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A cross-country trip to remember

Local teacher takes kids to 41 parks, Zooms lessons to students back home

Godfrey-Lee — This summer, one teacher embarked on a cross-country roadtrip with her three kids to visit over 41 state and national parks in a cute little camper. But besides building treasured memories for her own children, she is providing valuable science lessons for her students back home.   

Jessica Priem, a K-2 teacher at Godfrey-Lee Elementary School, purchased a 1969 vintage “Happy Camper House” off Facebook Marketplace in spring 2020 with a small budget and a big dream.

(Visit Priem’s travel blog to get an inside look of their Happy Camper House.)

“When my parents retired, they wanted to take their grandkids in a camper to a destination of their choice,” Priem said. “We renovated our new camper during quarantine and planned a summer-long trip to go with them and my kids on a 71-day trip to visit state and national parks across 19 states.”  

Priem and her three kids — Xander (11), Addison (8) and Andrew (4) — will have traveled 12,000 miles this summer by the time they’re done, with visits from Priem’s husband, Chris, and other family members along the way.

As a learning opportunity for her students back in Wyoming, Priem has been teaching a summer school class over Zoom and sharing the country’s natural wonders with them. 

“I want my students to take away an awe and wonder for learning about new places they haven’t learned about before and think about the world differently,” she said. 

Alongside Learning and Innovation coach Julia Bierema, Priem spent hours planning a STEAM-based unit (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) for her to teach remotely for two weeks of summer school.

“I’ll be Zooming in live from the parks so the kids can see where I am and ask questions,” Priem said as she embarked. 

Making Zoom Work from Afar 

The week of July 6, Priem and her family arrived at Olympic National Park and completed her first successful Zoom with her summer school class. 

“The (internet) service in the far northwest has been even worse than I imagined,” Priem said in an update from the road. “I did have to drive a bit to find service, but it worked!” 

After her first class Zoom lesson in Olympic National Park in Washington, she taught her students about hoodoos from Bryce Canyon in Utah.

At home, students used balloons and masking tape to create their own hoodoos, resembling the tall totem pole-shaped rocks found in Bryce Canyon. Using paper coding, or graph paper programming, they then mapped a hiking path around their hoodoos as a way to learn STEAM and take time away from computer screens, Priem explained.  

“My goals during our hour-long Zoom class are to talk about the region, the importance of national parks and why they exist, let the kids ask questions and incorporate as many STEAM concepts as possible,” Priem said. 

Kris Kelliher of Kent ISD created this colorful graphic to document the Priem family’s 19-state tour of national parks.

Exploring the ‘Real World’

Before discovering the potential to take summer-school instruction on the road, the trip was inspired by the family’s love for travel, science and Every Kid Outdoors, a federal initiative encouraging fourth-graders and their families to experience the natural, rich history and vibrant culture of United States National Parks. 

According to Priem, this program was extended to fifth-graders in 2021 to make up for the pandemic closing most parks to visitors. 

“My oldest son has been wanting to go to Glacier National Park and fly fish with my dad for a few years,” Priem said. “The park is the main event but we’re taking our time getting there.”

The Priem family left the day after school got out for summer in early June, and will return before school starts mid-August. 

As a teacher and a mom, she was energized by the opportunity to share her love of learning and teaching with her family. 

“When you’re a teacher, you don’t spend as much time teaching your own kids outside of your classroom,” Priem said. “It’s been impressive watching my kids take in the sights; they’re so excited to learn, even my 4-year-old piecing together and making connections.” 

Seeing Bison and Other Non-zoo Animals 

Priem and her family witnessed a bison parade “sauntering on the side of the road” in Yellowstone National Park and braved “risky” adventures while going whitewater rafting in North Cascade National Park.

“It’s not a zoo; the animals just live here,” Priem’s son realized after seeing a moose on the side of the road while driving between parks. 

“Glaciers probably won’t exist by the time my son has kids but the National Park will always be there,” Priem said. “National parks preserve large areas of nature for future generations to explore and enjoy without the development of buildings and hotels.” 

A former seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher in Forest Hills, Priem pursued teaching K-2 STEAM at Godfrey-Lee Elementary and was hired six days before the start of the 2020-21 school year. 

“STEAM is exciting for students. They get to dig in their heels and learn hands-on,” Priem said. “So much virtual learning happened this year on computers, so I want to encourage creative and critical thinking with my students during summer school.”  

After she returns home from her summer road trip, Priem hopes to share her photos and experiences with her students and that her family will treasure the memories they made together. 

“I love learning and being a lifelong learner,” Priem said. “I hope my kids make memories on this trip and get the opportunity to immerse themselves in new cultures and authentic learning.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN. Read Alexis' full bio

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