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A bon voyage: Cherokee teacher wins national fellowship, brings global perspective to classroom

out frAfter landing back in the Eastern Time Zone, Jessica Metz had a hard time keeping her thoughts still. Eight days aboard a ship, circumnavigating the island of Newfoundland and absorbing all she could about the region’s ecology and culture had set her mind spinning. 

“I feel like I am just humming with ideas,” Metz said. “I have so many ideas and so many things I want to get started, and connections that I’m excited to tell the students and the teachers about.”

 

A teacher with Cherokee Central Schools, Metz is recently returned from the 2014 Grosvenor Teacher Fellows expedition, a National Geographic tour given to just 25 teachers in the United States and Canada. This year, 1,300 teachers applied for the all-expenses-paid trip. When Metz found out in February that she’d earned a spot, she knew it was a big deal — “we were super excited of course, jumped up and down and cried and everything you do when you find wonderful news out” — but it was hard to know exactly what she was in for. 

The answer, Metz found, was that she was in for a lot. 

“I got to see whales,” Metz said. “That was a huge thing for me. I’ve never seen a whale in the wild before. It was just amazing. I got to see the northern lights. We went kayaking one day at a place called Iles de la Madeleine.”

Metz was one of two Grosvenor Fellows onboard. The rest of the 150 people were historians, botanists, scientists or paying guests. It was “an extraordinary group of people,” Metz said, a crowd far different from what you might find on a carnival cruise. 

“We were much more focused on the environment and the culture and the people,” she said. “We were able to each day select from a group of things that we might want to do. Sometimes it was big hiking trips, sometimes it was bus tours that told about the history. Sometimes it was kayaking.”

Flying from St. John’s, Newfoundland into St. Pierre via a plane so tiny it took several trips to get the whole expedition there, Metz’ adventure took her to Louisbourg, an 18th-century fort where the English and French fought, and then to Baddeck, where Alexander Graham Bell, telephone inventor and great-grandfather of Gil Grosvenor, a former president of the National Geographic Society, built his summer home. 

From there, she got to go on a kayak tour at Iles de la Madeleine, explore Gros Morne National Park and walk through a reconstructed 11th-century Viking village at L’Anse Aux Meadows. The second-to-last day brought her favorite memory of the trip, and on the last day at St. John’s she got to learn about indigenous cultures at the Rooms Museum — a priority given that her job centers around promoting Cherokee culture. 

“The next to the last day of the trip we were in a place called Twillingate, and I took one of the most beautiful hikes that morning that I’ve ever taken,” Metz said. “We were along the rocky cliffs looking down into this dark blue water with the waves crashing against these big huge rocks that made up the coastline. Just the colors and the texture and the temperature and everything about that particular hike was just so beautiful. That afternoon was just the same day that we saw the whales. Those two things together made that one of the more exceptional days of my life.”

The trip was much more than purely a sightseeing vacation, though. It was a vehicle to bring global connections back to her Cherokee classroom. First a fourth, then a fifth and a sixth grade teacher, Metz is this year starting a new position as education program coordinator. In that capacity, she’ll serve as a liaison between Cherokee schools and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, working to promote Cherokee culture and environmental learning. 

“I’m writing curriculum, I’m helping teachers integrate Cherokee culture, I’m helping rangers integrate culture into existing programs,” Metz said. 

Though Canada is a long way from Western North Carolina, she’s unequivocal about the value of the experience. For Metz, the trip was about connections, about all the little things — both ecological and cultural — that tie people together and prove the point that we’re not so different. 

For instance, she’s excited to report to her students that Vikings ate a style of fry bread, a traditional food for the Cherokee. She talked to the gardener at Louisbourg for quite a while upon discovering that he used similar plants and techniques to those she’d been sharing with the Cherokee Middle School Garden Club. And she was surprised to learn that the Appalachian Mountains do not stop at Mt. Katahdin, where the Appalachian Trail ends, but that the ridge instead runs all the way up to Newfoundland. 

“Understanding geography and ecology and culture, whether it’s here in Western North Carolina or on top of a mountain in Canada or across the world, understanding those aspects are things that we have in common, things that we can all learn about each other and work together to take care of each other, to take care of our planet,” Metz said of the benefits she hopes her trip imparts to her students. 

By having that enthusiasm behind her, that depth of experience, she hopes to get her students as excited about geography, culture and science as she is. 

“I’m really excited about trying to show the students something different and spark their curiosity,” Metz said, “because that’s where learning starts, is with the curiosity.” 

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