Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Student Travel: An Opportunity to build Capacity, Confidence and Community

Tonight I had the opportunity to share my passion for student travel with my colleagues in the Surrey School District.  Speaking in front of a group of 250 of my peers isn't my day to day job - or something I've ever done - so I was nervous.  And worse - they only gave me 5 minutes!  I had so much to say!!  When it comes to student travel I could go on all night.  And week.  And month.  And so I wanted to take the time, and this platform to articulate what I love about it (without the ticking clock!), and why I think student travel is so important.

It comes down to 3 C's: Capacity, Confidence and Community.  

After teaching, my favourite think to do is to travel.  To "follow a map to it's edges" and change hemisphere (or as in my London trip - stand on the border of 2 hemispheres!)  Travel is a concentration of new opportunities.  It gives us the chance to watch, learn, engage and bring the classroom to life.  It allows us to make sense of past knowledge, and to create a foundation on which to build new knowledge.  

Over the last 2 and a half years I have had the privilege to lead 4 student travel study programs.  I have taken 60 different students from grades 8 through 12 to California, Florida, NYC and London.  This coming spring I head camping with my Student Council on a leadership retreat, and this summer back to Europe (Netherlands, Belgium and France) with another 26 kids - who can't stop talking about #shseurope.  In my experience thus far we have studied history, art, culture, science and leadership.  And food.  Food is essential.  So far the favourites have been dough balls and Dole Whip.  The argument as to which is better has yet to be settled.  

Through talking with my students the last week I have had the opportunity to really come to understand the three major benefits of student travel.  

The first is that travel builds CAPACITY.  It allows students to take content first introduced into the classroom and build on it.  Coming to understand Newton's Laws while studying roller coasters at the Magic Kingdom, discussing applications for travelling to Mars with an Engineer from NASA and an astronaut, or studying marine biology and conservation while swimming with the manatees - these are all opportunities to enrich understanding.  

"Since the beginning of high school, I have always known that science has been a passion for me, and that I have a love for history as well. I was given the wonderful opportunity to go on two school trips, with some amazing students at Sullivan Heights. Travelling to London and Florida opened my eyes with different ways science and history can be applied to the world. To be able to see/experience things that I have learned about in the classroom in textbooks and lectures in person was "magical" and probably the most beneficial for me. It made everything seem a little more "real". It was also beneficial to go with a school group because I was surrounded by people with the same interests, goals, and love for travel and learning about new cultures, which created an even better learning environment. These trips made my curiosity/love for science grow immensely..." - Janey, Florida and London 2014

Our students had studied Shakespeare in Stratford and Journalism at Columbia University; they have interviewed Broadway stars, attended lectures at Cambridge, and toured Charles Darwin's original specimen collection.  Each of these opportunities furthers existing understanding, ignites passion, and creates a platform on which to build new understanding.  

Students also expand critical thinking skills by developing dispositions such as open-mindedness - which comes from learning to see from another's point of view.  Traveling gives students an opportunity to engage with new cultures and people.  It allows them to see that there are other ways of doing things. Open-mindedness develops and is enriched with each experience and is something that is brought back into the classroom when they return, and the world as they engage it.  

Students also begin to build important life skills, the kinds that are not as easy to build in the classroom, but are better developed while out engaging with the world.  This includes getting directions, navigating new cities, working with exchange rates and new currency, learning a new languages or customs, and adapting to changing surroundings. And this brings me to the second benefit of student travel.  Traveling builds CONFIDENCE.

When we were in London we took the tube from the airport to our hotel a relatively long journey with 20 people and their luggage.  My colleaguge, Robert Dewinetz, spent the ride teaching students how to read the relatively complex tube metro map.  After the first ride he would then pick on a different student each time we would enter a tube station and ask them for directions.  By the third day, he didnt even need to ask instead of us leading the pack, the kids could lead themselves.  They started to identify which stations had the best transfers, which route was most direct, and even started to remember where construction was. 


In addition they learned how to read road maps posted out of each station, and to ask the locals for directions.  They could identify landmarks, and orient themselves with ease.  And when new opportunities presented themselves, they  were more likely to say yes and give something a try, than say no, and shy away.  They had built confidence! This confidence benefits the students life long.  They return to school more willing to engage new opportunities or unknown scenarios, and have the tendency to believe that they are capable of much more than they realized.  

