A Virtual Classroom at the Arctic's Edge

by John McLain

One teacher’s passion brings climate change research home to middle school students

Jana Dean ’91 will go to great lengths to teach her middle school students about today’s important issues—even all the way to the Arctic Circle.

Last February, Dean joined a Canadian research team in Churchill, Manitoba to study climate change at the edge of the Arctic. She wrote to her students daily, describing her experiences and answering their questions: “What kinds of tools and machines do you use?” “Are there birds and insects there?” and “If you pee outside, does it freeze before it hits the ground?”

No one could have predicted that Dean would make such an adventure, but no one was surprised either. Dean is predictably unpredictable, with a track record of turning imaginative and unconventional ideas into reality.

Dean is a community builder and idea pollinator among her fellow educators. She writes regularly for Rethinking Schools, a national journal of education. An article on teaching climate change to middle school students led the Earthwatch Institute to recruit her for the arctic research project. She is also the founder of Educators for Social Justice, a group of South Sound teachers that meets monthly to share strategies for teaching about social and environmental issues.

trees and snow and sun

Among her Bush Middle School students in Tumwater, Wash., Dean has a reputation for teaching about real world issues, for expecting them to work hard, and for laughing a lot. They know she cares about them and believes in their abilities. They also know she does things a little differently—like the time she dressed up as a carpenter, replete with tool belt, to explain the finer points of determining square roots.

Her family and friends know she will try just about anything if she thinks it will advance learning for her students. After Dean received a travel grant from the National Geographic Society to fund her Arctic trek, friends chipped in to help her raise the rest of the money she needed.

Clearly, anyone willing to so humiliate herself before a classroom of 13-year-olds wouldn’t be intimidated by rigid scientific protocols and a little ice and snow.

The End of the World

In Dean’s classroom, the atmosphere may be light, but the subjects are often deadly serious. Before she left for the Arctic, she recalls, one of her students asked: “Ms. Dean, do you think the world is going to end?”

“‘No way,’ I answered. ‘I’m a mother, and I wouldn’t bring children into a world I thought would end. And I’m a teacher, and you young people are the future. Why would I spend time with you, the future, if I thought the world was going to end?’”

Although some of its inhabitants might argue otherwise, Churchill is not at the end of the world. But it is at the end of the railroad, nestled on the northeast shore of Hudson Bay just below the Arctic Circle. Dean flew to Winnipeg, then traveled the final 36 hours north by train. In Churchill, she met University of Alberta researcher Peter Kershaw, who studies the impact of climate change on arctic tundra. The implications for global climate change are particularly dramatic in the tundra, which contains as much as 20 percent of the world’s carbon locked in permafrost. If rising temperatures thaw the tundra, the rapid release of carbon and other greenhouse gases could accelerate warming worldwide.

woman wearing cap with ice in hair

“My least favorite thing is planning a half hour in advance to go outside,” says Dean. Bundling up for Arctic temperatures ranging from 14 degrees Fahrenheit down to -40F takes a lot of work. “Once we’re bundled we stay warm as long as we keep moving,” she says.

 She may be new to hands-on climate research, but Dean has been challenging her students to think deeply about global warming for years. “My job as a teacher is not to turn students into activists who want to take action on what I’m interested in,” she says, “but to put them in touch with issues that are important to them in their lives—which of course, I think global warming is, but I want them to come to that out of their own critical thinking.”

Teaching Babes in Truckland

Few people use the term “critical thinking” in the same sentence as “middle school.” Dean is one of those exceptions. She teaches the middle grades by choice and rejects any notion of middle school as a teenage wasteland, a holding pen, or Lord of the Flies with walls. In fact, mere mention of the idea that adolescent development precludes learning is certain to elicit her quick rebuttal.

“I love them,” she said of her students. “They are very young, even though they can look quite old and they seem old. But they have very little experience in the world, and yet they’re fascinated by the world. They’re ready to learn anything about the world that there is to learn, and they’re starting to be able to think about it. And all of that is new to them.”

