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Rona Zollinger, director of New Leaf: A Sustainable Living Collaborative at Vicente-Martinez High School in Martinez, was one of 14 teachers from the United States and Canada selected as fellows to spend part of their summer aboard the National Geographic Explorer on an arctic expedition.

MARTINEZ -- Rona Zollinger and 13 other teachers from across the United States and Canada spent part of their summer aboard the National Geographic Explorer on an Arctic expedition.

"It is a huge honor to be able to go," says Zollinger, director of New Leaf: A Sustainable Living Collaborative at Vicente-Martinez High School in Martinez.

"Being at the top of the world you realize that 100 years ago, people were dying (in order to) come here in wooden ships. History comes alive ... There was the 24 hours of sunlight in the middle of an ice field at 83.5 degrees north of the Arctic Circle."

Zollinger hopes to share that knowledge and wilderness spirit in her classes.

"I gathered a lot of information and have an incredible sense of responsibility for communicating what I was seeing," she says. "I am thinking about how to breathe that awe and wonder into my students."

Zollinger is designing an experiential curriculum for New Leaf, which will integrate her new Arctic knowledge, encouraging hands-on learning and wilderness exploration.

Zollinger is finding ways to empower people to rethink education and our relationships with the land and with each other, and pass that on to inspire other teachers to make similar changes.

The expedition is an annual professional development opportunity for teachers who will likely perpetuate the geographical education heritage of Gilbert M. Grosvenor, chairman emeritus of the National Geographic Society and Education Foundation.


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Zollinger's selection as a 2013 Lindblad Expeditions National Geographic Teacher Fellow and her selection as Contra Costa County 2013 Teacher of the Year tops off 12 years of teaching environmental studies.

Zollinger hopes to infuse students and the public with the excitement and curiosity she experienced in the arctic, in her instruction about local watersheds.

On the expedition, National Geographic provided an arctic scientist to provide background information and context about various sites and wildlife, Zollinger says.

"It was great. We saw 24 polar bears, a mother nursing a cub, walruses ... about 100,000 (thick-billed Murre birds) and a polar bear that was curiously scratching on the ship," she says.

"Some of the sights were not joyful," says Zollinger, recalling going ashore to discover an "entire beach covered with walrus bones, all around us."

"The guide for the day told us the history of this beach when it was legal to kill the walruses for different parts of their bodies," she recounts. "Another beach was littered with whale bones, and there was a cauldron to boil the blubber."

These are examples of what Zollinger refers to as the cycle of our impacts.

"One of the big mistakes we make is when we don't know the outcome (of our actions)," she says, mentioning the Native American philosophy of the seven generation rule.

That reference is to an Iroquois decision-making concept of considering the welfare of seven generations into the future.

About 150 people from around the world were on board as the National Geographic Explorer toured the Norwegian Arctic Svalbard (archipelago). Some had previously traveled to Antarctica, including Joseph MacInnis, a Canadian physician, researcher and aquanaut who served as a consultant for the "Titanic" video, and Casey Anderson, "Into the Wild" show host.

Growing up in Utah, Zollinger explains that she developed an appreciation for learning from real-life experiences and she uses that approach in her teaching methods.

"Every summer my parents would take us on car camping trips back East," Zollinger recalls. "Every trip had to do with U.S. history. Each week, one of us was responsible for researching a destination. We learned how to be an expert on the places we would go."

"When I became a teacher, I really wanted to give my students some of that same experience," she says.

She hopes to be able to speak before local organizations interested in learning more about her trip and her approach to student engagement.

For photos and details, visit http://www.expeditions.com/destinations/arctic/land-of-the-ice-bears.

Reach Dana Guzzetti at dguzzetti10@gmail.com or call 925-202-9292.

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