Teach a little, learn a loT
The above picture was taken April 2004 in the new Globe Theatre, London. I’m the one grinning in the front row, not so much older than my students. I was leading those 27 Connecticut public school students and five other adults on a Shakespeare-centric tour of England, and I was having the time of my life.
Leading a trip to another country is not for the faint of heart, even if you engage the services of an educational tour company, which I did. Most of the students in this picture had never left the country before, and over the course of our 10-day trip, I dealt with homesickness, actual sickness, and culture shock.
One student cried herself to sleep the first three nights. Another threw up in the middle of a bus trip...and no one on the bus had paper towels. (The English tour guide looked politely off into the distance as I dashed among students and gathered extra napkins from their bag lunches.) We were traveling before the era of the smartphone, so keeping track of where all 27 teenagers were was not an easy task.
But man, was it worth it.
I had never taken students on an extended trip before this U.K. adventure, but I knew after this experience that I would be doing this many more times before the end of my career.
Spending time with these students outside of the classroom was so rewarding. As they wandered through Shakespeare’s birthplace, explored Anne Hathaway’s cottage, and figured out the color-coded map for the London Tube, I watched the world open to them.
History and literature came off the page and became real. Studying Shakespeare is one thing; watching the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Macbeth in Stratford-upon-Avon is quite another.
The trip also created a bond between us that we never could have experienced in the classroom. We laughed together and struggled together and bemoaned the exchange rate together. Although all of the students in this picture have long since graduated (some have kids in school themselves now!), I still feel close to them.
When we got back to the U.S., they presented me with a binder full of notes and cards and pictures from the trip documenting their experiences as a thank you for making it happen. It remains one of my most treasured possessions.
I haven’t led another trip outside of the country since this one, but I’ve had the opportunity to take students on other adventures. I’ve been part of numerous camping, rafting, canoeing and kayaking trips as well as leading trips to Washington D.C. and San Diego for journalism conferences. Sometimes I’ve been the leader; other times I’ve just been along for the ride. But I’ve always been glad I went.
Despite the challenges of travel and the amount of time it takes to prepare for a major trip, I recommend it to every teacher. It may take major fundraising or creative financing to make it possible, and it may be more practical to go on a camping trip nearby than on a tour of another country. You need to know your kids and make good choices about who you take--both students and chaperones--on those adventures.
But if it’s possible, do it. You’ll learn as much as they do, and you’ll come home with so many stories.
Better yet, so will they.
Here are some pictures taken during my travel with students over the past 11 years. I’ve selected images to try to convey the joys of this kind of travel (silliness and wonder and everything in between). I haven’t named any of the students to protect their privacy, but I hope some of them stumble across these images and smile.
I’m a huge fan of TED talks. If you aren’t familiar with this organization, here is their mission statement:
TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.
I love TED because we can access these ideas wherever we are and whenever we have time. Here are three talks I think everyone--but especially educators and parents--should watch.
Angela Lee Duckworth: The key to success? Grit
Angela Duckworth has her own lab at the University of Pennsylvania dedicated to "two traits that predict achievement: grit and self-control.” This talk summarizes key findings from the 2007 study she co-authored: "Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Many people assume that IQ will predict achievement. What the research found, however, is a far more crucial factor: grit. How resilient we are. How well we can bounce back from failure. Duckworth’s research solidified for me the importance of letting students struggle. Well-intentioned parents are doing their kids no favors when they try to “smooth the way” for them. It’s a great talk.
Side note: If you’re curious about your own “grittiness,” why not take this quiz to see how you do? Or maybe have students take it in a class before a discussion?
Carol Dweck: The power of believing that you can improve
I believe Carol Dweck is one of the most important researchers in the country. When I first read about her research about growth vs. fixed mindset, it profoundly shifted my understanding of intelligence and ability. More importantly, it had a tangible and concrete impact on the way I praise my students. This TED talk is a mere overview (parents, I urge you all to read “How Not to Talk to Your Kids” in tandem with this talk), but it’s a great place to start the conversation.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story
Chimamanda Adichie is a gifted Nigerian writer who has won many awards for her novels and short fiction. Her recent novel Americanah won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. What I love about this talk, however, is how it speaks to the importance of a rich and diverse literary curriculum. Adichie explores the dangers of a “single story” about any culture. She uses her own experiences as a college student in the U.S. as one example of this:
"My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my "tribal music," and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.... My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals."
We all have single stories due to a lack of exposure to other cultures, she argues, and she uses a trip to Mexico to show how she, too, fell prey to this trap. It’s a beautiful, powerful, and funny talk.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream