Taking on Tangier Island

Latest update July 21, 2019 Started on May 24, 2019

Educator Explorers, Jennifer Burgin and Becky Schnekser travel to Tangier Island, a major sea level rise indicator location, to study global climate change.

VGA2019CBI #TeachersTakeTangier #EducatorExplorer #ExpeditionSchnekser

May 24, 2019
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In The Field

Today was vastly different from yesterday. We had the privilege to be on a skim boat with representatives and fieldwork specialists from VIMS (Virginia Institute of Marine Science). We visited Cedar Island and had a chance to survey the shells and birdlife there. We also took out a seine net to collect specimen to view back at the shore lab. During our time in the field, we learned about some amazing work being completed at VIMS in surveying bivalves and working to create hybrids to replenish dwindling populations locally. They are diving deep into the genetics of certain species and their ability to survive in environments that are less than ideal. This is a great opportunity for adapting to changing water temperature and chemistry. In the next few days, in fact, they will be spawning clams in their laboratory for outplanting. We learned about Grasses for the Masses, a project where classrooms grow seagrass and then outplant as a restoration project in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Both Jen and I are very excited about this project in particular, we have high hopes of bringing it to our classrooms this coming school year and I am sure that we will connect our classrooms through this project as well!

This idea of hybridding (yes, I made that word up!) bivalves has me thinking a lot about Tangier Island. Could this be a way to help bolster their economy? Could this be one part of a layered approach? Only time will tell, but I think it shows promise.

Being a part of this expedition has opened my eyes to complex ideas, issues, possible solutions, and most importantly, opportunity for localized field work for my students.

Upon returning from our time on the bay, my Geo-Inquiry team worked on our project. We are now in the Create and approaching the Action phase. If you aren’t already familiar with the Geo-Inquiry Process, there are five phases: Ask, Collect, Visualize, Create, and Act. The Ask phase is all about forming and choosing a question to investigate. This is the foundation of the entire process, the question must be actionable, location based, and able to be investigated. In the Collect phase, you are collecting your data, you are diving into your question in an attempt to learn more and be able to create a plan of action. In the Visualize phase, you create a way to display data that is easy to understand. This can be in the form of graphs, tables, info-graphics, charts, etc—whatever makes sense to tell the story of your data and what it is telling you. In the Create phase, you are telling the story of your investigation thus far and plan to take action. This can be in whatever form makes sense for the investigation. Perhaps it is a podcast episode, a slideshow, a cartoon animation, a speech at a schoolboard meeting; the possibilities are endless. The create phase depends on the story that needs to be told and the audience to which it will be delivered, it is really meant to also convince your audience that action is necessary and to outline the action plan. The Action phase is where your plan is carried out. During this process, investigations, plans, and stories will evolve over time and take on many different forms which is all a part of the organic and authentic process; it’s the beauty and the chaos of it all.

Being knee deep in the Geo-Inquiry process was thrilling, exhausting, frustrating, and exciting all at once. We were completing a Geo-Inquiry in three days where you generally need a good chunk of time, so the pressure was definitely on. My team persevered though, and we delegated tasks to come together in the end with our presentation for tomorrow. The good news is that the Action portion of our project was hypothetical, we definitely did not have time to follow it through at this time, but honestly, I might pursue it. Our question was “How has global climate change effected the economy of Tangier Island?”

Our Collect phase reared a complicated story which requires a complicated, multilayered action plan that we found again, exciting, exhausting, and overwhelming. Tomorrow, we present our final project and I can’t wait to share with you, the final results.

After finishing our project, it was time for Jen, myself, and our new friend Tracy to prepare and serve dinner tonight for our expedition team. We played some jams and delegated tasks—Tracy prides himself on being a grillmaster, so naturally, we made him create the salad while we grilled dinner. Just kidding, we let him shine with the grill while we tackled the salad, sides, and fixings for tonight’s feast!

Tomorrow is the end of our expedition physically, but I can imagine this one will follow us for some time…

Until tomorrow!

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Becky here! July 10, 2019, Part 1

Today we took on Tangier Island, literally. We have been looking forward to this day since we learned of our acceptance on this particular expedition.

Tangier Island is a place of beauty, mystery, awe, and incredible history. The shores, walkways, and homes hold so many stories and questions, I could probably spend a week there, solely talking with its citizens.

Tangier Island is off the coast of the Eastern Shore and is a part of the Commonwealth of Virginia, but is geographically closer to mainland Maryland. Since 1850, this island has lost around 67% of its total mass to storms, erosion, and weathering. The citizens of Tangier are proud of their heritage and have deep-rooted connections to the island, many will tell you that they proudly trace their families back to John Smith's time. It's true, John Smith is responsible for initially naming the island and making comprehensive maps of the region during his time in Virginia, although the name Tangier was used later. Fascinating.

