More than maps: Geography curriculum developed with trip to Greece

September 2019 Posted in Community, Travel

Savannah Sinn at the Acropolis.

By Melissa Wagoner

Teaching geography can be difficult, but it is especially tricky when the students are five years old. 

“We don’t have a specific geography curriculum,” Savannah Sinn, a kindergarten teacher at Bush Elementary School in Salem, lamented. “And they don’t come in with anything.”

In order to give her students a more well-rounded geographical education, Sinn has had to think outside the box. Because while she has done some traveling in her 22 years – to Sweden and Germany with her parents and to Spain with her high school Spanish class – she has actually spent time in very few of the places about which she teaches.  

“It just makes you think about – how can I do more for geography awareness and world awareness,” she said thoughtfully. And that’s where Portland State University’s Center for Geography Education in Oregon (C-GEO) comes in. 

While Sinn was earning her teaching credentials at Western Oregon State University several years ago, she met a professor who was a member of a unique resource for Oregon teachers, C-GEO. A hub of teacher support based around the topic of geography, the company also hosts several, educational trips for those who teach grades K-12. 

Sinn’s first trip with C-GEO was stateside to Appalachia and it was great, but what she really wanted was to travel abroad. So this past winter she applied for a 17-day trip to Greece and was accepted. 

“The application was four questions long,” Sinn remembered. “Their whole deal is to get people out to new places.”

Before the trip the teachers were each given homework including a thematic assignment – a three-minute presentation focusing on one aspect of Greek culture that they shared with the group – as well as a location assignment – in which participants were randomly assigned a location in Greece and required to research and create a brochure covering all aspects of that place. 

“We had to become an expert about a place we were going to,” Sinn explained. 

“It was one of my favorite aspects of the trip,” Carly Fuerst, a fifth grade teacher at Butte Creek Elementary School who also attended the trip, added. “I think I’ll keep referring back to these [brochures].”

Fuerst, who is in her 16th year as a teacher, learned about C-GEO from a fellow Silver Falls School District teacher but was less immediately entranced. 

“I do like to teach the kids the importance of overcoming hard things, and this trip, for me, was overcoming a bit of fear,” she said. 

But traveling with a group of like-minded individuals who shared a common goal helped Fuerst to become less worried and to enjoy herself. 

“If I planned a Greece excursion for myself it would have been the beach,” she laughed. “But getting to go with a focused lens and having a really educated guide – she’s been living there for three years – that was great.”

Sinn agreed adding, “It was really neat because we did get to travel all over Greece by different modes of transport. So we got to see the in-between places.”

Tiny island towns – like the one where Sinn got to cook Moussaka with a local family – and big touristy cities, the group covered as much of Greece, its land, people and heritage as possible on their short trip.

“There is so much history everywhere we went,” Fuerst said, amazed. 

“They’re subway in Athens goes through an ancient ruins,” Sinn added. “Wherever you go you can find stuff from however many hundred years BC.”

Back in Oregon and with the school year kicking off, Sinn and Fuerst are beginning to plan how they will share all that they learned with the students in their respective classrooms.

“I’m going to do direct analysis of geographical features,” Fuerst began. “And I’m pretty excited about the literacy components, too. I’m looking forward to teaching about the Greek mythology. I’m planning on Percy Jackson and the Olympians for read-aloud.”

Although Sinn’s students are much younger, she reasons there is a lot of information about Greece that can be shared with her students as well. 

“I have a bookshelf of books, so I plan to order simple books on Greek mythology,” she said. “And something else I want to do is some art projects. If nothing else, it just gets you thinking about different ideas to do in your classroom.”

Another part of her strategy to increase the awareness of geography for her students is through utilizing other C-GEO resources, like the annual GeoFest, an educational summit held in March. 

“They have presenters from all over
and they come in and teach about various things about geography,” she explained. “Anytime you need a set of classroom maps C-GEO will send them to you. It is a great reference for teaching. Most teachers I’ve talked to know nothing about this.” 

C-GEO also has an online resource library for educators – some of which were developed by previous Summer Institute attendees.

“We had to come up with a lesson plan,” Sinn said. “It had to be something to do with the geography of Greece and comparing it to Oregon.”

That kind of comparison – the foreign to the familiar – is one aspect of teaching geography that Fuerst thinks is important when teaching students who may not have had the chance to actually travel to the locations they are studying.

“I think in Silverton we do have a population of students that may not have the opportunity to travel,” she said. “So to bring it to them or to put the seed in their head for later in life, that’s important.”

That influence on future generations is one of the reasons Fuerst was drawn to teaching and why she works hard to give her students the best education she can.

“It’s a career that feels worthy,” Fuerst said. “Knowing that I get to make a difference for young people and be a part of their journey is really rewarding. It feels more like a calling than a profession.”

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