Our Stories

Karen Hamlin: Evolution of a Teacher

Karen Hamlin's life changed while reading an email four years ago. A message from Willamette's International Education Office advertised a few vacant seats with a Willamette student tour of the Galapagos Islands.

"It took me about 30 seconds to respond," the education professor says. She had visions of sparkling aquamarine waters and white sand. And of course, there were Darwin's species, which include prehistoric-looking iguanas, giant tortoises unique to each island, and the flightless cormorant, with wings that swim rather than fly -- Darwin called it evolution in progress.

Hamlin began a serendipitous evolution of her own when she met Miguel Mosquera, president of the Albatross Foundation and guide on the boat. The community foundation, he told her, wants Galapagos children to have an understanding of what's unique about their islands and wants to prepare them to have a voice in determining their future.

By the time they touched land, Hamlin had an idea. She co-directs the Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University, which improves children's reading and writing skills by increasing instructional expertise among public school teachers. Thanks to Hamlin's initiative, the project at Willamette now takes school teachers to San Cristobal Island--the capitol of the Galapagos Islands -- for three weeks each summer, where they teach English to school children and learn Spanish from local teachers, creating a circle of learning and teaching. "Teachers get a first-hand sense of how it feels to learn a second language while immersed in a foreign culture," Hamlin says. "They tell us that the experience not only helps them understand the needs of their immigrant students, but gives them skills in how to teach Oregon students who are learning English as their second language."

Project teachers use the natural setting of the island to teach science -- exploring tidal pools, writing field journals, and looking through microscopes that have been donated for the project. Last year children and teachers planted more than 700 trees on the island, helping to restore endangered plant species.

Hamlin and her group also use technology to teach. "One of our goals is to develop techniques to connect children from around the world in learning together," Hamlin says. San Cristobal students exchange emails with students from Salem schools, trading information about music tastes, schools and conservation efforts in each location. Hamlin's biggest challenge is the unreliability of Internet service on the island. "They rely on phone service, which frequently goes out," she says. "Students on both sides experience frustration."

The school also struggles with basic supplies, due to a paper shortage. "We work hard to model teaching that doesn't require resources they don't have," Hamlin says. The Oregon Writing Project has sent books and paper and would send more, but postage is prohibitively expensive since San Cristobal is 600 miles from the Ecuadorian mainland.

Island children call "Teacher! Teacher!" and bestow hugs when they see their Oregon teachers in town. "The school and community have embraced the project," Hamlin says. "I've been there four years now and I know the kids, the parents, the grandparents, and the aunts and uncles. We've been welcomed."

Many parents work in the fishing industry, an economy whose future is uncertain due to depleted resources and limits on fishing. Struggling with economic disruption, parents are hoping to steer their children into alternative career paths, such as ecotourism. The wildlife of the Galapagos Islands -- made famous by Charles Darwin -- continues to fascinate tourists, and although San Cristobal is isolated, that isolation is an attraction for people wanting to get off the beaten path. Only 5,400 people live in the capitol city. A small bank, hospital and post office nestle among the pastel-colored houses stretching up the lush, green hillsides, and bicycles thread the narrow streets. Swaying boats fill the marinas, pinnacles of volcanic rock jut up out of aqua waters, and boisterous sea lions clamber on the shell-strewn beaches.

The English, science and conservation skills taught by teachers with the Oregon Writing Project will help San Cristobal children evolve to meet the challenges of a changing economy and ecosystem. Hamlin, who is learning Spanish in order to facilitate communication, says, "In order for the Galapagos children to have an effective voice in the future of the islands, they need to be able to speak English and understand why their island home is unique and needs protection."

The thought was echoed by a young boy, who wrote, "We have many expectations for our future. We want to be better citizens of our country and change its destination."

The student also put in a plug for Galapagos tourism. "We wish someday you could come to Galapagos and visit us."

The Oregon Writing Project at Willamette is directed by Carol Long and co-directed by Steve Jones and Karen Hamlin.