers and persevering through challenges.
I'm told that the families who attended this event were very proud of their children, but were not surprised by the quality of their proposals, nor by the way they interacted with the expedition team members. My administrator explained that there was this sense that these families always knew their children were amazing, but were enthralled that other people were able to witness it. At the end, group pictures were taken and the students demanded that they do their "explorer pose" with the expedition team members; further illustrating that being an explorer is now part of their identities. However, the families insisted that they also be part of that picture. This makes me think that not only did the #Endurance22 expedition change the identities of my students, but also shifted the identities and mindsets of families within our community.
The #Endurance22 expedition is most likely what the students in my class will remember most about their fourth and fifth grade experience. Right from the start of this virtual exchange, the students were treated as equal partners even though they were only 10-12 years old and so many miles away from the S. A. Agulhas II. In addition to introducing the students to the many formal roles and jobs on this expedition, the members of this expedition also modeled so many important soft skills for our students:
Flexibility & Compromise
The voices of our students were so valued by the expedition team members that they felt like they were part of history. I can imagine they will be telling the story of the #Endurance22 Expedition for many years to come. This experience helped our students find their voice and picture themselves as explorers, as result of the care and attention the expedition team members put into building a relationship with them. The families, students and staff at PS 1 will forever be grateful to everyone who made it possible for our students to feel so valued and inspired through the #Endurance22 expedition!