Cool Lessons from the Icy Arctic for Rochester Teacher

Bretherton's adventure was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Photo credit: Fiona Hall

Submitted by Rochester School District

Maybe you can’t send a class full of Rochester kindergarteners to the Arctic. But you can send their teacher, and that gets them pretty close.

Michelle Bretherton, kindergarten teacher at Rochester Primary School (RPS), returned last week from nearly a month in Norway and on the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, Land of the Ice Bears. She was invited on the educational excursion through a fellowship with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions.

Michelle Bretherten Arctic
At 1 a.m. local time on June 16, Bretherton was awoken for another animal sighting. From the ship’s bridge she observed an hour of a mother polar bear teaching her cubs to hunt. “I loved watching the cubs be curious and playful, and the mom being so patient and powerful,” she shared. Photo credit: Michelle Bretherten

Bretherton was awarded the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship for encouraging empathy in her classroom and looking beyond self to see a broader view of the world.

“It’s a big idea for kindergarteners,” she said, “but I focus on understanding that what you do today can affect people and places elsewhere.” 

Her Taking Care of the Earth unit will be most impacted by the expedition, she said after seeing climate presentations. “I will show them photographs I took on the beach on Edgeoya of pollution that washed up on the shore from other places in the world: plastic jugs, netting, bits of random plastic,” she said. “And we’ll talk about how we can start changing our behaviors to help our earth and the life on it.”

During her adventure in the arctic, Bretherton reinforced the themes she teaches about stewarding the Earth in her local Kindergarten class. Photo credit: Michelle Bretherton.
During her adventure in the arctic, Bretherton reinforced the themes she teaches about stewarding the Earth in her local Kindergarten class. Photo credit: Michelle Bretherton.

Her 2015-16 class made a book titled How Do People, Plants and Animals Help Each Other? Bretherton was proud when one student contributed, “We’re all connected. We help each other survive.”

One of her most memorable moments from the Arctic brought her right back to the book.

She recalled, “On the last night of the expedition, the captain brought us to where shallow waters meet deeper waters, and whales like to feed. Everywhere I looked whales were spraying water as they exhaled out of blowholes. Most were far, but at different times, blue, fin, and humpback whales were so close I felt like I could reach out and touch them. The humpback whales began feeding right out in front of the bow. The sea birds would wait together and then flock towards where they knew somehow the whales would surface; it was a feast for the birds as well as the whales. It reminded me of how connected we are and how we can help each other survive. It perfectly fit with what my class learned last year when we were writing our book.”

Bretherton plans to weave her experience through lessons over the course of the year. “There are so many subjects that we study where the information I learned can be added,” she said. “For instance, we study the five senses. I’ve already started planning on including activities to help students understand the different senses through arctic wildlife. Polar bears can smell food through ice; whales can hear each other through a thousand miles of ocean.”

Bretherton's adventure was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Photo credit: Fiona Hall
Bretherton’s adventure was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Photo credit: Fiona Hall

Future RPS kindergarteners will also benefit from Bretherton’s trip through more than just stories.

“It has reminded me of how much fun learning is when you get to experience it rather than just hear about it,” she said. “It is my goal to put more hands-on and experiential learning back in my classroom.” 

Rochester School District provides rigorous academic programs to more than 2,200 students, preparing them for lifelong learning, rewarding careers and productive citizenship. The district’s students and staff have received numerous state awards, including being named a 2013 and 2014 Washington State “School of Distinction,” and recently the #1 school district for teacher support in all of Washington.

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