Innovation on Earth

Global Citizenship Resources for Innovation Academy and Beyond

The Living Desert, by the Sea

The Namib Desert runs along the coast of Namibia, and it’s pretty incredible to see the ocean on one side of the road and sand dunes on the other. I couldn’t get them both in one photo, so here are two photographs side by side, and you’ll have to imagine 🙂Ocean Desert.pngActually, I attempted to film it out the window of the truck, as we drove, and you can sort of experience what it was like:

One minute, you’re looking at flamingos in the ocean, and the next, you’re sweating buckets in the desert.  Ok, first, you probably want to see the flamingo photos! See if you can spot the pelican in there too. flamingos 2

I am really interested in animals, so I went on TWO different desert walks to check out what lives in the desert. We took jeeps out into the desert and tried to find tracks to point us to living creatures. Jeeps in DesertWhile the guide was telling us about the desert, trackers were out looking for creatures, by identifying tracks in the sand. Trackers

The sand itself is interesting to learn about, because there are so many different minerals which make it appear with all sorts of colors.Colors.pngThe black part is actually iron, which is magnetic. Check out what happens when the you put a magnet up against the sand!Iron in hand

Beetle.pngThe Namib Sand Sea is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it’s the only desert in the world able to sustain life through fog. The fog brings in little pieces of detritus from plants, which bugs eat, as well as drink up the water in the fog. Then, other bigger animals, like geckos, can eat a beetle and it’s like a drinking a whole water bottle! They get their water from eating insects.

We were lucky to see lots of animals in our hunt, beginning with a male Namaqua Chameleon, who did not seem at all fazed to have a giant group of humans surround it. Maybe he had seen these guides before, who came bearing worms.


The chameleon was pretty pleased to get fed worms. Their tongues are incredible, and I’m not sure this video captures how cool it is to watch them eat:

Want to see that in slow mo?

Chameleon Feast.JPG

Next up, the trackers spotted a Namib day gecko, which got scared and dropped his tail when the guide picked him up. The tail kept moving after it was detached! That’s a way of distracting predators so that the gecko can escape. Whoa.

Here’s a shot of the little guy, unfortunately, without his tail:Day Gecko

We also got to see a Shovel-Snouted Lizard, who was a real cutie:Shovel Snouted Lizard

On the less friendly side, we saw the most neon yellow scorpion I’ve ever seen. Ok, I’ve never seen a yellow scorpion, but apparently the Namaqua thicktailed scorpion is not so uncommon here. I’d rather not get in the way of one of these.Scorpion.png

Scorpions are closely related to spiders, which can be a little creepy as well. This one is really interesting though, because it makes a trapdoor in the sand.  Trapdoor Spider.pngThe guide found it by digging underneath the trapdoor, which I believe I stepped on, but he still spotted it. Unsuspecting bugs step on the trapdoor and then the spider gets them! Totally incredible.

Sideways Movement.pngBut onto an even more frightening animal! I don’t think of myself as a snake person, and especially not when they’re venomous, but it was pretty exciting when the guides spotted a Peringuey’s Adder, or Sidewinder Snake. The guide said that if you get bitten, you won’t die, but “you might wish you had.” Their venom attacks in two ways, with a neurotoxin and a cytotoxin, so you could end up having to get a limb amputated. There’s no counter-venom, so you can only treat the symptoms. Awesome. Our guide seemed surprisingly calm, considering he was barefoot. Mostly the people in the group just seemed excited to see the way this snake moves sideways. Which is pretty cool, but I tried to keep my distance.

Actually, the snake definitely seemed way more afraid of us, than we were of it. When first picked up from a bush and dropped onto the sand, he buried himself into the sand to hide. Hidden Snake.pngIt’s amazing to me how all of these animals have ways of hiding — the spider under his trapdoor, the gecko who drops his tail, and the camouflage of the chameleon. Even the scorpion wanted to hide! Below is a different chameleon, by the way, but the same species as the other one, who was so much paler! He’s camouflaging with the bush.Hiding Animalds.jpgOne animal that wasn’t shy was the tractrac chat bird, who came right over when we stopped for snacks. The birdies apparently know that the guides carry worms to feed to the lizards, and sometimes the guides will share with the birds too. Some great photographs were acquired as a result.

