• Teacher Breanna Myles travelled through the Arctic as part of a National Geographic Fellowship - an experience she is now bringing back to the students. (Photo courtesy Breanna Myles)

Breanna Myles wants to help students think about big issues. The global ones, that affect people they've never met on the other side of the world. But to do that, she puts the big issues in a local context. When she was teaching middle school at the Bruce Peninsula District School in Lion's Head, Ont., she used the United Nations Global Goals to get students to think about how they fit into the larger picture. Then in 2016, Myles had the opportunity to visit the Arctic as a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. She is now a member of the Bluewater District School Board, and regularly visits schools to share her experiences with students and other teachers. Here, she discusses the impacts of her work so far, and plans for the coming year. 

How do the students respond when you go into classrooms?

I come in and the way I connect to the students is that, ‘I was sitting where you’re sitting, not that long ago. I grew up in the same area.’ I want them to see that they can have the same big experiences that I’ve had and feel empowered. They often know more than you think they would. I was blown away when I went to a grade ten class, and they knew all this stuff about international shipping waters and increased shipping routes through the Arctic. I left that school feeling great and I thought — they are global citizens and they really understand what’s going on in the world, they care. I keep advocating for them, they have great ideas!

How has your experience in the Arctic influenced what you’re doing with students?

My biggest takeaway was when one of the naturalists pointed to some timber lying beside the water. There were no trees, it’s the tundra. He said it probably came from somewhere like Siberia. A lot of things wash ashore that aren’t from there. We also saw that with garbage. To me that was one of the most powerful moments — this is what I’ve been talking about with my kids all year, there is this amazing connection between the local and the global.

That message has translated into what we’re doing this year, looking at the effects of human encroachment on the natural environment. My students were asking: You’re going on a ship up into the Arctic, how does that affect the wildlife? I’m so glad they think critically like that. It comes back to education, that while we’re travelling and learning about the world we’re educating ourselves about it.

It’s a rich conversation to have with the kids. Now, they’re offering helicopter tours over the Bruce Peninsula, so how does that affect us here? That’s what makes it most relevant for them. If you can connect them to their local environment and they see the impact to them, then they can understand the impact on people living in the Arctic.

How do you incorporate UN’s Global Goals into teaching geography?

When I was studying at McGill I did a field study for a semester in Africa. We had to choose a Millennium Development Goal and I was working on universal primary education. Going into teaching, I had a broader perspective of what I believe education is about — bringing the world into the classroom.

I was always bringing current issues into the classroom. We talked about the election, the Syrian refugee crisis, and all these events that could be connected to what was happening in the world. Through learning about the world, students learn about themselves, and recognize themselves as global citizens. My philosophy on education is that every classroom is a microcosm of the world.

Last year it all came together, with the UN Global Goals being released, and we also read Chelsea Clinton’s book “It’s Your World”. I wanted them to choose a goal, think local and then set-up a local initiative to do something about that goal.

Could you give an example of one of those initiatives?

A couple of girls were looking at gender equality and then for their initiative they created a women-walkathon. They had community members come out and do laps around a track. They kept track of the laps, made cupcakes and keychains to sell, and then they sent the money to the NGO Girls Not Brides.

Most of these events took place on weekends, so the commitment from the kids and the community coming out to support these initiatives planted this seed — the feeling of caring about something beyond themselves, realizing they can do something.

What are the next steps?

They already have the groundwork. The most pressing issue in the community right now is tourism. The Bruce Peninsula National Park has exploded — there’s this struggle right now as to how to balance tourism and protect the natural environment.

We’re still looking at UN Global Goals, but focusing on the sustainable tourism aspect. I really believe we protect what we love. Many of these students will grow up and stay on the Bruce Peninsula and so they’re protecting their natural environment.

I want them to go through the design thinking process, develop action plans, and then present their ideas at a community meeting. We’ll be talking about things like public transit, garbage and recycling, parking and signage. I would really like to come up with a Sustainable Tourism Manifesto, something that the students can create and post somewhere, like on travel brochures. A pledge to protect the environment.