by Guy Thompson
The pictures brought back are amazing.
But the experience and memories for NHS students who have traveled overseas with school groups will last even longer, shaping how they see the world.
Last year, NHS teacher Paul Johnson led a group of students on an eight-day trip around Italy. “It’s a real cultural experience,” Johnson stated. “With teaching, you hope the lessons impact students. But with trips like that, it really makes an impression.” Johnson pointed out that by taking students to the places they read about in books, the places where historic events happened, “puts a lot more meaning to it.”
One student who went on the trip, Desirae Kemp, said “I fell in love with Italy the second we arrived. It was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined and impacted me more than I believed was possible. To see and personally experience the history that I’ve learned about in school was completely jaw-dropping and left me completely speechless at the time. I am planning on making my way back to Italy sometime in the next couple of years and possibly even finding a place of my own!”
Johnson had taken students on international trips while teaching in Florida and now, after teaching at NHS for 11 years, is heading up trips for students here. “Byron Brown did trips with students for years,” Johnson noted. But after Brown left, students hadn’t had the opportunity to take trips.
Other teachers are now working to set up trips, both overseas and within the U.S., to give students these unique experiences. For several years, biology students have had the opportunity to travel to the Florida coast to study marine biology. Theater directors Ellen Augustine and Nicole Deckert are recruiting students for an upcoming trip in June to New York City, targeting theater, IB, choir, and art students. “It includes a couple of Broadway shows, art museums, and many sites around the city,” Augustine said. They are looking to take up to 20 students.
Also in June of next year, German teacher Stephanie Zacher will be leading a group on a 10-day tour of Germany. A second-year teacher at NHS, Zacher grew up in Germany and has traveled back with other student tour groups. “This trip is the grand tour,” she said of the itinerary. “I love taking students to Germany. It is something to watch them experience it for the first time.”
While not immersive, the experience gives students a hands-on opportunity to try out their language skills with native speakers. To try the food, as well as to try to order the food. It gives them a sense of the culture that they have only read about or discussed in class.
“As a teacher, the best part is seeing them next year at school. They are much more invested in it,” Zacher said. “As a language teacher, I watch them use it and come back more willing to learn.”
The cultural lessons are as important, she added. “You can talk about public transportation, but they have no idea until they experience it,” she noted.
And trips to places like Italy and Germany can also give students a new perspective on age. “When something is old over there, they mean 500 years or more,” Zacher said.
Traveling through a student tour company also gives the participants some unique opportunities. “They (companies) set up all of the arrangements,” Johnson said. “We have a guide with use, 24/7.” Those guides are often locals themselves, and can lead the group to places not normally seen by regular tour groups. Johnson recalled one guide who had the bus go up to a spot behind a church that gave a grand view of the city below. And the night tour of Rome. And early entry into the Colosseum in Rome, giving students a chance to experience the venue before it was overrun by tourists. Student Allie Hamilton said “The feeling of walking into the Colosseum was like one of those moments on TV when someone jumps into a book – I jumped into a history book and I was standing there, imagining the crowds there would have been almost 2,000 years ago.”
“One student told me as a sophomore that she had always dreamed about going to Italy. Everything she saw was amazing. She didn’t want to leave,” Johnson said.
Zacher sees the experiences growing into home-stays for students studying German. NHS recently partnered with a school in Bavaria, which will be sending students to Middlebury in March to stay for three weeks, attending classes and interacting with students and families.
Zacher sees NHS students heading to Straubing, Germany, in 2019 or 2020, to stay in homes there. “This is a newer thing for the district to have this kind of a program,” she said. “But they’ll get to see the little cultural things this way. How are homes set up? What do they eat for dinner? I hope students are excited for this.”
Zacher feels students will grow even more from such an immersion into the language and culture. “They’ll see and hear things they won’t in class,” she said. They will also learn about things specific to that area of the country.
Johnson said that trips to Italy are always a big hit, and requests to go to places like Paris are often high on that list, too. Most student tours are based in Europe, he added, as it is less expensive to get there and requires less travel time. “It also matches up with our curriculum more,” he said. The trips can cost close to $3,000, but includes everything except passports, lunch, and souvenirs. “It includes the guides, transportation, tickets,” Johnson said. And, with up to two years of planning, many students can do their own fundraisers or payment plans to afford the trip.
Aside of the lesson in language and culture, Zacher sees the trips as ways for students to experience the actual effort of traveling. “Touring with a school group is a great first experience,” she said. “There are a lot more safety nets. They’re not completely alone.” Students also learn the value in packing light, she added.
Johnson is already looking ahead to a trip for Spring Break 2019, this time to London and Scotland, giving NHS students another opportunity to visit a culture and see places that they have only read about in books, and then come back to Middlebury with a whole new view on the world.