Before this trip, when I imagined the desert, I had no idea how many creatures could live in the sand! My eyes are opened!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Journey Through the Namib Desert

I’m just back from almost a month of traveling, and I have so much to share! The deserts of Namibia were so different from other places I have traveled, and I wanted to start by sharing about one of my favorite days on the trip.Tofu San Dune 45The Namib-Naukluft Desert is considered the world’s oldest desert, and it’s huge — about the size of Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined. It runs up the coast of Namibia.Namibia Map.png

In the morning, our truck arrived for our first hike — up Dune 45. Truck and Dune.png

The climb was exhausting, but amazing. Dune 45 Pano.pngThere was so much so see, from the little beetles scurrying across the sand, to the expansive views across the desert.

Here’s a little video that captures some of the feeling– sorry it’s hard to hear because of the wind!

After a morning hike, our shoes full of red sand, we headed to another part of the Sossusvlei area — here, we saw evidence of the salt and clay pans that are so common in this area. Salt areaCracked EarthTexturesWe took a jeep to get closer to the main area we were going to visit, but then had to walk a ways to get there.

Finally, we arrived at Deadvlei, a dried up marsh where there are trees that are about 2,000 years old. They’ve been dead for about 600-700 years, but they don’t decompose because it’s too dry. It was quite an amazing landscape. Me at Deadvlei

By the time we got back from here, it was close to 2 pm and we hadn’t eaten lunch yet! My group pulled up chairs around our truck, and tried to find corners of shade to rest. Lunch.pngWe still had one more hike to get in this afternoon, to the small Sesriem Canyon.

And then stop for apple pie!Apple pie

We camped that night at a beautiful spot in the desert, arriving just in time to set up tents before the sun went down.

We were traveling in a large group, so the process of setting up tents and getting ready for dinner was quite a process, but we got it down to a science. Our group came from all over the world — South Korea, Kenya, Germany, Israel, Austria, the Netherlands, and guides from Zimbabwe. We were truly an international bunch!

Camping.pngIt was a particularly great shower that night, and a delicious dinner (sausage, garlic bread, cheesy squash, corn on the cob, and champagne). Then we hung out around the campfire and chatted.

After dinner, we walked over to the campground’s watering hole, where we watched zebras drinking, as well as a one-horned oryx who pushed all the zebras aside when he wanted a taste. Zebras at Watering HoleOryx at Watering HoleAs you can imagine, we were ready for some sleep after this sunny, busy day. Being south of the Equator, it was winter in Namibia, so days were short and we packed a lot in.  It was hot during the day, but got quite cold at night. So we curled up in our sleeping bags and went to sleep.

Not every day was quite this exciting, as some days we spent many hours driving on bumpy roads! But check back soon, as I have lots more to share, and the next post will include more animals.

New Mexico: Our Nation’s Heritage

Plate.pngI hope all of my American friends had a relaxing and fun Fourth of July yesterday! I thought this would be a good opportunity to remind everyone about our country’s history, which did not begin with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. We hear a lot about the British empire, but many other groups of people helped shape the country we live in today.

Petroglyph5See these drawings from Petroglyph National Monument? They were carved into the rocks 400-700 years ago by Native Americans and Spanish settlers — that means that even the most recent ones were created before the Mayflower landed at Plimoth in 1620.  Last February I visited New Mexico, where more than 10% of the state’s population is Native American (Tofu-San’s mini friend came along for the trip).

There are now 23 tribes in New Mexico, and each is considered an independent “sovereign nation” with its own government and way of life.

Today, Native American culture is woven into New Mexican life for all residents, but it was a very different place before the arrival of Europeans. I visited Puye Cliffs and Bandelier National Monument to see the archeological remains of the cliffs where people used to live.


