To Travel: 2014 Rural Trust Global Fellows Share Their Stories, Part 1

Last Updated: November 24, 2014

This article appeared in the November 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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“As a teacher it can feel like you always have a mountain in front of you,” says Kristin DeVaul who teaches in the coalfields of West Virginia. “Our state and county don’t fund laptops. Our district doesn’t have money for things a lot of schools take for granted.

So when DeVaul, who teaches World History at North Marion High School, learned about the Rural Trust Global Teacher Fellowship she was a little shocked and also very excited. The fellowships offer rural teachers grant funding for international travel and learning experiences.

“To know that someone values educators and the job teachers do and offers this kind of opportunity to teachers to better ourselves and the experiences of our students really changed my hope for education,” DeVaul says. She and fellow Marion County teacher, Kristy Efaw, who teaches Special Education at East Park Elementary, applied for and received Fellowships to spend several weeks exploring Europe.

DeVaul and Efaw are among thirty rural teachers who received Fellowships in 2014. The program, which is funded by an anonymous donor, supports rural teachers to pursue their own interests through international travel. Teachers, traveling individually or in teams, can design their experiences or choose an international program in which to participate.

If selected for the Fellowship, teachers also participate in a Rural Trust workshop on Place-Based Learning. In that workshop teachers consider how to connect student learning with their own communities and share ideas about how to translate their experiences as travelers into student learning.

Applications for Fellowships for 2015 are now open. Information about the program and how to apply is available here.

In 2014, Rural Trust Global Rural Fellows traveled to Central and South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and Canada. In Part 1 of this RPM feature, four Fellows share their experiences.

This changed my hope for education

DeVaul says she was looking for ways to engage her students more deeply when she learned about the travel Fellowships. “There is a lot of literacy built into content in these courses, which is a real challenge for some students, especially those with special needs. Some kids tend to shut down,” she says.

DeVaul knew from a unit on National Parks in her U.S. History class that students perked up when the class studied parks she had visited. “The kids were enthralled by me going. They would ask all kinds of questions related to the content.”

So rather than thinking about where she wanted to go, DeVaul decided to ask the students. “I thought, ‘this is about the kids,’ so I asked them what they thought were the coolest things about world history.”

And the kids told her. They liked the Eiffel Tower, the Roman Coliseum, learning more about wars. “It was the really iconic things that interested them,” DeVaul says. So she and Efaw planned a European trip that would include places on the students’ lists. They took tons of photos and brought back maps and guidebooks, money, and new perspectives.

Roman road to triumphal arch.
Roman road to triumphal arch.

“It’s been pretty amazing how many ways there are to connect our travels to curriculum,” DeVaul observes.

“We are doing a lot of work with map skills and math. For example, I showed them a photo of me at Constantine’s Arch and asked them how long it took me to walk from there to the Coliseum,” she says, noting that students had a new way to think about Roman roads and why Constantine was important.

“Now when we get to the explorers, a lot of things will make more sense to students. It starts to come full circle,” DeVaul says.

Experience history

Susan Pomasko also teaches social studies, and like DeVaul she was looking for ways to engage her students with historical content. “It is important to experience history, not just learn about it,” she observes.

Pomasko teaches 7th and 8th grade social studies at Marlborough School in New Hampshire, where she also works closely with other teachers in the community’s 180-student K–8 school.

She scheduled her travels to France and Canada while school was still in session so that students and colleagues could follow along. She set up a blog and posted photographs and notes, even assignments. “One of the great things about this opportunity was that I was able to choose what would be beneficial to me and my kids and do that exactly,” she notes.

Pomasko’s trip was a way to investigate history and culture in New England. She was also drawn to the place-based learning approaches integrated with the Rural Trust Global Teacher Fellowship program. “We want to promote acceptance and understanding of diversity on a global level,” she says. “And we know our students haven’t had a strong awareness of their own cultural heritage.”

Marlborough's French history influenced Pomasko’s choice to go to France and Canada to trace the routes of French immigrants into New Hampshire.

“I went to St. Malo, on the coast of France. That’s where French explorers to North America set sail,” she says. “I also went to La Rochelle, the port where early French settlers gathered, registered, and waited for ships to take them to ‘New France,’ what is now Canada.”

In Canada, Pomasko visited Quebec City and Montreal to explore early settlements and the St. Lawrence Seaway. From there she traveled south to learn more about the Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, New Hampshire and Lowell Mills in Massachusetts. “ “We also want them to understand the push-pull factors that influence immigration,” she explains.

Back at home, Pomasko has been busy working with other teachers to create curriculum to engage students in Marlborough. For example, third graders are working with the local Historical Society to map and research local sites. They will choose one and develop a presentation to convince the town to save that site. Fifth graders will develop exhibits on all cultural groups in the region and will research factors that draw people to particular communities. Sixth graders will investigate health and conflict issues prevalent in the Medieval period and work with local practitioners to learn more about wellness and conflict resolution techniques today.

