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Globe-trotting North Vancouver Grade 5 teacher to set sail on National Geographic ice breaker

April 12, 2016

BY GLEN SCHAEFER, The Province and Vancouver Sun

It’s hard to top teacher Kristen Gill’s stories of what she did on her summer holidays.

In the parking lot at North Vancouver’s Montroyal Elementary is her heavily-modified Toyota FJ, which has taken her on and off-road through B.C.’s Coast Mountains, Utah’s scorched deserts and much else in between.

Overseas, the 41-year-old Gill has shared freshly slaughtered sheep with Mongolian nomads, awakened on a train in India to find men staring transfixed at her light blond hair — and later this spring she’ll join the crew of a National Geographic icebreaker for a two-week expedition off the coasts of Britain, Ireland and Norway.

Gill was among 35 North American teachers, and the only one from B.C., chosen from among 800 applicants for the upcoming National Geographic educational fellowships.

“I’m always curious,” said Gill, who heads to Washington, D.C. for four days this week to meet with National Geographic staff before the trip in May. “I was the little girl asking questions constantly, that’s what I’m like as a teacher and that’s what I promote in my students — the more questions you ask, the better.”

Gill is also involved in district-wide efforts to update the North Vancouver social studies curriculum, moving from memorizing facts to concept-based critical thinking.

“Getting kids to think at a more global level, about how they can be global citizens — that kind of brought me to this (National Geographic) program,” Gill said.

National Geographic’s Grosvenor Fellowship, in its 10th year, is meant to promote geographic literacy among students and teachers.

Gill said her students are helping her prepare for the trip. She’s asking them what they would want to learn about the various ports of call, she will be blogging back to them during the trip, and a map in the classroom will have a “Miss Gill” icon that will be moved daily to each new location. She will be telling her class and the others in her school about the trip upon her return.

The 35 teachers selected for the tour are divided among 13 separate trips. Three teachers will be among this expedition’s crew of naturalists, photographers and historians on the icebreaker Explorer when it leaves London May 9. Gill and her colleagues will set out on Zodiacs several times a day to do their educational work.

Among the attractions: 3,000-year-old archaeological sites, the oldest non-nomadic settlements in Europe; a chance for Gill to use her photography skills when she gets up close with puffins; and the opportunity to check out efforts being made in the Orkney Islands to harness energy from storm-driven waves.

“Their main philosophy, of course, is spreading education about geography,” she said of the National Geographic organization. “It isn’t just maps, it’s taking care of the planet, and how everything is interconnected.”

With her lifelong travel jones, Gill’s selection for the fellowship seems obvious. She applied after friends alerted her to the opportunity last December.

“I have a strong leaning towards teaching everything through a geographic lens,” she said. “We have to learn the local curriculum, but the kids do a lot of projects dealing with all over the world. We’re learning how everything is connected.”

She comes back to school every September with more photos and stories from her travels.

“My last trip was Mongolia, Korea, China,” she said. “I’ve been to Japan, Turkey, Australia and Fiji, New Zealand and Italy. I’m probably forgetting some.”

In B.C., “basically we go exploring in the back country … camping at alpine lakes.”

Her tour of Mongolia was led by a guide, and they stayed in the traditional tents called “yurts” by the Russians and “gers” by the Mongolians.

“We just spent two weeks driving around the countryside, going from ger to ger,” she said, adding that 80 per cent of Mongolia’s people still live a nomadic life.

At one riverside stop, their driver negotiated the sale and cooking of a sheep from one family’s herd.

“’Hi, how are you? Can we buy one of your sheep?’” Gill recalled. “’Can we have dinner with you, can we camp next to you?’”

As to that sheep, it was quick work getting it from field to grill. “Oh, my God, within half an hour the whole deed was done. We had fresh, true Mongolian barbecue.”

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