The rows of holes you see are from support beams that used to hold up a roof or floor, so this area would have been a multi-leveled home. We were able to walk around on the cliffs and see reconstructions of homes, to get a sense of how they used to live.

The Spanish arrived in New Mexico as early as the 1540s, and pretty quickly, the Native Americans were forced to change their lifestyle. Taos Pueblo is a Native American village that has been continually inhabited by the Taos people for over 1,000 years, and tourists can visit today to see what life is like. While there’s a large community of people who still work there and are involved with the Pueblo, about 10 families still actually live there, and follow the traditional lifestyle without running water and electricity. It’s a beautiful place, quite cold when we visited so there weren’t a lot of other visitors.

Taos Pueblo.png

The building you see above is kind of like an apartment building for Native Americans, though traditionally there weren’t doors. People entered from the roofs, with ladders. With a guide, we were able to walk around the village, go into shops, and explore.

As you can see above, Christianity is common in this Pueblo, but that wasn’t the original religion of the Native Americans. Today people still practice traditional Native American spirituality, as well as Catholicism brought by the Spanish. In fact, I was surprised to see the remains of this church built by the Spanish around the same time that British colonists were beginning to arrive on America’s East Coast.

Old ChurchThis church represents the fortitude of the Taos Native Americans, who fought hard to maintain their lifestyle despite advances of the Spanish. It was destroyed twice, in 1640, and rebuilt only to be ruined again two hundred years later, in 1846. Both times the people of the pueblo fought hard to save their home. New Mexico is full of stunning places — I can imagine how heartbreaking it would be to live here and then have people invade

Kasha Kitiwe Tent Rocks

Many Americans, especially those who live on the East Coast, focus on the British when they are thinking about our country’s history. While it’s true that the British did a lot to  shape our nation, so many other people made our nation what it is today. New Mexico is a good reminder that Native American culture is key to the history of this land, as is Spanish culture.

There are indeed dark parts of our country’s history. I hope you are able to take some time this week to celebrate all the different groups of people who make America beautiful.

South to Cape Town, and then North!

It’s officially summer vacation, and so it’s time to announce the next big adventure. In a few weeks I’ll be headed back to one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited: Cape Town, South Africa.  Then I’ll be going on an overland trip north, mostly through Namibia!

Cape Town.png

Cape Town, with the beautiful Table Mountain just behind

I took the photos in this post back in 2001. It was my first trip to the African continent, and I was working as a private tutor for an American family who was traveling around the world. As part of that adventure, we stayed in Cape Town for 6 weeks, and I marveled at this city where pretty much anywhere you stand, you can see stunning mountains, gorgeous ocean views, or both. These first few photos were taken from a boat, looking back at the mainland.

Lions Head.png

This mountain in Cape Town is called Lion’s Head

When I travel, I mostly try to go to new places I’ve never been, but I’m excited to see this city again after being away for many years. The beauty of the Southwestern most corner of Africa is truly spectacular. Here are a few pictures of my visit to Cape Point many years ago:

It might not be obvious from looking at these photos, but the beaches here are covered with baboons, who can be quite nasty if they want your food.

We also saw some other wildlife on the way out to Cape Point, including a stop at Boulders Beach, famous for their African penguins.

Cape Town is also really fascinating politically. It is one of the places where Nelson Mandela fought to end Apartheid, the legalized system of racism that reigned in South Africa for more than 40 years. Here are some photos I took on Robben Island, where Mandela was kept in prison for 27 years (that’s his actual jell cell):

Mandela got out of prison and ultimately went on to become the president of South Africa. He helped end Apartheid, led global efforts for peace and reconciliation, and won many honors before his death, including the Nobel Peace Prize.

View from Table MountainCape Town is a model for how to fight for systemic change on many levels. The city made headlines this year because the government announced “Day Zero” for April 12, 2018 — the day when the city would run out of water and taps would run dry. Cape Town’s citizens took action, and made huge reductions in their water use. While the water crisis there is still serious, the city has moved the date of “day zero” out to 2020.

I can’t wait to stand on top of Table Mountain again. Whether the weather is cloudy (like the day I photographed Lion’s Head from up top) or clear, with views of the city, it’s an inspiring place to be.

