A mountain of knowledge
In the famous words of Albert Einstein, "The only source of knowledge is experience."
Two Powell Butte Community Charter School teachers are chock-full of knowledge after traveling to the Appalachian Mountain region for 10 days with the Center for Geography Education in Oregon.
"Our trip was a great mix of outdoor experience balanced with informative tours and museum visits," said Jackie LaFrenz, a fourth-grade teacher at PBCCS with more than 20 years of experience as a teacher, administrator and curriculum creator. "Personally, I love being outdoors and exploring."
LaFrenz and PBCCS fifth-grade teacher Heidi Wilson traveled with 12 other Oregon teachers June 18-29, and returned full of ideas on how to implement their experiences into their classrooms.
LaFrenz first learned about the Center for Geography in Education in Oregon on the Gray Family Foundation's website when applying for other grants for the charter school.
"I wasn't exactly sure what it was all about, and then our new fifth-grade teacher Heidi Wilson brought up her travel experience during her interview, and I was intrigued," LaFrenz recalled.
PBCCS hired Wilson, and she told LaFrenz all about the program, encouraging her to also apply for trips this summer.
The Center of Geography Education in Oregon, which is located at Portland State University and housed in their Geography Department, designs these summer travel experiences in an effort to provide field learning experiences specifically designed for educators. This travel opportunity honors John Gray's intent to provide travel experiences for K-12 teachers.
The Mountain Geography Institute in the Appalachians was funded by the Gray Family Foundation and run through Portland State. GFF is under the umbrella of the Oregon Community Foundation.
PBCCS Administrator Jenn Berry-O'Shea said they received the grant for the 2017-18 school year to implement place-based geography education with the outcome of increasing the capacity of the PBCCS staff to develop geography activities that support the place-based mission of the school and the Oregon social studies standards for the school's annual themes of water, land and community.
"The participation in the CGEO Summer Institutes was goal-outlined in the grant to increase knowledge and understanding and share and disseminate learning to other PBCCS teachers," Berry-O'Shea said.
In addition to LaFrenz and Wilson, one other Central Oregon teacher was among the 14 educators chosen, Maegan MacKelvie, a Ridgeview High School English teacher.
"It was the first time I traveled for so long without my family," LaFrenz said, adding that it's a pretty awesome program.
Teresa Bowman, a geography professor at PSU and head of the grant travel study program, led the group expedition. Rachael Bashor, from the Gray Family Foundation, joined the group to see how the GFF grant was being utilized.
As part of their travels, they visited major cities as well as small towns, historical sites, and spent time exploring a variety of geographically diverse landscapes. This trip helped deepen their understanding of the physical and human geography of the Appalachia region.
"We traveled in three SUVs — took turns driving — and were assigned roommates and a colleague to work with on a mini-lesson to educate others about the physical and human geography relevant to where we were visiting," LaFrenz said. "We ended up making a big loop from Pennsylvania, taking us through Maryland and West Virginia."
They stayed in Uniontown, Pennsylvania; Oakland, Maryland; Blackwater Falls, West Virginia; Beckley, West Virginia; Elkins, West Virginia; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
"I specifically enjoyed hiking at Cranesville Swamp, Muddy Creek Falls, Seneca Rocks, Spruce Knob and at Blackwater Falls," LaFrenz said. "Being in the dense green forest and on top of the some of the highest points in West Virginia was beautiful."
Another highlight was riding the Cass railroad train in Cass, West Virginia.
"It was an all-day ride taking us deep into the forest on the old coal train route," LaFrenz recalls. "Hearing the train whistle blow and seeing the coal being shoveled in to keep the train going was quite an experience."
They learned about the history of the train, coal mining and the history of the settlers who created a life there.
"It was raining pretty hard during our train ride, but luckily the passenger cars kept us dry," LaFrenz said. "Riding the train through the thick green trees in the wet misty rain was a once-in-a-lifetime event!"
Another highlight was taking an underground train tour at the Beckley Coal Mine and riding a shuttle bus throughout Pittsburgh to learn about the history of steel production in the U.S. Both of those tours were led by local men who were knowledgeable, entertaining and passionate about the place they live.
"I don't think I had ever stopped to truly ponder the amount of work and pride so many men and women have for making our country great," LaFrenz said. "There was one moment in which the staff was raising the flag at the Beckley Coal Mine, and our group spontaneously started singing the 'Star Spangled Banner.' I think everyone in our group gained a better appreciation and respect for our country's history."
Participants completed assignments along the way and then designed lessons comparing and contrasting the region with the geography and culture of Central Oregon.
Wilson, who is currently in South America for the Geography of Northern Chile Summer Institute, will help implement her lessons with Kirin Stryker, the PBCCS place based education coordinator. Stryker and Allyson Hamlik, another PBCCS staff member, participated in the Map Literacy Summer Institute June 26-28 at Portland State University.
Stryker and Wilson will be leaders in implementing the geography integration and professional development as well as coordinating a community Geography Night in the 2017-18 school year, Berry-O'Shea said.
In fourth grade, students learn the basics of United States physical geography, LaFrenz pointed out. She plans to compare and contrast the geology involved in the formation of the Appalachians and the Cascade Mountains as they are the defining ranges in this country. Learning about the formation of the land will then lead to a better understanding about how watersheds are formed, she said.
"I am creating lessons that will use the Central Oregon Cascades and Central Applachia to learn about water use and challenges we face," LaFrenz said. "I also think I will be purposeful in making a connection during our Oregon Trail Pioneer Unit."
She plans to include a lesson on how natural resources drive a region's settlement and way of life. Learning about the coal and steel industries is another way to learn about economics.
"There are so many ideas running through my head about how to connect my new understanding about Appalachia to our studies," LaFrenz said.