“To be encouraged to do my own investigating and research, rather than to be told what to do, created so many possibilities. I can’t say enough about this opportunity,” says Pomasko.

You can read more about Pomasko’s travels here and see Marlborough’s curriculum, Investigating Our Cultural Heritage: The French Connection here.

So different, and so much in common

For Lori Bockting who teaches art at Linn High School in Missouri, the Rural Trust Global Teacher Fellowship was about connecting her students to others whose lives share a core similarity. “Our students live on working family farms,” she explains. “They are very connected to animals; they have chores and do things that have to be done for their families to survive. But now that the American family farm is close to extinction, kids in Linn don’t have a lot of other kids who can relate.”

Maputo white rhino and calf.
Maputo white rhino and calf.

Bockting decided to go to southern Africa, in part because of its family-based agriculture. “I went to South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe,” she says. She chose to travel with Global Explorations for Educators Organization (, which offers international travel experiences for groups. “We camped the entire time,” Bockting says. “That made it possible for us to be in rural places and to get to know people that we would not have been able to meet if we had just been in cities and tourist destinations.”

Among the places Bockting visited was the Mondy Primary School in Zimbabwe. “It costs a family $150 a semester for each child to attend, grades one through eight,” she says. “There’s over 70% unemployment and the average wage is only $3 a day, so that’s what families are working for—to make sure their kids can go to school.”

The children have after-school responsibilities that are remarkably similar to students in Linn. “They feed animals and graze cattle and take care of chickens,” she says, adding “but they have to shepherd their animals into fenced areas at night so they don’t get eaten by hyenas.”

As part of the tour, Bockting was also able to visit the Okavanga Delta, the only delta in the world that empties onto land. “It flows into the Kalahari Desert and gradually turns from marshland into desert. In the dry season animals migrate to find water there,” she says. Bockting saw giraffe, wildebeasts, elephants, zebra, hippos, impala, and kudu.

The group also went to Victoria Falls and Antelope Park, which includes a lion preserve, in Zimbabwe and to Chobe National Park in Botswana, where they saw Kalahari elephants, rhinos, and lions.

Bockting says the opportunity to see so many animals was a big bonus for the trip. “But for me and my students it was the connections with people that have been most meaningful,” she says. “We’re establishing a pen pal program so the kids can write each other letters. My kids are mesmerized that the students I met have lives that are so different from theirs and yet they have so much in common.”

Community arts for building community

“I’m interested in how the visual arts transform and transmit ideas,” says Teresa Heil. That was one of the reasons she chose to travel to Cuba. “Arts are very embedded in Cuban society. There are community arts projects everywhere.”

Heil teaches art at Frazer School, a 140 student K–12 school on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana. All of the school’s students belong to the Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes.

“Of all the programs I’ve done, this one is most connected to curriculum,” she says. Heil spent two weeks in Cuba, traveling through the Center for Cuban Studies.

Cuban Artist José Fuster's community art project in Jaimanitas, a neighborhood west of Havana.
Cuban Artist José Fuster's community art project in Jaimanitas, a neighborhood west of Havana.

Her travels took her to Havana and to the communities of Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Santiago de Cuba. “We visited artists' homes, galleries, monuments, and we met community leaders. Each place was unique. Trinidad's Spanish colonial architecture is a designated UNESCO world heritage site; Santiago de Cuba has a lot of African and Haitian influences; Cienfuegos is a charming waterfront city located on a bay. And almost every neighborhood, every community has public art related to that place,” she says.

Heil was struck by how engaged local residents are in making public art and how much that art engages history and social and political issues. “The art strengthened the sense of community and local pride. It expressed community values. You could see a love of place; the art was building community relationships.”

Heil teaches almost all Frazer’s junior and senior high school students every year. This year the students will select and research a significant historical event in the community. “We’ll do a lot of oral history and involve community members and elders,” she says. Then the students will design and build a public art piece based on what they have learned. “We plan to install the piece and dedicate it to the community in a celebration by early summer.”

The curriculum is aligned with the four artistic processes of the new National Visual Arts standards: creating, presenting, responding, and connecting. “And we are embracing the principles of place-based learning,” Heil emphasizes. “We don’t know where the students and community will take us. That’s a little scary. But it’s also the exciting part.”

You can see Heil’s video, Cuba: Up Close & Personal here.

Learn more about how teachers in your rural school can participate in the Rural Trust Global Teacher Fellowship program by visiting the program’s website. Applications for 2015 are open. Deadline is January 30, 2015.

Read more from the November 2014
Rural Policy Matters.