Dassie at Table Mountain

I went up twice during my first visit to Cape Town (via cable car, although it is possible to hike). There are even little friendly critters, called dassies (officially the rock hyrax), which look like little rodents but are actually most closely related to elephants.

Most of this upcoming trip will actually be in Namibia, though we begin and end in Cape Town. I’ve never been to Namibia, but I hear great things. South Africa Namibia Map.pngThere are watering holes to check out wildlife on safari, vast expanses of desert, and the biggest canyon in the African continent. Do yourself a favor and do a GoogleImage search for Namibia. Or just check back in a few weeks to see my photos. Apparently Prince Harry and Meghan Markle took their honeymoon in Namibia. I’m not sure if me and the royal family have the same standards for camping, but I’m guessing not so much.

Summer is already in gear, and the African adventure isn’t my only learning experience planned for this vacation. I’ve already done some volunteer work supporting immigrants who are fighting against deportation, which has been heart wrenching and fascinating. After the visit to Southern Africa, I’ll also visit San Francisco to see friends for a week. And… I had some adventures during the winter and spring that haven’t been posted to this blog yet, so check back soon.

Which parts of this beautiful planet will you be exploring this summer? How will you be making new friends across differences in race, culture, or any other identity? As always, I welcome guest posts from members of the IACS community, and I love to hear from any readers, near or far.

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” 
― Wade Davis


Valentines Around the World

Today, my students offered to help me teach you a bit about how Valentine’s Day is celebrated in different countries around the world.Love is Friendship

1. Denmark

If you’re a woman in Denmark, today you might get a pressed white flowers called snowdrops, or a gaekkebrev, or “joking letter” with a funny poem or rhyme, signed only with anonymous dots.

2. France

Would you want to participate in a loterie d’amour, or “drawing for love?” It’s outlawed now, but unmatched women used to have a big bonfire and burn pictures of men who wronged them. VDay France

 3. South Korea

February 14 in South Korea is similar to our Valentine’s day, but March 14th is White Day, when men give their ladies gifts that go beyond chocolate or flowers. Then April 14th is Black Day, when singles mark the day of being solo by eating black bean-paste noodles. VDay South Korea

4. Wales

People in Wales celebrate Saint Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers, on January 25th, when it’s traditional to give a lucky wooden spoon to the one you love. VDay Wales

5. China

In China, Qixi, or the Seventh Night Festival, falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month each year. Young women prepare offerings of melon and other fruits in hopes of finding a good husband. Couples also head to temples to pray for happiness and prosperity. VDay China

6. England

In the United States, we have the Easter Bunny on Easter, but in Norfolk, they have Jack Valentine! He knocks on children’s doors, and when they open it, they find candy and small gifts on their porches. 

VDay Engalnd

7. Philippines

This is the day to get married in the Philippines! Head to a mall or another public location, and you’ll probably see hundreds of couples getting married or renewing their vows.

VDay Philippines

8. Italy

There are may traditions in Italy’s Spring Festival, including giving yummy Baci chocolates and going for romantic dinners. A weird tradition was for young single girls to wake up before dawn — the first man she spotted was thought to be the one she’d marry, or at least someone like him!VDay Italy

9. Brazil

Brazilians have Lovers Day on June 12th, but gifts can be exchanged between anyone you love, whether your family member, friend, or partner. VDay Brazil

10. South Africa

Would you be embarrassed to pin the name of your love interest on your sleeve? That’s what women in South Africa do, and sometimes, this is how men learn who likes them.VDay South Africa

So there you have it! If you want to be a good global citizen, keep learning about other countries, and someday, consider visiting yourself.

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Want to learn more? Read more about these traditions in the article below. Credit:

Sure, it’s cold, but who else is excited to go back?!

Last week, we missed 3 days of school because of excessive cold and snow. Snow shadows

We’re literally covered and freezing. Cold I ventured into Downtown Boston on Friday, and the city is still beautiful as ever.