Tangier island was used extensively by British troops during the war of 1812, which is most likely why the dialect of the island is thought to have been derived from 17th century English. I definitely had the privilege of speaking to a few new friends with a distinct accent and lexicon that differs from my Virginia Beach-ese.

Historically, citizens of Tangier typically stayed on the island for their entire lives. Men often dropped out of high school to join the ranks of the watermen while the thriving and profitable oyster and crab harvest required many laborers. Over the last 15 years or so, populations of crabs and oysters have taken a great hit in addition to migrating to more southern waters while water quality, chemistry values, salinity, and temperature have been changing. This has meant a swift decline in the seafood-based economy and as a result, citizens fleeing to the mainland of the eastern shore for jobs. Increasingly, citizens who leave, do not return whereas historically, they would, even if it meant splitting time on the mainland and at home on the island. The current principal of the Combined School on the island shared that many of the watermen that would have typically stayed in Tangier to make money are often offered tug boat jobs which are highly paid, especially compared to that of teachers on the island. They used to split their time though, spending a few weeks on a boat, and a few weeks at home. Recently, however, citizens are choosing to leave and not return. This has shown a swift decline in citizens of the island, a decline in the number of children in the school, and an increase in the median age of residents. She even joked that the school, soon, would be able to convert to half school, half retirement or nursing home to accommodate the new normal on the island itself.

The island is facing big changes and it will be interesting to see how they change, adapt, or must abandon their families' legacy on the island. Only time, action or inaction will tell the future of the island.

I enjoyed observing the island, nearly it's entirety while it is only about a mile in length. I was able to visit the island's museum, a few shops, and a wonderful restaurant "Lorraine's" where I enjoyed a tasty crab soup and crabcake sandwich.

Absolutely Delightful.

Here is my personal assessment of Tangier Island. This is based on my observations, inferences, and conclusions drawn on my research and data collection.

Tangier Island is in danger of disappearing due to sea level rise, future storm damage, erosion, and the settling of its rocky foundation as a result of aquifer water depletion. These combined effects are also causing major and sustained flooding on the island itself, rotting and deteriorating buildings, mostly homes, and standing water which are breeding grounds for insects and bugs such as mosquitoes. The economic livelihood of the island can no longer be sustained by seafood--it will need to find a new normal, a new way to thrive.

Citizens of Tangier are proud of their island, their family traditions and history, and ties to one another. I absolutely adore all of it. I hope that those ties can come together to thrive once more so that a story in their history books will be "The Time We Almost Disappeared"

I would love to be a part of that story, the one of triumph and near disaster.

The people of Tangier have been burned, let down, and disappointed with offers of help in the past and I can only imagine their possible hesitation in the future when help is offered or suggestions made. One example is the encouragement for the citizens to begin a recycling program with the support of people from the mainland of the eastern shore. Unfortunately that partnership ran stale when the recycling efforts of citizens of the island remained on the island for months with no help from the mainland. Excuse after excuse.

Then the ants came.

With the build-up of recycling materials not being picked up by their mainland partners, the ants came and in full force. The principal of the Combined School lamented about the ants and this failed partnership from their recent past.

That's a definite burn and trust bridge broken for a while.

I have a lot more on which to reflect and share when I am ready.

Thank you for reading this entry--it's a complicated story here in Tangier Island.

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Jennifer here!

I’m not sure what I expected of Tangier Island. I had watched a video about how climate change is impacting it and how the people love their heritage and community. Still, I was shocked to see how many buildings and boats I saw as we got closer, the pale blue water tower standing above, watching it all.

We arrived around 10AM and the island was closed. Nothing opened until 11 AM. This made it incredibly hard for all of us educators who needed a restroom. I thought of my bustling Arlington, VA and how many places open early and stay open late to accommodate Arlingtonian demands - here, time is on a different cadence.

Once the buildings opened we began to see the residents on their golf carts and gators. We received a warm welcome at the Tangier Island History Museum where I spent some time doing one of my favorite explorer experiences - seeing the gift shop. You can tell a lot about a place by it’s gift shops. I saw handmade jellyfish, lovingly crocheted and detailed. Oyster shells turned into Santa Claus ornaments. One of the women running the front desk bragged on her colleague who handmade the earrings for sale. I selected a small 2”x2” painting made by an artist from Onley, VA on the mainland, inspired by what she sees on the bay. It depicts a scene I saw on the way towards Tangier - the crab pot buoy floating on the surface of the Chesapeake Bay.

When we first arrived we saw two watermen boats pulling in crab pot buoys. One boat held a pair, both clad in waterproof coveralls, hooking the buoys in to a spinning machine that wheeled the rope in and brought the crab pot to them. Not many crabs, some so small they needed to be tossed. Another boat held a solo waterman pulling buoys in manually. He, however, got a biggie. It made me wonder about the profits of being a waterman. And then I heard...

