Onward! Indian Hills teacher takes national award for play about Oregon Trail

Judith Schieszer wrote her six-act play about the Oregon Trail to teach economic concepts to her seventh graders.
What do the Oregon Trail, Romania, the economy and an Indian Hills classroom of seventh graders have in common? The answer is Judith Schieszer, a social studies teacher who has been teaching at the middle school for seven years.

The Oregon California Trails Association this year gave her its National Outstanding Teacher Award. A six-act play that Schieszer wrote about life on the Oregon Trail, from the Shawnee Indian Mission through Kansas to the Nebraska border, led to the honor. The play teaches about economic concepts: goods, services, natural resources. “Economics is embedded in all aspects of life,” Schieszer says, “after all, that’s why people went (on the trail).”

But the story starts in Romania. In 2003, Schieszer was sent to Romania by the National Center for Economic Education to help teachers there learn how to teach without lecturing. In 2011, a group of teachers from Romania visiting the U.S. were stopping in Schieszer’s classroom. It was time for the unit on Kansas. Because the Romanians rely on textbooks and lecture, Schieszer needed to illustrate a different way to reach the students: the play about the Oregon Trail was born.

“Kids understand abstract concepts better through the arts,” Schieszer says. “If we all learned by reading a book, we would have it made; but we don’t.”

The play takes two days for her students to perform and it’s not her first foray into writing plays to teach classroom concepts. “I’ve always been a good storyteller”, she says. And 15 years ago, she started writing ideas down, thinking of story lines and how to get across to the students.

Schieszer has been teaching more than 30 years and has been in the Shawnee Mission district since 1993.