Customs Tower

But the first week of 2018 has been mostly spent inside, huddled for warmth.Hiding

I have to admit, I’m excited to go back to school! Sure, it’s nice to spend the day in pajamas, but I love what I do. Before winter vacation, it was beautiful to watch my students learning about other cultures by visiting houses of worship.

Check out this experience, when a student asked the Imam at the mosque if they could hear the Muslim call to prayer. The students were silent as they listened:

I get to spend my days with a bunch of thoughtful, creative, generous young people. Gift Exchange.pngBefore break, my advisory participated in a Yankee Swap of homemade items, and it was so great to see what everyone came up with! These are just a few of the gifts that the kids made:Homemade Gifts.png

So, yeah, snow days are exciting, who else is excited to go back to school tomorrow?


Peace is the key

Crane.pngLast week, I asked my advisory if they wanted to participate in a global project — a school in Japan is trying to get students in every country around the world to make paper cranes. Tomorrow, photos of students and their cranes will be presented at a big celebration to recognize ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) for winning the Nobel Peace Price. The project aims to “express our sympathy for victims of nuclear weapons and to consider peace while folding the paper cranes with a prayer for world peace.” While the celebration is happening this week, schools are invited to participate in the project beyond this single event, and photos will be posted on the Paper Crane Project webpage. When you look at this site, the list of countries represented is growing every day! My students eagerly signed on, but then discovered that this origami challenge wasn’t so easy. After a bunch of practice, we did it, and here’s our contribution:


The students in my advisory came up with this slogan, “Peace is the key” on their own, and I love it. In a lot of ways, it’s been a real theme of this year, even though I didn’t know it. In Social Studies, students have had lots of opportunities to bridge differences and get to know other cultures, and I certainly believe that this is a key to peace.

This fall, IACS students got to talk to Native Americans living in Massachusetts on our field trip to Plimoth Plantation:

They have also chatted with students in Morocco, over video chat:

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And most recently, each 6th grader conducted a one-on-one interview of someone in their community, learning about a culture that wasn’t their own. Students were creative about finding a “cultural connection” — from their barber or a local restaurant owner to a neighbor or relative living abroad. Listening to students share about their interviews, it was clear that the conversations were meaningful.

These moments are powerful — an act of folding paper done by young people thousands of miles away from each other, an internet that allows people on opposite sides of the world to chat, or even a simple conversation between two human beings who live in the same city. I don’t know if these acts will be enough to abolish nuclear weapons, but if there’s any road to peace, it starts with getting to know people who aren’t like us. And that’s the work ahead of us. Teamwork Float

Up next week? We begin our visits to 5 houses of worship, all within a 15 minute drive from our school. Over the past 15 years, I’ve taken hundreds of students on this field trip, and still, I can’t wait.

Summer 2017 Top 6 Experiences

Summer is coming to a close, and it’s been a great one. I wanted to share my top 6 favorite experiences, in no particular order. On top of Mount Shilthorn.png

1. Wandering into a swarm of butterflies on a hiking trail in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Ok, the trail was called the Path of a Thousand Flowers, so maybe the butterflies shouldn’t have been such a surprise.





2. Volunteering in Boston with MIRA, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. We waited outside of new citizenship ceremonies, and as new Americans came out of the doors, we offered to register them to vote.





3. Renting a camper van in Iceland, and driving around exploring the landscape. Because there are so many volcanoes in the area, there’s a ton of geothermal energy in the ground. That means there are craters, bubbling mud pits, hot springs, and geysers.





4. Seeing glaciers on mountains! I took ski chair lifts up Hohfluh at 7,300 feet to see the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland, and also did some hiking at Mount Rainier National Park, getting up to 6,336 feet (via car and foot). Glaciers are beautiful, especially under the summer sun.





5. Chilling out on an island in Lake Maggiore, Italy — eating yummy food, watching weird birds, and reading a good book.





Ever seen a white peacock? Running in circles? Me neither. Until this summer.

6. Seeing beautiful trees in Washington State — there’s rainforest, record setting heights, and roots that grow in bizarre places. Not your typical evergreens here.





