My journey as a GeoEducator was not linear; teaching was not even in my original career plans! In middle school, I aspired to become a disc jockey because I loved music–and I wanted to meet Springsteen! In high school, I joined the school newspaper and aspired to become a journalist. Girls could be the next Woodward and Bernstein, right? A summer job as a camp counselor led me into education, and as social studies and English were my best subjects, I became certified in both and began teaching middle school in 1992. Halfway through my third year, the principal “voluntold” me I would be attending a three-week summer institute at Virginia Tech University, sponsored by National Geographic. I was intrigued!
Arriving in Blacksburg, Virginia and the campus of Virginia Tech (VT), I was greeted by professors Bob Morrill and Bill Carstensen, and joined by teachers from across the state. Some were veteran teachers and others, like me, were just beginning their careers. None of us imagined we would be immersed in a “Geography Bootcamp,” exploring new corners of the Commonwealth, engaging in conversations across all content areas and grade levels, and looking at the world in a new way. Bob and Bill led us in discussions about the Five Themes, finding a Sense of Place, Reading the Landscape, and revealed our interconnectedness between human, physical, political and economic systems. I felt like Nancy Drew, finding that last clue which helped me solve the mysteries of teaching–geography was that missing piece, the bridge through which I would return to school in the fall and look at my teaching and my students’ learning through a lens built around these Five Themes!
We learned the “Binko Method” for delivery of professional development to our colleagues. We prepared and gave mock presentations to our peers, with feedback and support. I can honestly say that three weeks was, and continues to be, some of the most meaningful professional learning of my career. I left VT ready to teach in a new way, as a NatGeo Teacher Consultant, or TC! Some even called us “GeoEvangelists” as we left Blacksburg ready to promote GeoLiteracy. More importantly, I now had the ongoing support of Bill and Bob, the “original GeoMentors,” and a close-knit group of friends from the summer institute who stayed in touch and continued to support me on my journey.
Most of us had no idea we were about to become part of something much bigger – the infancy of the NatGeo Alliance Network! This was only the third summer institute held, and already Virginia was forming a strong cadre of K-12 teachers, professors and community partners, which over the years, continues to grow and thrive. Many of us from that summer cohort would soon join the Virginia Geographic Alliance and some of us were eventually asked to serve on the VGA Steering Committee. I was surprised to reconnect with my undergrad geography professor, Joe Enedy, who was also a leader in the VGA!
The following September I returned to school a new person, seeing opportunities to connect literature and writing, music and art, politics and economics — everywhere I turned I was making connections to the lessons I was teaching and the Five Themes. Shortly into the new school year, Bob Morrill introduced me to a geographer from Virginia Commonwealth University, Dr. Marijean Hawthorne. Marijean was a true GeoMentor, taking me under her wing and hiring me as her summer teaching assistant. For the next few years, we offered week-long summer workshops, weekend academies, and 1 credit mini-courses in geography which were tailored to fit the needs of K-12 teachers, continuing to build a strong support system for our teachers and strengthening the bonds between the K-12 teachers and our university colleagues. One of the greatest strengths of these institutes, whether they were led by Marijean, Bill, Bob, Joe or so many others, was the collegial relationship between the teachers and professors, and the mutual respect we all shared for teaching and learning from each other.
My journey with VGA continued as I became involved with Geography Awareness Week and the GeoBee – eventually serving as both GAW and Bee Coordinator, and continuing to teach summers and throughout the year with Marijean. Marijean, Bob and Joe encouraged me to submit proposals to present some of our work with them at the state VCSS social studies conferences, and at NCGE. Eventually, I was nominated to travel to Washington, DC to attend training as the VGA Public Engagement Coordinator for the My Wonderful World campaign. Alliance members from several states spent a week working with NatGeo staff, developing a curriculum and awareness campaign for this new web-based resource. Soon, I was honing my Binko skills, presenting at NCGE and NCSS conferences, and eventually working on a new VGA project – developing a new state atlas and digital resources for teaching Virginia history and geography through the Five Themes. We spent a year working with teachers and VT cartography students, led by Bill Carstensen, and our final product was financially supported by the state to ensure that every elementary school received a class set of atlases and digital resources. We hosted week long summer institutes to train teachers on using the atlas and digital resources to enhance their content knowledge and help them make connections with colleagues across the state. These atlases are still used today, with periodic updates, and are now digitized on our alliance website. In 1992 and again in 2000, our work on the atlas and with promoting other alliance sponsored projects, earned me the honor of a Distinguished Teaching Award from my peers and colleagues in the NCGE.
