AUBURN — During her world history class at Edward Little High School, Erin Towns opened mail from the U.S. State Department last May and announced where they were sending her.
“I'm going to Kazakhstan!” she said.
“'Huh? What? Kazakhstan?'” Towns recalled her students saying. “They were freaking out I was going to the land of the 'stans.'”
Towns, 39, has won a U.S. State Department fellowship to spend two-and-a-half weeks in the Republic of Kazakhstan, a country that shares its border with Russia to the north and China to the east. It's the ninth largest country in the world by land area.
Towns applied for a fellowship last year with the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The goal is to encourage teachers to promote global awareness to students. More than 300 teachers from 47 states applied; 84 were selected.
She's done this before.
In 2008, Towns went to Japan on a grant from the Japanese government. “I was hooked,” she said.
Going to another country, especially one that doesn't top tourism lists, helps make her world history teaching come alive.
“It gives me stories, adds a human element,” she said. “You understand that part of the world better, get an insight to the mentality why they do things the way they do.”
After she was accepted for the fellowship, Towns took an eight-week online course on global competency teaching from the State Department. That course focused on helping students investigate their world, recognize different perspectives, be able to communicate their ideas locally, nationally and internationally, and take action.
Many Maine students have "laptops thanks to Angus King,” Towns said. “Our world's getting smaller. … The days of functioning as an American in your own town, doing your own thing, are coming to an end. You are part of a world community.”
Solving big problems is “going to take world solutions, thinking globally and communicating with others,” she said.
During February vacation she'll be going to Washington, D.C. , to meet with the State Department bureau officials. There she'll be introduced to specifics of the trips, do's and don't's, to classroom strategies, and meet others traveling to Kazakhstan.
When in Kazakhstan, she'll visit schools, historic sites, learn about the customs and culture. She'll Skype with her high school students, her son's Maranacook Middle School students and with elementary students in Wayne.
“I'll give them exposure, this is what I see around me,” Towns said. With laptops the students will see what she's seeing. Today's students are technology savvy, she said.
Her sophomore students are already learning about Kazakhstan, posting online videos, photos and articles on Pinterest.
They've discovered Kazakhstan is a landlocked country five times the size of Texas, 60 percent of the citizens practice Islam, the country is rich in natural resources, especially oil, it has old villages and a new capital city, Astana, with futuristic-looking buildings.
“It's a progressive country, pretty moderate, not like Iran or Saudi Arabia,” Towns said.
Her students have discovered there are more horses than women in Kazakhstan and have teased Towns that she'll be eating horse meat, since horses are eaten like cattle.
EL Principal James Miller said Towns' trip will bring “real life stuff” to her students. Most importantly, he added, Towns will learn about world history curriculum development from others and bring that back to Edward Little.
Towns said she hopes to inspire her students to travel when they can and gain new perspectives.
If, for instance, “you want ideas of how to strengthen your own economy, take an example from somebody else. It just might work,” she said.