And now I’m ready to go back to school! I’m looking forward to hearing about all the interesting experiences my students had over the summer.

A Challenge to Teachers: #NoHateClassroom

I am proud to be an American, but embarrassed and scared by recent acts of hate in our country. When our leaders don’t condemn hate groups like those at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, it is up to us to do so.

Somerville Vigil

Somerville Vigil in Solidarity with Charlottesville

As a teacher, I commit to post a statement in my classroom so that students see it when they arrive on the first day of school. Here’s what I’ve got so far (feedback welcome):

You are entering a space where hate will not be tolerated. You will be treated with respect here. It doesn’t matter what race, ethnicity , or religion you claim, or what languages you speak at home. It doesn’t matter what your gender or sexual orientation is. It doesn’t matter whether you have disabilities, or struggles with money, or any other challenges. Here, we will fight for all people to be safe, appreciated, and treated with kindness. You are welcome here. 

I challenge other teachers to write their own statements, or use this one, and post it in your classroom. I challenge administrators to send a statement like this to the school community. If you feel comfortable, share your statement in the comments of this blog entry, and share this challenge with other educators using the hashtag #NoHateClassroom. When I post mine on my classroom door, I’ll share a photo too.

Let’s start this school year out right.Empty Classroom

“We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.” ~Grace Lee Boggs

N.B. If you came to this blog to learn more about global education and our amazing planet, you’re in the right place! Stay tuned for more on Tofu-San’s summer adventures, coming soon.

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Five Senses in the Alps

Since you aren’t up in the Alps Mountains with me, I thought I’d share a bit about each of the five senses so you can get a feel for what it’s like here.

SOUNDS ~ While hiking in the mountains here, we hear these cow bells all over across the hills. Someone told us that cow bells are a status symbol for farmers here, and sometimes cost $2,000 a piece — but owning cows is very difficult to actually turn into profit.

Cows.pngSIGHTS ~ There are so many beautiful sights. Photos don’t do these mountains justice, but here are a few that might give you a taste. Pano from Murren.pngCows and ViewAnother ViewMe and Amazing MountainsDon’t let these photos fool you — the weather hasn’t been perfect this whole time. We tried to go up to the top of a mountain to see the view, and ended up in a cloud. We’ll try again tomorrow, but here’s what we saw at the top so far:White.pngIt’s a cloud. Eventually, we got some nice views from the Cable Car, once we got out of the cloud:

Coming down.png

SMELLS ~ Ah, the flowers! I have really enjoyed stopping to smell the wildflowers in the mountains. So many colors and varieties!

The village of Allmendhubel is famous for its flowers, and they even have a flower playground and flower walk, where you can learn about all the types of flowers you’ll see while hiking. This little garden had an exhibit with a wooden platform to lie on, inviting visitors to lay down to smell the flowers. Who am I to refuse?!

And then I tried out the playground too… it was an extra good one.

TASTE ~ We’ve been eating lots of cheese, served every day with bread at breakfast. We also had fondue the other night (the dipping bread into melted cheese kind), along with the traditional bratworst sausage and rösti, a kind of potato fritter. Mmmmm…

Fondue, Rosti, and Brotworst.png

FEEL ~ We visited a waterfall that was inside of a mountain! It felt very… wet! Here’s the evidence:

Tofu San at Trummelbach Falls.pngThis was a neat experience, but as you can see, it was pretty touristy. Even better was the next day, when we were hiking and came upon a sign we didn’t understand. Sprutz sign.pngWe used Google Translate, and saw the word “caution” but decided to proceed down the trail very slowly anyway. It was very steep, and in the woods.Me and trail.png Eventually we were rewarded with a beautiful waterfall. Sprutz from far away.pngI was very careful, but we figured out that it was safe to walk underneath and through to the other side, which was pretty amazing!Sprutz from the topSprutz People under

Can you see me on the other side after I made it through?Me and Waterfall.png

So, there’s a little taste of the Alps (and sounds, sights, smell, and feel)! I hope you got a little bit of a sense of what it’s like here.

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