Students also noted that being asked to be responsible for themselves - that is manage their own money, make all deadlines, make sure they ate healthy, budget their time  was a huge benefit of the trip.  It allows them to be independent of their parents, but with the support structure of their teachers.  This is an opportunity that calls on students to continue their transition of teenager to adult - and an opportunity they welcome with open arms.  Whether 2 weeks across Europe or 2 days Camping in Chilliwack the destination doesnt matter confidence can be built in travel studies near or far.

The third thing I love about traveling with students is how it builds COMMUNITY.  I cannot sing praises loudly enough to the benefit of a shared experience.  Those of us who went to London will all singing the praises to the great and glorious dough ball which is exactly how itt sounds a cooked ball of pizza dough.  And yet, someone says it, the rest of us salivate and then we begin to reminisce about the rest of our favourite memories from the trip. 

There is something about getting up 4 AM to watch the sunrise (or not, given the gloomy England skies in March) on the spring equinox, while standing among the stones of Stonehenge, side-by-side with the local druids, singing Three Little Birds, on repeat.  Or swimming with the Manatees as the sun rises over the FREEZING COLD Crystal River in Florida.  But since then every manatee photo that comes across someones path gets tweeted for the whole group to see, and every time Bob Marley comes on the radio we think of that cold spring morning in the fields of England.

And of course, one could not forget, The Garr the infamous dance that was performed by chaperone Sarah Garr before our trip to the theatre one night. And then performed by again and again by the students.on the subwaywhile crossing the streeton the steps of St. Pauls..and once a week in my Physics class ever since.

The relationships built between students and their teachers are the kind that last.  Ever since our trips students now come in for advice on a daily basis.  Some days they just stop in for a cup of tea, others to sit on the couch and do homework.  The relationships they have made are ones that last.  Students in turn are willing to take biggest risks with their learning, challenge themselves more, and communicate with their teachers with greater transparency.  And this is infectious!  Students who haven't traveled see this, and join in.  Walls are lowered right across the board.  

"I got to build amazing relationships with some pretty rad teachers, and now I have another positive influence in my life that I can go to for advice, support, or just to chat.” - Eugenie, Florida 2014

I have been reflecting this week with my chaperone peers on what an honour it is that students have let us into their world.  When traveling, the typical power imbalance of the classroom disappears.  They see us in baseball caps in the freezing wind at 5 in the morning, or drenched from a water ride with no make up and a sunburn.  We share breakfast, and dinner.  And laughter.  So.  Much.  Laughter. 

I won't pretend that it isn't a lot of work.  It is.  But it is worth it.  Surround yourself with great people to help you.  I have colleagues, and more importantly, friends, with different skills sets, but a similar passion.  Robert Dewinetz came with me to London, and is coming to Europe, this summer, and has a passion for European History like no other.  His ability to enrich the culture for the students can not be understated, and his attention to detail makes him a great person bounce things off of.  Meghann Kenkel came with me to Florida, and is also joining me in Europe this summer.  I'd like to say she's coming because she speaks French, but it's really because she is up for anything.  She can turn any day, location or opportunity into a chance to learn something.  She also seems to to turn every lesson into one about Geology - I didn't even know that was possible.  But most importantly, she's that person who wakes up at 5:30 AM and is chipper and makes sure everyone gets out of bed.  Florida would have been impossible with her.  And then there is my husband - Ray.  He's been with me in London, and Florida, and Europe.  And he gets to listen to me ramble for the year before hand.  Probably every night.  There isn't an idea that i haven't bounced off of him.  So I think he deserves a prize.  Waheeda Mulji, Sarah Garr, Ryan Neufeld - all teachers that have risen to the occasion to travel and embrace new opportunity and new relationships with students.  To share passion at every turn.  And I'm lucky to have admin that keep saying yes to me, when I come into their offices and say, "So I want to take students to __________...."

So many great things are just around the corner.

For stories from our travels check out our blog, sullitravels.blogspot.com