In the fall of 1999, Bill and Bob contacted me and asked me to serve as their TC on a cross country traveling summer institute, Amtrak Across America. The idea was to recreate the Lewis and Clark expedition during the bicentennial of their journey via train, with stops along the way led by local guides from our state alliances network. I was ready to join their Corps of Discovery, and for the next five summers we continued to add to our VGA family, working with alliances in North Dakota, Montana, Oregon, Washington State, Colorado, Wyoming and Wisconsin, bringing this epic tale of the first government-sponsored scientific expedition to life through the stories, words and music of the Native Americans and early settlers who explored, mapped the landscape and catalogued new species of animals and plants, searching for the elusive Northwest Passage, and hiring a Native American woman and a man of color to join their expedition as barriers were broken and our view of America expanded. Later, we re-imagined the course to create a US/ Canadian cross-continental field experience, working with the Canadian Alliance. This summer, we are reinventing Amtrak Across America, this time exploring the southwest United States with a whole new generation of enthusiastic teachers and “GeoEvangelists!“
Inspired by my experiences with placed-based learning via the Amtrak Across America experiences, I applied for a new summer program in 2005 to work as a Teacher-Ranger-Teacher with the National Park Service. For the next two summers, I worked alongside the rangers at several Civil War battle sites in and around Richmond, Virginia as well as the Maggie L. Walker Historic Site. During my time as a park ranger, I worked with the full-time interpreters and tour guides to embed K-12 state and national standards for geography and history into the lessons, tours and displays made available for K-12 teachers and visitors. During this time, I participated in a book study with other rangers, focusing on Richard Louve’s Last Child in the Woods, or as we affectionately renamed it, “No Child Left Inside.” Louve’s focus was encouraging teachers, parents and communities to work towards getting students interacting with nature, and not merely reading about it in a book or watching a video. His work reaffirmed the lessons learned at my first VGA summer institute, and subsequent experiences traveling across the U.S. via Amtrak — “There’s No Substitute for Being There” is and always will be a focus of my work as a GeoEducator!
2008 brought the opportunity for me to travel abroad with a VGA sponsored course to the United Kingdom. For a month, we were immersed in British culture, landscapes and pedagogy. We explored London, the Cotswolds and the Lake District. Working with professors and local guides from the British Archives, Imperial College London and Nottingham University, we made connections between our British roots and our American history, government, geography and culture. I felt personally connected to my own family roots, tasting the traditional British foods we enjoyed at home on holidays — Yorkshire pudding, Cornish pasties and shepherd’s pie! Looking at events in American history through a British lens gave better insight into how geo-perspectives can vary throughout time.
The highest honor of my career came in the fall of 2008 when Bob Morrill nominated me as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. As one of two recipients in the second year of the program, I was able to select an itinerary for the spring of 2009 which led to a month-long fellowship in the Indian Ocean, traveling aboard the Lindblad – NatGeo Explorer. Traveling from the Seychelles, the French Comoros, Tanzania, Madagascar and Mozambique, I was immersed in African culture, landscapes, biodiversity and geopolitics. More importantly, I met and discussed my passion as a middle school GeoEducator with the ship’s passengers, crew and numerous people we met in our many stops along the way. One family on board the ship returned home and started a geography club and sponsored the entry fee for their grandchildren’s school to participate in the National GeoBee after hearing me talk about the Grosvenor Fellowship. In each place we stopped, I asked if I could visit a school, and shared maps, lesson plans and images of Virginia I had tucked in my suitcase with the hopes of connecting with some of the African educators. The lessons we exchanges, the images and experiences captured in those days traveling along the east coast of Africa continue to inspire me to work with students, teachers and legislators to establish the importance of place-based learning for all children.
After 21 years in the classroom, I moved from the safe haven of my own little classroom into a district position as K-12 Coordinator of Social Studies in a new city, Charlottesville. The gift of being able to make connections from elementary to secondary school, and vertical curriculum alignment decisions, allowed me the freedom to impact more students on a broader scale. As a division leader, I was able to spread the mission of GeoLiteracy into facets of not only social science but also science, language arts and CTE. During the first year, we reorganized the fourth grade curriculum into a standalone geography course for all students. The ripple effect of providing students with a strong foundation in basic geography skills resulted in raising student achievement over the next few years in the geography strand of the state social science assessments when this had previously been an area of weakness across the division. We also merged geography with other humanities courses into a regional Teaching American History Grant with support from the VGA, linking a cohort of central Virginia teachers with colleagues in the United Kingdom, accessing primary sources such as maps, images and documents related to the European and North American sugar trade, with a culminating field experience in Barbados. This grant served over 100 teachers over a three-year period, and was the catalyst for future grant funding from the Battelle Foundation and the VGA to support a GIS-based historical mapping grant, the iSTEM Teacher Scholars. With the later addition of the ConnectEd program with ESRI, the iSTEM teacher cohort later received a GENIP grant to teach an online GIS course for teachers from all over the United States, applying what they learned from iSTEM and redelivering that instruction in a virtual environment. Again, the ripple effect!
2014 brought a change in leadership to the VGA, as Bob Morrill and Joe Enedy, two of my personal GeoMentors, stepped down after decades of leadership, and Dr. Ed Kinman of Longwood University and I took the lead as the new state VGA Co-Coordinators. My journey as a GeoEducator is far from over, and in the first 2 years, Ed and I have managed a multi-state alliance NOAA grant, participated in the Alliance Network HUB and Certified NatGeo Educator pilot programs, forging new partnerships for the VGA with our state VDOE, museum, and environmental partner organizations, and other state alliances to continue promoting Geo-literacy across the state and beyond.
I may not have met Springsteen (yet!), or won the Pulitzer prize for journalism, and I still haven’t finished my Bucket List to travel to every continent, but I know in some small way the work we do in classrooms and out in the field, leading students and teachers to explore, observe, question and collaborate, is building the next generation of GeoEducators, GeoMentors and GeoLiterate citizens. Not bad for a middle school teacher from Virginia!