Lake Oswego teacher wins the grand prize in a national contest: a trip to South Africa
by: Vern Uyetake, Lake Oswego School District TAG Teacher Joan Romine was selected as the winner of a National Geographic contest that will send her on a 10-day trip to two South Africa game reserves. To enter the contest, Romine created and implemented a curriculum about the country’s endangered species.

In her 'second life,' Joan Romine would explore the world with a camera slung over her shoulder, capturing stunning scenes for National Geographic magazine.

By August, she'll get closer to elephants, cheetahs, rhinos - and that dream - than she ever thought possible.

The magazine chose Romine, a TAG teacher at Palisades and Lake Grove elementary schools, as the winner of an all-expenses paid trip to two South African game reserves in its 'Hands on Explorer Challenge Contest.'

Romine will travel with the other winning teacher, a woman from New York City, and receive a digital camera and hands-on photography lessons from the magazine's photographers.

It doesn't hurt that she's a photography junkie who subscribes to the magazine for its pictures.

'It's nice to get a reward,' said Romine, who's taught in the district for 17 years.

Romine entered the contest in November at the suggestion of her niece, who lives in Wisconsin and wanted to enter the contest's student division.

Students were required to write an essay about a 'place of discovery,' while teachers were asked to write and implement a lesson related to South Africa's geography.

'I knew kids loved animals, so I chose animals,' Romine said.

To enter the contest, she created and conducted a six-lesson hands-on unit on endangered species with the 3rd and 4th grade TAG students at Palisades. It took about 40 hours outside of the classroom to research South Africa and finalize the plan, she said.

'Sometimes I thought, 'What am I doing this for?,' she said. 'I kind of became obsessed with working on it … That's me, if I get really really focused do something. I like projects like that.'

The 12 students each chose and studied one South African animal as part of a simulated 'Conservation Team.' They also learned about the country's various biomes, which range from grassland to wetlands.

Their activities included a 'flight' to South Africa with a showing of the film, 'Serengeti,' eating African snacks, researching their animals and donning traditional African clothing.

As a final project, they wrote letters to the South African government from the perspective of their animals, asking for assistance in being saved from extinction.

Romine submitted each lesson to the contest, along with one of the student's letters.

'I felt confident I had written seriously a really good unit,' she said.

She's been in shock since she sat down at the Palisades library computer and received an e-mail with the good news.

Yet, she hasn't taken a lot of time to sit and think about what's to come.

'They said 'Your name will be mentioned on the 'Today Show' and they need my passport as soon as possible, but I'm taking it one day at a time,' she said. 'I haven't had the time to see what the weather's like there.'

A typical American resort vacation isn't Romine's idea of fun, anyway. A recent trip to India gave Romine a passion for visiting foreign lands.

'It wouldn't be my first choice to go to Cancun,' she said. 'I want to go somewhere unusual where I can meet the people, learn and explore.'

She can't wait to start taking photos and put together a slide show for her class.

Her students, who knew about the contest, think it's cool that their teacher gets to experience the country they studied - and see the animals first-hand.

'It will be fun when she comes back and tell us about it,' said Wesley Wells.

'It would be like a dream come true if I got invited, too,' mused Greg Conan.

'It's neat to know our instructor is going to Africa because of things we did,' added Maegan Stewart.

It took Romine's niece, on the other hand, some time to get over the news that her aunt would be going to Africa without her.

'It was bittersweet,' Romine said. 'She thinks she did something cool, because if it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have entered.'


The Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve will take the Expedition Team on a one-of-a-kind safari, introducing team members to Africa's fabled wildlife in its natural habitat. They will learn about 300 bird species and 200 animal species, including the "big five," the term used to describe South Africa's most popular and exciting animals - elephant, rhinoceros, leopard, lion and Cape buffalo.

At the Grootbos Nature Reserve, the Expedition Team will discover the fascinating relationships among the insects, birds, mammals and flowering plants of South Africa's diverse ecosystem. The reserve boasts more than 650 species of indigenous plants and conserves 1,700 hectares of pristine fynbos, the Cape's unique vegetation type. The reserve is also home to the awesome great white shark.


To learn more about the game reserves, visit and

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