For Beth Oehler, learning is something she never wants to stop doing, not even during those three precious months after the school doors close for the summer. Especially not those months.
After all, that’s when the Ashland Middle School sixth-grade social studies and science teacher can take advantage of professional development opportunities, and she managed to lasso a pretty special one this summer.
Oehler, who started teaching at AMS shortly after graduating from Southern Oregon University (then Southern Oregon State College) 22 years ago and has been there ever since, was one of 14 teachers from throughout the state selected by the Center for Geography Education in Oregon to explore northern Chile and prepare model lessons based on her findings that could be used by teachers throughout Oregon.
“I love to travel and I love to bring it back into my classroom,” she said of the grant. “I went to China about a year and a half ago to walk on the Great Wall. I always try to do things, but this is the first time that actually someone else decided, ‘Yeah, we’ll pay for you to do that.’”
A member of the Center for Geography Education in Oregon, Oehler first learned of the opportunity during a week-long workshop she attended in Portland last summer. She applied in January, writing a one-and-a-half-page essay detailing how she would incorporate what she learned about northern Chile into her classroom and in what ways the trip would improve her teaching.
Oehler had a hunch that her involvement in last summer’s workshop would increase her chances. Thanks to that trip, she had already met both of the professors assigned to head up the Chile program, and had written for the CGEO a lesson plan based on what she learned in the workshop.
Still, more than 200 K-through-12 teachers applied, so when the email arrived in February Oehler didn’t know what to expect. The news was good, though and, after she read the congratulatory letter, she ran out of her classroom to tell her partner teacher, Wendy Werthaiser.
“It was a pretty big deal,” she said.
Oehler and the other teachers selected met twice at Portland State University, April 15 and June 3, to go over the itinerary for the 17-day trip. Each teacher was responsible for a lesson plan to share with the rest of the group and a specific region of Chile on which to focus (Oehler studied Valparaiso).
Lesson plans based on what they learned there were also organized ahead of time. Noting that the Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on earth, Oehler decided to anchor her lesson to the region’s rain shadows, which are dictated by the Andes Mountains — Chile is a long sliver of a country in South America between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. Comparing that climate to the one of her home state, she decided, would make for a fascinating unit study.
She flew out of Portland July 5 and landed in Santiago for the first leg of a journey that included stops at: the Sewell copper mine and a nearby ghost town; Rainbow Valley; Atacama Salt Lake, a nesting site for three species of flamingos; the Tatio Geysers, the world’s highest geyser field at 14,107 feet above sea level; the Colchagua Valley Wine Route, whose lush, green landscape resembles Oregon’s Willamette Valley; the Vina del Mar beach resort; the Anthropological Museum in Valparaiso; and scenic Elqui Valley, which sits in the foothills of the Andes and is “synonymous with leisure, relaxation and ‘good energy,’” according to the CGEO’s itinerary.
The teachers didn’t have much in the way of down time during the trip, which was funded by the Gray Family Foundation. When she did have some time to herself, Oehler said, she used it to visit a flea market and a naval museum in Valparaiso.
She saw and learned something fascinating every day she was there, she said, and the dedication of her travel mates made the adventure that much more meaningful.
“There was a really fantastic group of Oregon teachers that were all really dedicated to spending some time this summer learning how to be better classroom teachers,” she said, “and that’s really inspiring.”
Oehler, who returned July 22 and believes she was the only teacher from the Rogue Valley selected to go to Chile, said her lesson based on the trip will fit in nicely with the weather and climate unit study she teaches every school year. It will probably be covered sometime around November, she said.
“I teach science and social studies so it’s kind of a nice combination,” she said. “And so the lesson uses a lot of maps, but also uses a lot of science and the next generation science standards and it combines them all together.”
When asked how her experience in Chile will benefit her class, Oehler said the educational impact goes far beyond maps and charts.
“One of my goals as a teacher is to encourage my students to be lifelong learners and so I want to model that for them by being a lifelong learner,” she said. “So even though I’ve been teaching for 20 years, I want to show them that it’s good to go out and learn some new things and to be a citizen in this world, to travel and to learn about what’s going on in other countries. I think all my travels have really improved my teaching and I think this one will as well.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.