It’s Official! I’m a National Geographic Certified Educator.

From the moment that I heard about the National Geographic Educator Certification course at the Ohio Arts Education Conference in the fall of 2019, I knew that I wanted to become a certified instructor. I have been teaching and blogging about environmental education for many years and wanted to formalize my teaching methods. The online course is held twice a year in the spring and again in the fall and consists of three segments conducted within the space of about 3 months. 

My intention was to join the spring 2020 cohort and then COVID hit. In addition to writing and teaching, I am also an administrator at an arts organization. As you can imagine, when the state of Ohio shut down for 2 months, I had my hands full adjusting our organization to the new normal.

One day in early September, the Monarch butterflies were fluttering around my office window reminding me that the pollinator fields must be in full bloom. Later that day, I took a break to go take a look.

Our arts education campus is located within the Huntington Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks in Northeast Ohio. Several years ago, the park conducted a controlled burn of two fields near our campus and later seeded the areas with pollinator-friendly plants such as asters, goldenrod, milkweed, and other species known to support Monarch breeding and migration. Today, they are flourishing and attracting a wide variety of animal species to the meadows; including the Monarchs during their semiannual migration.

Sure enough, the meadows were a sea of yellow with hundreds of pollinators buzzing in and around the flowers towering more than six feet above my head. The park had cut pathways through the meadow for visitors to take a closer look at the biodiversity of the area. 

I was amazed at how a process so simple as planting tiny pollinator-friendly seeds could make such a big difference. I was reminded of the importance of change-makers in our society. I had been writing about it for years. Maybe now was the time to do something about it. Maybe the NatGeo certification process would give me the push I needed to take my ideas and put them into action. It was then that the seeds of an idea began to form…

“All National Geographic explorers were once students,” the National Geographic presenter reminded us at the conference.  She explained that, “The course was designed to inspire the next generation of explorers, conservationists and change-makers through National Geographic’s commitment to science, exploration, education and storytelling.” That the course is dedicated to developing what National Geographic calls “citizen scientists”.

As I walked, I wrestled with my own doubts. Me? A NatGeo Explorer? I live in Midwestern suburbia. What do I have to add to the conversation?

I watched a fragile Monarch land on one of the yellow flowers in the meadow. What drives a species to make such an effort? I thought. Will this tiny insect with wings as thin as paper be able to complete the 2000 mile journey to Central Mexico?

I had read an article on the National Geographic website that the Monarch Butterfly populations were in severe decline and here I was standing in the midst of one of the most important migration corridors in the country. My grandmother’s voice spoke to me. Bloom where you’re planted, dear. I didn’t need to sail the high seas or study an exotic species in a foreign country to be NatGeo change maker. While those efforts are equally important. I realized there is also important work to be done right here in my community, and being an administrator and instructor at an arts education organization within the park was the perfect vehicle to put my plan in motion. I would create a lesson plan to teach children about the Monarch Butterfly and empower them to promote the creation of more pollinator gardens in our community. I went back to my computer and signed up for the NatGeo certification course. I would figure out the details later.

The purpose of the National Geographic Certification process is to inspire a new generation of explorers, conservationists, and change-makers. The course was designed to develop strategies for teaching about the world in innovative and interdisciplinary ways. It was also a great opportunity to learn how to cultivate an explorer mindset. And, it allowed me to engage with educators around the world on a wide variety of topics. I discussed astronomy with a teacher from Serbia who was studying light pollution in urban areas. I talked to an instructor who was teaching citizenship to high school students in India. So many people doing good work!

I must say it was humbling to be part of such a group! Our entire cohort was on a Zoom call one night and after the introductions, our moderator was silent for a moment and then announced that all of the continents were represented on that one call. It gave us all pause… even the NatGeo mentors and guides. All in the midst of a pandemic.

Phase 1 of the course consisted of the certification workshop where we became familiar with National Geographic’s Learning Framework. The Learning Framework highlights the attitudes, skills, and knowledge necessary to develop the mindset of an explorer. Short reflections and responses to others’ ideas were required throughout the first module.

In Phase 2, we were tasked with creating two classroom activities that included some of the elements of the National Geographic Learning Framework. We also learned to identify various perspectives (spatial, ecological, historical, geographic) and scales (local, regional and global) and were challenged to implement them in our lesson plans as well. At this stage, we were also encouraged to join a mentor group and I am so glad I did! My mentor was amazing and gave me plenty of helpful hints as we prepared for the final stage of creating our Capstone videos. We even had a common interest. She and her mother protect non-migrating butterflies in Puerto Rico.

I decided to use the Monarch Lifecycle and Migration as the theme for my NatGeo lesson. In early October, I hosted a two hour class for children 9-12 years of age. We spent the first hour learning about the species and studied a map of their migration patterns. We also discussed how we can support the species as it passes through our community and local park on its semi annual journey from Canada to Central Mexico and back again. The children designed, created and filled seed packets with pollinator-friendly plants to pass out to family, friends and neighbors. During the second hour of class we walked the migratory path of the monarch through our local park. We stopped to map our progress, discuss barriers to migration, and identify potential food sources, including the pollinator fields I mentioned previously. As we hiked back to campus, we discussed what it meant to be an explorer and why it was important to help protect natural habitats. I had a coworker assist me in capturing the experience in video segments and photographs (below).

The certification process culminated in creating a Capstone Video project with an emphasis on storytelling. The NatGeo evaluators were not only interested to see how the elements of the learning framework fit in to the lesson plan, but also how our personal identity, values, and philosophy as educators fit into their methods. Our Capstone submission was a Multimedia Reflection Form, which included photos of student work, a 2-6 minute video describing the impact of the activities we implemented, and a final reflection.

This was the first time that I had attempted to create a video with so many required elements, but I am so glad I was pushed out of my comfort zone and rose to the challenge. In the era of COVID, video presentations have become a necessary skill for educators. Now, with a little more practice and a new video camera, I am the designated videographer at our organization.

I highly recommend the National Geographic Educator Certification experience for any teacher looking to take their lessons to the next level. Not only have I learned new skills, but I have made friends with fellow educators around the world!

My National Geographic Capstone Video can be viewed here:

Thank you for your continued support. I always welcome your comments and questions.

I wish everyone a happy and healthy new year. Take this pause in our human journey to think about how you can add to the conversation. If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us is that we are all connected to one another in ways we never anticipated. 

All the best-

Elizabeth

“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.”-Thomas Edison

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