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Tristan Irvin loaded her Winnebago and visited seven national parks, teaching her students along the way.

COURTESY PHOTO: TRISTAN IRVIN - Willamette Connections Academy teacher Tristin Irvin brought her laptop computer and other school supplies on the road to visit seven national parks including Joshua Tree where she stayed at Jumbo Rocks Campground Fifth-grade teacher Tristan Irvin recently loaded up her Winnebago and took her students on the road for an epic trip to all seven national parks in California.

On March 1, Irvin, a teacher at Willamette Connections Academy, packed up computers and all the learning materials she needed, joined her husband and three children, and headed out on a two-week venture that proved to be a learning experience of a lifetime.

"We started at Redwoods, then Yosemite, then Channel Islands, then Joshua Tree, then Death Valley, then Sequoia/Kings Canyon and then finally Pinnacles," said Irvin, a Tigard resident. "The only one we didn't make it to because of weather was Lassen Volcanic National Park. There was snow that we didn't want to try and deal with our camper."

Irvin said the trip coordinated with a unit her 32 fifth-grade students were about the study of eco-systems.

Of course, there was no way for Irvin to actually take her students to California. But the online school has been doing much the same type of "distance learning" with which public school students across Oregon have become very familiar over the past year, and using technology, Irvin was able to virtually share her road trip with the class.COURTESY PHOTO: TRISTAN IRVIN - Willamette Connections Academy teacher Tristan Irvin stands in front of the entrance to Pinnacles National Park in California during a road trip that included visits to seven California National Parks in March.

"What was pretty fabulous about doing all of the California national parks was that it hit like five different eco-systems," said Irwin, who also worked in art, writing, cartography and other lessons into the curriculum while she was on the road.

Along the way, her students participated in a national park trivia contest of sorts. Irvin posted photos and questions in a "where am I" activity, giving students three clues.

"They had to pinpoint where I was," she said. "They had to look at the places that I knew I was going to be in California, and I gave them a list of all the national parks. They had to research that national park and fill out a worksheet of five things that would be manageable for me to find."

Students would ask Irvin to find something like a hawk or flowers that might be prevalent in a specific eco-system. Irvin would then go out and find the items and post photos for the students to view on an internal school website.

She said the adventure was fun, and her husband and kids were always wanting to know what the trivia questions were as well. Her mother, who worked as a teacher as well, followed her trip and even tried some of the student activities, Irvin said.COURTESY PHOTO: TRISTAN IRVIN - Tristan Irvin stands at the entrance of a cave at Pinnacles National Park.

Some of the organisms Irvin was asked to search for included a bigleaf maple tree, a hawk, a trefoil, a brown pelican (in one of the few places on the West Coast where they reside) and a sequoia tree. A dolphin was included as well, which she had to find when she visited the Channel Islands. Unfortunately, rough waters and a small-craft advisory meant she wouldn't be able to see the dolphins up close.

"But even from the shore and from our RV … we looked over the water and you would just see them out there. You could see whales spouting in the distance. I mean we probably saw a dozen little dolphin pods hopping around," she said. "It was incredible."

Irvin noted that students all learn in different ways.

"I want them to be engaged and motivated and feel themselves as part of that learning process, not just being talked at," Irvin said.

She said if she was able to visit the dolphins up close by boat, it would have likely been the highlight of the trip.

"Having not done that, I think Joshua Tree was breathtaking," said Irvin. She enjoyed staying at a place called Jumbo Rocks Campground, where the family stopped and she was photographed with her laptop under the massive rocks.

She also enjoyed Pinnacles National Park and the boulders that create incredible mossy-covered caverns and tunnels hikers can walk through. "That one was really, really it was impressive … a very emotional place to be there," Irvin said.

Ultimately, she said she learned a lot, information that she was able to pass on to her students and pique their interest.

"For me, I learned a ton," said Irvin. "It was wonderful to model how you can learn anywhere you go and it's fun to do that and my kids had fun learning with me — my own children, as well as my students." COURTESY PHOTO: TRISTAN IRVIN - Tristan Irvin stands next to her daughter CoCo who found a sand dollar while visiting California's Channel Islands National Park.


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