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Monticello teacher earns fellowship to the British Isles
deb freitag
Monticello teacher Deb Freitag is one of 35 educators from across the United States and Canada to earn the coveted Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship. She plans to board the “National Geographic Explorer” on June 9 in Edinburg and sail for 12 days.

MONTICELLO — After school gets out each summer, Deb Freitag loves to travel. A middle-school social studies teacher whose favorite subject is geography, Freitag uses her summer trips to explore the world and meet amazing people from various countries, cultures, and backgrounds. Fortunately for Freitag, this summer National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions will be picking up the tab.

Freitag is one of 35 educators from across the United States and Canada to earn the coveted Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship, which aims to enhance teachers’ geographic knowledge through personal experiences in unique and remote locations, followed by bringing new ideas and curriculum back to their classrooms.

Most fellows opt for the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, Patagonia, Alaska or the Arctic. However, Freitag chose to circumnavigate the British Isles. She plans to board the “National Geographic Explorer” on June 9 in Edinburg and sail for 12 days, visiting coastal sites around Scotland, Ireland and England before disembarking in Portsmouth.

Along with her shipmate and Grosvenor fellow, Nathalie Roy, a middle school classics teacher versed in Latin and Greek from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Freitag plans to arrive a few days early to explore the interior of Scotland — and stay a couple additional days in London after their official expedition ends to visit some of the Royal City’s unique points of interest. Then Roy will fly back to Louisiana and Freitag will venture off on her own to experience Bruges and Brussels in neighboring Belgium before heading home.

“I love Green County,” Freitag said. “My entire childhood and career have been spent here — teaching in Monroe, New Glarus, and now my hometown of Monticello. Ironically, I live 11 houses down (on) the same street I grew up on. I even get the opportunity to teach in the classroom where I had middle-school math, which is cool and meaningful. But during my summers, I try to explore as far and wide as possible. For me, being able to travel around this amazing planet is one of life’s greatest joys. Then I get to bring these experiences — including pictures, stories, and artifacts I collect along the way — back to my classroom and share it with others, hopefully broadening their horizons and enriching their perspectives as well.”

This is not the first time Freitag has received professional and public recognition. In 2019, she was selected by Qatar Foundation International to take part in a Middle Eastern Leadership & Fellowship program, involving fully-funded workshops in Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans, Austin, Texas and Dearborn, Michigan — all involving strong connections for better understanding the Arab world and life in the Middle East. After traveling to Qatar for a week in 2023, that fellowship concluded by her presenting at the National Council for Geographic Education in South Carolina last fall. Freitag was also chosen by Channel 3000 as a “Topnotch Teacher,” an honor that this year’s graduating seniors in Monticello nominated her to receive when they were in eighth grade.

Freitag is grateful to have grown up in a family that valued traveling — albeit on a tight budget. They drove everywhere: From Colorado to Florida, and camped in a tent on multiple occasions during these trips. She didn’t board a plane until college, and didn’t get her first passport until 2010. But it was a geography professor at Augustana College, Dr. Norm Moline, that changed everything.

“He helped me see the world differently. He was the kind of teacher that instructed with such enthusiasm — and from so many personal experiences — that I wanted to be like him,” Freitag said. “He inspired me to minor in Geography and want to teach others about the world. I finally realized it wasn’t about memorizing countries and capitals; it’s about understanding how our planet and its people interact, and how much we all stand to learn from each other.”

In 2014, Freitag bumped into her former professor on a road trip with her children and best friend — another local educator, Heather Cassidy — at a roadside motel in the Badlands. Over breakfast the next morning, Freitag told Dr. Moline how her biggest regret in college was not studying abroad with him in China when she had the chance, some 15 years earlier. At that moment, Norm became determined to organize an Augustana Alumni trip to China, and Freitag was the first to jump on board. It would take two more years of organizing logistics and garnering travelers, but in May of 2016, Freitag boarded a 777 bound for China with Dr. Moline and 31 others, including another friendly face from the area, Nadine (Whiteman) Patchin, who had just retired from Monroe Middle School the previous year.

Freitag described the unique opportunity as a chance to visit remote places in the British Isles that she would likely not see otherwise. 

“We will get to land on small beaches and enter coastal villages by smaller, inflatable Zodiac boats that don’t require a port. We’ll see Stone Age megaliths and early human settlements, navigate near sea caves and along rugged cliffs, and observe colonies of migratory birds, like the puffin and gannet,” Freitag said. 

She described becoming a bird enthusiast over the past few years, so that aspect of the trip — which would have held little interest 5-10 years ago — is now a highlight she is anxiously awaiting. She joked that for Mother’s Day when her husband asked her what she’d like to do, she replied, “Go birding and kayaking at the Horicon Marsh,” so that’s exactly what they did. 

Freitag admits that she has never taken a cruise before, other than the car ferry across Lake Michigan, or ridden in a Zodiac boat, so getting seasick is a small worry in the back of her mind. During a five-day training session held at the National Geographic Headquarters last month in Washington, DC, not only did all of the cabin-mates for the expeditions meet and get to know each other, but they were able to pose questions to a naturalist who will join them on their journey. She explained that other than a little apprehension yet over getting motion-sickness, all other questions and concerns were thoroughly discussed.

The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a two-year commitment for Freitag, and her work will resume when the new school year starts. As she has with past journeys — to places like China, Qatar, Iceland, Switzerland, Croatia, and living with her family for a summer in Ecuador — she plans to share pictures and stories from her travels. Then, for National Geographic, she must reduce her trip into a five-photograph story, which will be challenging for someone like her who loves to take thousands of photos.

National Geographic also models developing an “Explorer Mindset” with students, which lists three key characteristics: curiosity, empathy and empowerment. To cultivate such an outlook, Freitag plans to take the students on a trip of their own, and she’s leaning toward the Horicon Marsh, the exact location she just spent much of Mother’s Day. This 33,000-acre wetland was carved out by a continental glacier thousands of years ago, then destroyed by settlers who dammed and dredged it for farming, and has now been undergoing decades of hard restoration. 

“In addition to the marsh thriving with wildlife, especially during migration months, they have a wonderful education and visitor center there, guided boat rides, live presentations, and five miles of hiking trails through the forest, prairie, and wetland habitats,” Freitag said.

While there recently, Freitag recorded 33 species of birds, including trumpeter swans, ducks such as the blue-winged teal and redhead, white pelicans and egrets, an osprey, plus purple martins shimmering in the sunlight, to name a few. Likewise, she also plans to host several events for the public — in Monticello and surrounding communities — for others who would like to learn from her expedition. 

This fellowship is offered through a partnership between National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions, a company that specializes in ecotourism and educational travel, while taking guests to out-of-the-way locations. Since 2006, it has provided the opportunity for 400 educators to travel on one of its expeditions, pairing them with professional researchers, guides, and fellow teachers, while allowing them to ride aboard one of their state-of-the-art ships, in this case, the National Geographic Explorer. This vessel hosts only 148 guests at a time, thereby leading to a very personalized experience and not a typical “cruise.” 

During their final week of school, students in Monticello will be selecting from a list of terms and places related to the British Isles and Belgium with each child making a visual to help “prepare” Freitag for her upcoming trip. 

“Hopefully this will help students feel a sense of ownership in my journey and want to follow each day’s adventure, eagerly awaiting the day I visit and showcase the topic they had each researched,” she said.

Whatever the most important takeaways end up being, Freitag is incredibly grateful for this opportunity and looks forward to sharing her experiences during and after the trip with anyone that wants to gain insights from her expedition. 

“It’s such a mistake to think that learning has to take place within the four walls of a classroom. We can all be lifelong learners,” she said.