Back to Reality

Coming back from Antarctica is hard.

You go to parties to see your friends, and they ask you, “How was it?” but you keep finding yourself at a loss for adjectives. Amazing or spectacular just doesn’t seem to cut it.

“Tell me all about it!” they say, but you stare at them like a deer in the headlights, wondering how you can possibly summarize the experience.

“What was your favourite part?” They soon lose interest in waiting for you to hem and haw over your options and move on to the next question, as you begin to realize just how bad you are at this whole conversation thing.

“Did you see any penguins?” Well, yes, a few thousand…

“Was it cold?” And that is perhaps the worst truth of all: that not only have you had to return from the ice, but you’ve had to return to a city that has colder winter temperatures than the Antarctic peninsula at this time of year.

Yes, it is really, really hard.

It is never easy to return to work after a month away, but this return has especially felt like a culture shock. I am lucky that my amazing school community is so supportive and welcoming. I have been back now for a full week and am just feeling like I’m getting back into the swing of things. Antarctica feels in some ways like a distant memory, like a faraway dream I keep having each night, but I am working hard to make it real for my students and my community at large.

So, what have I been doing since I returned, besides trying to sort through the 4,500 photos I took?

A large (no pun intended) take-away for me from this experience was the sheer size and vastness of the continent. It is so difficult for a photograph to convey the neck-craning heights of the mountains, or the way that the glaciers seem to go on and on forever. I have previously written about the size and scale of the place, but this has been even more on my mind since I returned.

The orange dots in those zodiacs are travellers waiting to come ashore, perhaps roughly 1 meter tall each sitting down.

The orange dots in those zodiacs are travellers waiting to come ashore, perhaps roughly 1 meter tall each sitting down.

In my classroom, I have been attempting to pass this knowledge on to my students in concrete ways that they can understand. We’ve been measuring the heights of penguins, the lengths of seals, and the wingspans of birds.

A group of students measured the wingspan of a wandering albatross (300cm), then painted the wings on mural paper.

A group of students measured the wingspan of a wandering albatross (300cm), then painted the wings on mural paper.

As we move forward, we’ll be using online maps like this one to explore relative sizes to our own neighbourhood. (Remember that humongous ice berg I floated by, Torontonians? It would cover the width of about 7 subway stations, all the way from the waterfront to Steeles Avenue.) As I’m marvelling at just how enormous that magical place seemed, I’m also reminding myself just how small a part of it I saw. It is truly humbling!

On another day, a different group of students measured the length of a female elephant seal (350cm) then built a three-dimensional structure of the same length. While on a gallery walk, one of these students commented “When we were building our seal, I thought it was really big. But when I saw the male elephant seal (600cm), then I thought that one was even bigger.”

Outside of my own classroom, I am beginning to find times to share my learning with others. This coming week I’ll be leading our school-wide daily morning circle to share some of my experience with the rest of the students and families at my school. I’m submitting proposals to present at professional conferences, and scheduling presentations with other groups, such as my neighbouring school’s photography club, and local classrooms that followed my expedition. If your group is interested in hearing more from me, you can contact me here.

I am also still posting actively on social media. Perhaps you’ve already seen my New Years resolution, #antarctica365, an online photography project where I will be posting one photograph from my Antarctic expedition every day for one year. It has been a great way to reflect upon my experience and share my learning with others, even if I can’t express myself well at parties. I hope you enjoy it and have a happy new year! 😄🐧🌎🇦🇶

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