Dean knows that the topic of climate change might not be an easy one for students or parents. Students at Bush Middle School come mostly from rural or suburban homes. Public transportation is limited for some families and nonexistent for most. Nearly everyone in the community depends on driving to make a living and participate in community, and the farmers among them depend particularly on fuel-thirsty pick ups.

tools for snow and ice

Dean’s snow measuring tool kit. They also used ice corers to measure the density of the snow and instruments called ram penetrometers to measure its hardness.


“It’s normal to be a little fearful when you’re asked to question something that is so much a way of life it’s a part of your identity,” she says. “The fear isn’t even always conscious, but being fearful shuts down critical thinking.” 

Fighting Isolation

Some of the same motivations and impulses that led Dean to found Educators for Social Justice and write for national audiences are at play in her approach with students. She wants to break down the isolation that leads her students, her fellow educators, and herself to lose hope, to feel powerless in the face of seemingly unsolvable problems.

To counter the isolation, Dean takes a page from the Evergreen playbook by creating learning communities. “I learned a lot as a writing tutor for (Evergreen emeritus faculty member and first president) Charlie McCann,” Dean explains. “My approach in the classroom also comes from things I learned not from (former faculty member) Don Finkel himself but from his book (Teaching with Your Mouth Shut)—although that was just a start.”

After Evergreen, Dean’s evolution as a teacher included a master’s degree in Waldorf education from the University of New Hampshire, and teaching assignments at the Olympia Waldorf School, Nova School, and now Bush Middle School. She leads professional development seminars for teachers and offers courses through Evergreen’s Extended Education program. She’s also an accomplished storyteller and a long-standing member of the Olympia Storytelling Guild.

“The question I pose to my students is: What can we do together? Let’s not think about our individual actions regarding global warming, but what collective action can we take? What space do we share where we can make change together?”

Three years ago during a unit on global warming, Dean’s students were inspired to action. At that time, Bush Middle School didn’t recycle paper in its classrooms. The students established a paper recycling system and came up with a way to maintain it. The recycling program still operates, Dean says, even with student and staff turnover.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but a lot of science learning went into identifying that as a significant way we could reduce our contribution of carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere,” she explains. “We learned that our trash gets trucked to eastern Washington but that a lot of the paper recycling does happen locally. And we learned that methane, though much smaller in quantity than carbon dioxide, has ounce for ounce a much greater heat-trapping effect in the atmosphere.”

guy working in the snow

At each site Dean helped dig a pit to measure the depth of the snow, which varies in different locations. The deepest ones are more than 2.5 feet deep and the shallowest, less than an inch. University of Alberta researcher Dr. Peter Kershaw uses the data to figure out yearly precipitation. The same kind of work must go on anywhere that large numbers of people depend on snow melt for their dry season water. In a changing climate, rain and snow fall will shift, making prediction based on past years more and more difficult.

Bloggin' it all Back Home

During her sojourn in the Arctic, Dean worked long days—training with project scientists, taking measurements at the project’s 12 research stations, and entering measurements into databases for analysis. “I took lots of measurements,” she recalls. “Snow depth and temperature, density and crystallization, atmospheric conditions. It was labor intensive, because the work is still very much about understanding what’s happening, which you have to know before you can get to solutions.”

After her research day was done, Dean went to work on her daily blog (www.janadean.blogspot.com), which chronicles everything from camp living conditions, to the details of her work on the project, to the fate of the world’s polar bears.

Dean is still not sure whether she met her own standards as a teacher while participating in Kershaw’s research. “I had higher expectations than I was able to meet going in, because teaching is a face-to-face art. It’s not something you can do online—at least not the way I know how to do it. In doing this I wasn’t so much in the role of teacher in the sense of someone who provides knowledge and space for students to draw their own conclusions. I was more a role model or activist, which has its own merits.”

Indeed. Especially if one student’s letter to Dean represents what’s possible when you invest in the hearts and minds of middle schoolers:

“I hope we, the people of the world that are contributing to global warming, can help stop it, or at least bring it down and lower the carbon dioxide amount. I thought I’d let you know [that] this summer I will be planting trees and flowers. I’m not quite sure if flowers will help, but I’m going to try.”

Olympia native John McLain is Evergreen’s academic grants manager. He’s also worked at the college as a financial aid counselor and institutional research associate. He says he’s not sure why Evergreen hired him back after he servedstate time developing higher education policy, but he’s happy for another chance.