Like most geographers out there, I have a serious love for maps. All kinds of maps: paper, digital, and mental. As I sit here today and create a mental map of my development as a geography educator, I realize that I was always destined to be a geographer, though my career is just beginning. Rick Bass once wrote, “The spirit that exists is not in us, and not upon the land, but between us and the land, like an electrical current generated.” I hope to ignite that spark between my students and the landscape through geography education.
I grew up in Long Beach, NY, a small barrier island off the south shore of Long Island. Long Beach was absolutely great during the summer months, as the beach was only a five minute walk from any point in town. However, beach season only lasts so long and for the majority of the year, the beach was cold, windy, and rainy. I never learned how to surf (I hate being completely underwater), and I found myself yearning to get out and explore other parts of my state.
When I was in middle school, my father took me skiing in the Catskill Mountains for the first time. I had about zero confidence going into my first lesson, as I was an extremely uncoordinated child. Turns out, I was a natural skier and made it up to the chairlift on day one. My father noticed how much I loved the sport, and got a job as a ski instructor so he could take me skiing every weekend. Eventually, I started teaching skiing as well. I fell in love with teaching and at the age of 16 and became certified to not only teach skiing to children, but to adults as well. It was during this time that I also became fascinated by the mountains around me. I wanted nothing more than to learn how the landscape evolved to its current state, how humans impacted that evolution, and how our society can learn how to live with the land and not on the land.
I carried my fascination with the landscape with me to college at SUNY Plattsburgh in Northern New York. While a student at SUNY Plattsburgh, I pursued a double major in geology and environmental science. For my senior thesis, I used GIS to reconstruct late Pleistocene paleogeography and sedimentary environments in Northeastern New York. This research sparked my interest in geomorphology and influenced my decision to begin graduate school and work towards becoming a physical geographer.
In Plattsburgh, not only did I get a great education, but I also lived within driving distance of two exceptional east coast ski resorts – Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, NY and Jay Peak in Montgomery, VT. After graduating with my Bachelor of Science degree, I decided to take a year off to pursue my other passion – skiing – before beginning graduate school. I moved to Boulder, CO where I spent the year skiing some of the best lines of my life and exploring a new, foreign landscape. Growing up at sea level was so drastically different from Colorado life, and I was captivated by the Rocky Mountains.
I began my graduate studies in the fall of 2015 at The University of Montana under the advisement of Dr. Sarah J. Halvorson. During my first year, I was awarded with a Teaching Assistantship. Not only was I honored to gain this title and associated responsibilities, but I was put in a position where I could really connect with both the students and professors in my department. I feel a great sense of community here, and those feelings have left me motivated to perform to the best of my abilities as a Teaching Assistant, as well as a student. I have served as the Teaching Assistant for Introduction to Physical Geography, Human Geography, and Geography of World Regions, and I am incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to gain valuable classroom experience before entering the workforce.
Initially in graduate school, I hoped to design a thesis heavy on fieldwork and landscape processes to prepare me to enter into a physical geography PhD program. Though, by the end of my first year, I had not yet developed a thesis topic. I realized that my interests had shifted slightly over the course of that year, and while I still plan to obtain a PhD in the future, I decided to refocus my research to center on geography education.
My advisor, Dr. Halvorson, opened the doors to the geographic education community for me. First, she offered me an internship with the Montana Geographic Alliance. Through this internship, I went to Denver during the summer of 2016 to participate in the National Geographic Summer Institute. This summer’s institute introduced the National Geographic 2017 Initiative – the State Giant Traveling Map Program. Additionally at this conference, I completed parts one and two of the National Geographic Certified Educator process.
Next, Dr. Halvorson invited me to attend the 2016 National Conference on Geography Education in Tampa, FL. I can say wholeheartedly that this was one of the best conferences I have ever attended. The NCGE staff was extremely personable and accommodating, and the fellow NCGE members welcomed me with open arms. At this conference, I attended lectures and workshops, but most importantly, I brainstormed thesis ideas with some of the most successful members of the geographic education community. By the time the conference ended, I had a thesis topic drafted.
My thesis has evolved into an exploratory study that aims to evaluate how kinesthetic learning affects skills and attitudes of fourth grade students in Montana using the National Geographic State Giant Traveling Map of Montana. I am interested in finding out what information students retain through giant map lessons and if they are inspired to learn more about geography after using the giant map. Additionally, I want to gain insight on teacher perceptions of this resource and whether or not they think it is an effective tool to teach geography.
At this time, I am a few weeks away from finishing my coursework, and a few months away from finishing my thesis. I am also still active with the Montana Geographic Alliance. With the help of my colleagues, I developed the State Giant Traveling Map program in the state of Montana. The Montana Geographic Alliance provides this resource to teachers across the state for no cost. The map is currently traveling to different schools in Montana. This month, the map will be in Joliet, Belfry, Billings, and Custer!
I have developed a strong passion for place-based learning, and aim to teach in a setting that focuses on helping students connect with their landscape and community through experience and inquiry. Instead of passively feeding students information, I wish to guide them on how to be lifelong learners so that they can make sense of the world around them. I will be quick to adopt lessons and curricula that approach teaching through a constructivist lens where students develop their own questions and learn how to answer them methodically through observation, analysis, and reflection. By taking students outside, fostering a strong connection with place and the natural environment, and involving the community in their education, their lives will be forever changed.