Susan Harter: Second Grade Teacher/Grosvenor Teaching Fellow

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Susan Harter, a second-grade teacher at the Waterside Children’s Studio School in Rockaway Park, is one of 35 educators from across the continent who were recently selected to take part in National Geographic’s Grosvenor Teaching Fellowship, a professional development opportunity that will entitle Harter to embark on a Lindblad Expeditions voyage to the Galapagos Islands in November.

Harter says the hands-on, field-based research that she acquires will lay a foundation for her future curriculum and help motivate her students to become dedicated stewards of the environment.

“I was absolutely thrilled when I found out,” she shared. “The fellowship is super competitive so I’m really excited to have this opportunity and come back and share my experiences.”

Harter said the impetus for becoming a fellow was first inspired by the teaching training sessions she completed at the Ecology School in Maine, where she discovered how to incorporate place-based education into her science and social studies lessons. The placed-based philosophy promotes a student’s local community as one of the primary resources for learning, taking into account the unique history, environment, and culture of a particular location.

“I like to do a lot of outdoor learning with my class and really bring in the idea of place–where we live and its impact,” Harter said. 

Her history lessons, for example, examine some of the resources Native Americans gleaned from Rockaway hundreds of years ago and the importance the ocean played in their lives. She stresses the benefits those same environmental resources provide to the community today.

Moreover, Harter’s science curriculum sheds light on current problems that threaten the health of the coastline. “We learn about the different properties of materials, such as plastics and why they are problematic when they litter the ocean,” Harter explained. “My class has watched a documentary on the subject, participated in beach cleanups and spearheaded plastic-free lunch days in our school, making posters and helping other students recognize why we want to reduce things like single-use plastic items.”

Harter said National Geographic’s action-based approach in their educational materials seemed the perfect complement to her teaching style. “When I learned about their explorer mindset–the skills, attitudes and practices that they promote–I really wanted to find out more and understand how I can use the idea of exploration in my classroom.”

Last month, Harter kicked off her fellowship with a four-day session in Washington, D.C., where she was trained on essentials like map skills, and met naturalists from the Galapagos region to hear about what she will be seeing during her voyage.

On November 29, Harter will fly into Ecuador and then to one of the 13 Galapagos Islands to board a ship that will take her on the 10-day expedition. “Every day we’ll do excursions to the different islands,” she said. “We’ll visit sites like the Charles Darwin Institute and a giant tortoise farm and go on small inflatable boats to examine wildlife as well as do some snorkeling, kayaking, and paddleboarding along the way.”

Harter’s career as an educator began 20 years ago when the Colorado native took a position with Teach America in Chicago. She met Dana Gerendasi, now the principal of Waterside Children’s Studio when she began teaching in Brooklyn in 2005. Harter joined the planning team that initiated the opening of Waterside in 2009 and became a teacher there a year later.

“Our original purpose was to create a school that is focused on the arts and we’ve stayed close to that mission,” Harter said. “We have such a wonderfully diverse community here and where we are geographically just lends itself to a really special learning experience.”

Harter noted that her students this year are already excited about researching animals from the Galapagos. “I’m having my kids this school year come up with questions that I can get answered,” she said. “My plan is to bring back images, stories, and videos on the region that I can turn into a unit on Galapagos animals and then I want to create some sort of action project that will drive home the idea that all of the world’s oceans are connected.”

She said she’s looking forward to the fresh perspective her new adventures will bring into her classroom. “The teachers that I’ve spoken to who have already done the fellowship all say that it has changed their lives in ways they didn’t expect,” she added. “I don’t know what those ways will be but I know it’s going to be something I will never forget.”


One response to “Wavemakers”

  1. Jamie says:

    Congratulations to Susan, how exciting!! Makes me wish I could be in her class! 😀

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