Hello students!!

Letters on a table

I have the honour of being part of National Geographic’s Educator-Explorer Exchange this year. My educator partner is Kelly Koller from Washington Middle School in Oconto Falls, Wisconsin. A couple of weeks ago I got a packet of letters (real letters!) from her students. They had SO MANY questions for me, and Kelly and I decided that I would respond with a video.

I made a few notes before recording my first ever selfie video, and I’m posting them here for posterity. Note the “lessons” interspersed with answers to some very specific questions.

What did I learn from this? Let go of perfection! I made this video with, as Kelly would say, the “Explorer’s Mindset.” I wrote freely, spoke freely and discovered that freedom brought clarity.

As a writer, I tend to agonize over word choice. I let all that go and did my best to reach the students. The result was a distillation of some of the most important lessons I have learned in the last four years. And it took less than an hour.

And now … let the stream of consciousness begin. Here are my notes:

Hello everyone!!

First – I love the drawings …

Pencil drawing of a narwhal

And the curiousity – some of you asked very specific questions like what it felt like to be under the votive ship in Svalbard … peaceful.

You also thanked me very much for agreeing to work with you, but I also want to thank you. Because this is an exchange, which means we are all learning. For me to discover that I can help you all to write and explore and be curious – well, that is a wonderful feeling for me, so thank you!

I wish I could answer every single question — but there were so many, and some of you asked the same questions, so I will get to those.

But first! Something about questions and being curious. Are there questions you asked me, that you could answer yourselves? For example, if you asked a question about geography, you could use a map or an atlas. If you asked a question about climate or ice, you might be able to find the answer in a book or on the internet. It’s good that you asked me these questions … and I know you are curious enough to answer some on your own … maybe YOU can find out what causes the northern lights.

HOWEVER – there are many that I will need to answer, because I’m the only one who knows the answer. And that’s what interviewing is for. And that’s why I love it. Because there are so many things about the world and about each other that we can only find out by asking and listening.

For example, you asked me what made me curious about the north. Beauty, wilderness … and people. People most of us who live in the south don’t know about culture in the north. There are 4 million people who live at or above the Arctic circle. And I wanted to ask them questions and see what I could learn. And – maybe more important – see how I could change the ideas I already had about the north. Change my perspective. I think being open to different perspectives is part of the Explorer’s mindset.

Yes, it is fun to learn new languages. I LOVE learning new languages.

A lot of you asked my favourite place in the north. I can say my favourite thing about traveling in the north was getting to know its diversity. You’ve seen the photos, so you know how different Iceland looks compared to Pond Inlet on Baffin Island, or Longyearbyen in Svalbard, or the coast of Russia. So my answer is that every new place I go expands my perspective – and that’s my favourite thing about traveling.

Did I go swimming in Iceland – yes! In a hot spring. Except it wasn’t very hot so when I finally got in I was cold! It was windy and cold and I was wet and in my bathing suit.

How did we get the picture of confetti? We went to a concert in Iceland and the singer kept throwing gold confetti.

Here are some more questions that I hope can help you think about what you would want to explore and what interests you the most. That, to me, is important about exploration. Only YOU know what you are most curious about!

Okay – you asked if I set goals on trips. YES. And I’ve learned that goals need to be flexible. Sometimes I’ve set too many goals, I get too focused, and then I’m not able to adjust when things change. Because that is exploration – things change ALL THE TIME. They are supposed to. That’s how the world works. So yes, goals help, but they help more when they are flexible.

Jason, Gunar, Tanner and Brooke asked if I have seen things that aren’t beautiful. I like this question, and I think it’s really important because YES – I see many things that aren’t beautiful. Sometimes I see animals suffering. Sometimes I see pollution. And, as you know, I ask questions and I listen to many, many stories. And many people have been through really hard stuff. They tell me sad stories because those are just as meaningful as happy ones. My job is to listen. I think listening can help sad stories feel a little less sad.

Some more questions:

And I have seen hundreds of narwhal – but I’ve never seen a baby. And my expression on my face, was probably something like ——

And I’ve seen dozens of polar bears … and I wear lots and lots of layers. (Add toque) And carrying a rifle is a big responsibility. Some people kill polar bears for the fur and for food. Some people kill them for trophies. Some people kill them in self defence – to keep the polar bear from attacking them.

What is my biggest inspiration: people who are willing to share their stories. Even the ones that are hard to share. Stories help us get connected to each other. And understand each other. And that helps us share space, share our communities and our world. So even though I’m an explorer and I travel a lot … it’s actually, for me, about building peace.

I think I’ve interviewed more than 150 people.

Arctic horses are fat to keep warm.

One of you told me that you thought it would be scary to meet new people. And sometimes it is. I used to be really shy about talking to new people. I was scared too. But it’s worth it. It’s often worth doing things that you find scary.

Thank you for asking me about that.

What is my favourite part about being a journalist? It’s a license to be curious. And I never stop learning. I really like asking questions.

And yes, I’ve been sea sick.

And yes, the food is often different. Many Arctic people, especially Inuit people, live from sea animals. So they eat seal and whale and walrus. They also eat fish and caribou. And they also eat pasta and cookies and they drink coke. It depends on the person. So some things are different, and some are the same.

A lot of you asked me about Alaska – maybe because Alaska is what makes the United States an Arctic country. Maybe that would be a good topic to learn about yourselves and discover what makes it different from the other states.

Thank you, also, for telling me about yourselves – from your favourite hobbies, to food, to sports … to birthmarks!

Before I go I want to talk a little bit about writing. At the bottom of your letters you told me about yourselves and your school. I believe that the main job of a writer is to pay attention. To observe the world and share what you see and what you think. Sometimes, writing starts with the facts – like the name of your school, your favourite activity, that kind of thing. That’s a good start. But then what? For example, your homecoming.

I know you had fun.

There were games – what kind of games? what details?

It was loud – I liked this a lot. Sounds, smells, the way things feel – all of this will help enrich your writing.

Think about the stories you like to read. How they make you feel like you are right there – right IN the story. A lot of that comes from details. So next time we talk, tell me how you feel, write to me about what you saw and heard and smelled. That’s a writer’s job and an explorer’s job. Pay attention. And then share the things YOU found.

Bye for now.

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