We met the principal of the local school, and incredibly thoughtful professional named Dr. Pruitt. She has three degrees and runs the local school. She is married to a professional waterman, who began working after high school. Both work extremely hard, and her husband earns more. Being a waterman, therefore, must be profitable.

This is why many of the island’s young men forgo graduation or post-high school education to join the ranks on the water. The island’s young women, however, often leave to attend school across the Commonwealth. Some come back, but many young adults are not. All this and the island is also going below sea-level.

The consensus we heard as a group, according to our collective research, is that the island’s population of around 450 believes that Tangier is going under sea-level due to erosion. Climate change isn’t as understood or believed in here, which makes me wonder why a population that may be climate refugees in the future would not recognize signs of climate change in their own backyard.

Today the island is still above sea-level. The staff at Lorraine’s Seafood were warm and crab cakes were out of this world. The watermen are out on their boats, Swain Methodist Church is open to the public, and the 45 school aged children were on summer vacation. Amid the future trauma Tangier could face, day to day life still goes on.

Jennifer here!

The morning began with a moment of gratitude - the 5 hour drive Google Maps told me I would need turned out to be only 3.5! The day only got better from there when I arrived at the Virginia Geographic Alliance Chesapeake Bay Teacher Institute, or #VGA2019CBI for short.

Becky and I are learning alongside 20+ of Virginia’s finest educators who come from diverse fields, backgrounds and school settings. As she mentioned, we are forming teams around the National Geographic Education’s Geo-Inquiry Process, #NatGeoInquiry for short. My team, “Blue Crab Bay-bes,” is curious about seafood and aquaculture practices of Tangier Island. Cheryl, Victoria and I will collect data tomorrow on Tangier Island and determine if these practices for acquiring seafood are traditional or modern methods and how sustainable they are. We’re excited to learn from a place with a rich waterman tradition that has both benefitted from the ocean’s bounty or suffered from it’s depletion.

On way drive down I was listening to Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a book highly recommended by my #EducatorExplorer sister Anne Lewis as part of our #GTFfurther expedition to the Badlands this summer. In an early chapter, Kimmerer (a poet, ecologist, and Potawatomi tribe member) describes how English and Potawatomi languages respond very differently to nature. While English often uses nouns, the pronoun “it” and ownership descriptions towards nature, the Potawatomi people use mostly verbs, the pronouns reserved for personhood, and relational descriptions towards nature. It makes me wonder how the people of Tangier will view the ocean and aquaculture wildlife. Will they lean towards ownership, relationship, or a blended mix?

Today as a stellar day - sharing about our Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship experiences with Becky, making new friends, practicing field water coloring, collecting latitude/longitude data for a photo embedded map, taking 360 images and walking along the marsh...I can’t wait to see what treasures and reflections tomorrow holds!

Want to catch the action? View my tweet thread here: https://twitter.com/mrsjburgin/status/1148656238743511040?s=21

Hey there, Becky here!

Day 1 of the Chesapeake Bay Institute is in the books. Follow the journey via twitter with the hashtag #VGA2019CBI

Today was all about getting to know all of our fellow educators on expedition with us here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. We are staying in Wachapreague at the VIMS (Virginia Institute of Marine Science) research facility. It is beautifully situated on the water overlooking a vast expanse of marsh. The shoreline on the dockside (where we are staying) is covered in oyster shells which sparked Jen's curiosity earlier this afternoon as we explored during a few minutes of free time just before dinner.

We spent most of the day getting the lay of the land, and introduction to our projects while on expedition, getting a primer of Chesapeake Bay Geography, and hosting a Q+A session about the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship.

I especially enjoyed forming my project team for the week. We will be using the National Geographic Geo-Inquiry Process to address a question we have about our expedition location here on the Eastern Shore. My team has crafted the following question about which to gather data tomorrow: How has the economy of the Eastern Shore from Wachapreage to Tangier Island been affected by global climate change?

I have already learned so much about the expedition team and cannot wait to learn more tomorrow.

We leave early tomorrow morning for Tangier Island which can only be reached via ferry. This post is short, for which I hope you will forgive me, I believe jetlag from my previous expedition to Belize (which ended 24 hours ago) is now catching up to me.

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Jennifer here!

According to Executive Director of the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute, Professor Will Steffen, each epoch is defined not only by geological changes, but massive changes in bio-diversity, loss in life (dinosaurs, ancient mammals, etc). Today, our epoch has been known as the stable and pleasant Holocene. However, have we slipped into a new epoch, one less stable and welcoming, called the Antropocene, the anthro referring to humans' impact on the Earth?

