Thursday, May 17, 2012

‘Miss Amara’ helps second-graders learn geography

From Hudson Observer: ‘Miss Amara’ helps second-graders learn geography
Today’s second-graders aren’t easy to fool.

“Wisconsin,” a youngster named Luke said when the students in Mrs. Julie Warren’s classroom were asked where in the world Miss Amara was.

Luke was the second to volunteer an answer, and he was right.

Amara Treuenfels had been checking in with Mrs. Warren’s class at Willow River Elementary School via Skype over the previous three and a half months as she traveled Europe.

Last Thursday was to be her final video phone report. Each week, the second-graders were provided with daily clues about Treuenfels’ whereabouts, leading up to the Thursday Skype sessions in which students would make their guesses and learn the answer.

No one told the students that Treuenfels had returned to Hudson the previous day (Wednesday, May 2). The plan was to begin the video phone conversation as normal, and then have Treuenfels surprise the students by walking into the classroom.

Thanks to Luke, the suspense didn’t last long. When he insisted on Wisconsin as the answer, the screen on the Smart Board where Treuenfels’ image had appeared went blank. After a short walk from a nearby room, the vivacious coed made her entrance.

Judging from the wide grins on faces and excited chatter, most of the class was surprised – and happy to see Treuenfels in the flesh.

UW-RF International Traveling Classroom
Treuenfels, who just completed her sophomore year at UW-River Falls, traveled to Europe as a participant in the university’s International Traveling Classroom.

Thirty-five students, accompanied by three professors, toured 10 countries, staying in youth hostels and holding classes in whatever space was available.

Their longest stay was in Paris, which they visited for 10 days.

“The benefits of studying abroad are unambiguously clear. You learn more about yourself and other cultures, and develop self-reliance and other skills that can help you both in your personal and professional lives,” a university description of the program says.

The students earn college credits for the experience.

The recent tour was led by Dr. Wesley Chapin, a political science professor specializing in international relations and comparative politics.

Dr. Charles Rader, a geography professor, and Dr. Kristin Tjornehoj, conductor of the UW-RF Symphonic Wind Ensemble, also provided instruction. Tjornehoj, a Hudson resident, was along for part of the tour.
The Traveling Classroom’s bases were in the cities of London, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Prague, Verona and Vienna.

Honors project
Treuenfels undertook her work with Mrs. Warren’s class as an honors project – in addition to her required studies.

As an elementary education major, she saw it as a chance to apply some of her training and spice up the geography lessons in Warren’s classroom.

Her relationship with Warren goes back to her first year out of high school when she served as a volunteer reading coach at Willow River Elementary.

“That’s how I decided to be a teacher,” she said of the experience. “I hope to be just like Mrs. Warren one day.”

After graduating from Hudson High School in 2009, Treuenfels took a year off from studying to earn some money and do volunteer work before entering college.

Before leaving for Europe last January, she put together a detective journal for the second-graders (titled “Where in the World is Miss Amara?”) and a series of picture clues about the countries she would be visiting.
Warren gave the students the clues to paste in their journals, and assigned them to write down what the pictures told them about the country Treuenfels was visiting.

On Thursdays, Treuenfels would visit with the class for 15 or 20 minutes via the Internet video phone service and reveal where she was. She’d tell them about her traveling experiences and the country she was visiting that week.

The inquisitive second-graders were full of questions, she reported.
Warren is pleased with how the project went.

“It’s been a pretty elaborate collaboration, but it’s just worked so well,” she said. “And the kids have loved every bit of it.”

Warren said the activity fit into her social studies curriculum and helped students develop reading inference skills.

Willow River Principal Peggy Shoemaker, who was in the classroom for Treuenfels’ surprise visit, also supported the activity.

“It’s been a great project in terms of raising awareness about geography,” she said.

Life journey
Life had been quite a journey for Treuenfels even before her travels in Europe.

She lived with mother, stepdad and three siblings in rural Montana through her sophomore year in high school, attending a little school in Stanford, a town of 350 in the central part of the state.

At the start of her junior year, she came to Hudson to live with her dad, Leif Halverson, stepmom Heidi and three younger Halverson siblings. She was eager for life in a city and the opportunities a large high school could provide.

Hudson High School was everything Treuenfels hoped it would be.

“It was great,” she said. “Everyone was super, super nice. I was in volleyball and met a whole bunch of people that way. And then I got into the theater and choir, and that was a whole new group.”

“It was the best,” she said of her high school experience.

Treuenfels’ two Halverson brothers are Willow River students. August is in fourth grade and Jasper is in second grade. Her sister Chloe Halverson is an eighth-grader at the middle school.

Her stepmother, Heidi, suggested that the Star-Observer report on Treuenfels’ project. She’s proud of her.

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