This required viewing for the teacher institute Becky and I will begin in two days is mind-boggling. I appreciated Professor Steffen's closing remarks on boundaries, which as an educator of Kindergarteners I understand very well! My Littles come to me with different levels of boundaries; some attended formal schooling for PreK, while others explored at home or with an in-home care-giver. For some Littles it is their first time in a public school building; others have watched bigger sisters and brothers go before them. One of my biggest jobs in the first quarter of Kindergarten is to unify my learners as a community with mutually respectful boundaries so we can thrive the rest of the year.

Can Earth's communities unify as Earthlings, choosing to elect boundaries that will take us away from the Anthropocene's biodiversity harming predictions and to remain in the Holocene, one that could sustain biodiversity for a long time?

Thanks for sharing this video. What struck me most was the statement about the risks of staying in the Anthropocene. Lately, I wonder if humans could even adapt to the long term effects of an Anthropocene era to avoid being part of a "bio-extinction".
Great point, Kerri. I was thinking the same as I viewed this. Definitely, something to think about, reflect, and hopefully find various solutions for...

Jennifer here!

As Becky, future educator friends, and I prepare to visit Tangier Island, the Virginia Geographic Alliance asked us to do some required reading/viewing. Among them was this video from The Atlantic.

Did you know that the people of Tangier Island may have to abandon their homes due to the sea-levels rising, becoming some of the first U.S. Climate Refugees?

This video is thought provoking - I hope you'll check it out.

Jennifer here!

While Becky is deep into field work in Belize, I'm digesting a recent field education experience I had at Badlands National Park with other Grosvenor Teacher Fellows. It was my first big camping experience, another step into my new identity: #EducatorExplorer.

Becky is a field work role model for me! She's bravely going to places I've explored cognitively, but not in reality. After my 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship with National Geographic Education and Lindblad Expeditions to the Galápagos, something in my heart shifted. Before I had identified as an indoor cat - someone who reads, views, and comments. Now, I am unleashed! Let the kitty go outdoors! I'm exploring, traveling, taking notes, and learning field skills left and right! I'm catching toads, getting outdoors, observing slowly and critically...I'm going deeper and deeper into owning #EducatorExplorer.

The time I spent with the #Badlands2019 crew taught me several new skills I'm working on - astrophotography, 360 photo/video taking, watercolor field notes, data collection and using longitude/latitude lines to mark where I've been in my field notes.

This past year with Arlington Public Schools I completed the Local Portfolio Career Advancement Program - a fancy title to say that I wrote and documented a ton of my work in the past 5 years in order to prove distinction as an educator. Part of my work involved a reflection on what I need to grow as an educator of Littles, and I chose to deepen my work in Citizen Science. This is why I went to the Badlands and why I applied for the Virginia Geographic Alliance's 2019 Chesapeake Bay Institute at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science research station at Tangier Island. https://www.vims.edu/esl/

My Kindergarten learners in Arlington, VA are so close to the Atlantic Ocean, but I don't hear from them how they are connected to it. How can I make the ocean and its daily part in our lives real and meaningful to them? How can I do this in a way that is understandable for Kindergarteners without watering it down? Instead, how can I distill the essence of working with VIMS at Tangier Island and bring it back to my classroom, colleagues and community?

This is why I'm going! Becky and I are excited to share our journey of the #TangierTeacherTakeover with you here on Open Explorer and on Twitter! Give us a follow!

@MrsJBurgin, #EducatorExplorer @schnekser, #ExpeditionSchnekser

See you on the shore! JBu ;)

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YES! So excited for this expedition!

Hello Everyone! Becky here!

I am a PreK-grade 5 Science teacher in Virginia Beach, VA and I am incredibly excited to head to Tangier Island to study sea level rise and global climate change. As part of my preparation for this expedition, we have been tasked with researching topics related to the Chesapeake Bay and Tangier Island which has been fascinating to say the least. I have attached the video of a Ted Talk that I found particularly interesting, feel free to check it out!

As a science educator dedicated to field and expedition science experiences for and with students, I am incredibly excited to visit Tangier Island and study it in person. On our first day on location, Jen and I will be speaking about our experience as Grosvenor Teacher Fellows with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic which I am incredibly excited about as well. Basically, this expedition is one that I can't wait to begin. Actually, I am currently in Belize on expedition, you can read about that here: https://openexplorer.nationalgeographic.com/expedition/beckyinbelize

This expedition to Tangier Island is literally 8 hours after I return from Belize. Although it might be hectic, exhausting even--I can't wait! Global Climate Change is real, it's happening here and now, and I look forward to getting a first-hand look at indicators on location!

Expedition Background

Jennifer and Becky will travel to Tangier Island to study sea level rise and global climate change with Virginia Geographic Alliance and Virginia Institute for Marine Science. They will take their location study and scale for classrooms worldwide.

photo credit: Hinke-Sacilotto


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