Teachers Interpret International Travel

Last Updated: September 26, 2012

This article appeared in the September 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

The 2012 Global Fellows gathered earlier this month to reflect on their experiences and share how they are translating what they learned into their curriculum and teaching.

“Each fellow has ventured on a unique journey so coming together with other fellows who have had different experiences but have also made unique learning journeys is a way to extrapolate a big picture perspective,” says Margaret MacLean of the Rural Trust.

The twenty members of the group met each other for the first time in North Carolina, where they presented highlights of their travels, worked together on the development of place-based curriculum in their schools, and began to distill the meaning of their experiences for themselves and their students.

“The Fellows go with the purpose of enriching their content knowledge in a specific area,” says MacLean. “They have to describe what they intend to learn as part of their application. And they all learn more about what they set out to study than they ever anticipated. However, beyond content, the real value of the trip is the experience, taking a risk, getting outside your comfort zone and overcoming challenges.”

“The transformative learning,” says Jereann King Johnson of the Rural Trust, “is what people learn about themselves, what they learn about themselves as learners and what they learn about the world.”

For most participants the opportunity to travel to another country is the first time they have spent time in circumstances where they are not part of the dominant culture. “It’s that cognitive dissonance when you realize that you don’t know what it is you’re seeing and that what you thought you knew doesn’t really apply,” says Johnson. “The opportunity to see the world outside yourself, to be outside western mainstream culture, shifts people’s experiences and stirs up new understandings.”

“Being in a more vulnerable position, stepping outside their comfort zone, can help fellows think about student learning and how to better understand and replicate student learning experiences that infuse discovery,” MacLean says. “This is first-hand experience in the value of figuring things out, by discovery. It’s learning about how people learn. For many fellows this is the first time they have learned this way.”

It’s also a big confidence boost. “There’s a lot of work to this,” MacLean adds. “It’s a risk to travel in this way; people have to solve a lot of problems and they see they can do it.”

That sentiment was echoed by participants in a variety of ways. Teachers described how the trip boosted their self-esteem as teachers, made them realize they could pull off big challenges, and energized their passion for teaching in new ways. “It is so important that someone trusted us as educators to design our own experience and to trust that if we were inspired, we’d spread that when we return,” wrote one participant anonymously.

Bringing it home

As part of the Global Fellows program, teachers have to figure out how to translate their experiences to their students through place-based curriculum and teaching strategies that provide students with more hands-on learning opportunities. At the meeting, participants reviewed their curriculum work with each other and shared ideas for building on their experiences.

For example, Jose Galvan, who traveled to Great Britain, reported his astonishment to learn that history is taught thematically and through interaction with historic objects and places rather than the book-dependent, race-through-time chronological approach that is standard in most American schools. He was also surprised how many questions he was asked by British history teachers about African-American and Native American history in the U.S. His students will be doing oral histories in their communities this school year.

Katie Hendrickson, who traveled to France, Italy, and Belgium to study the fashion industry and lace-making, is incorporating pattern, design, weaving, and sales and marketing of fashion and working with the local artist community to get more middle school students interested in math.

Kathleen Overmyer, who traveled to Mexico and the Everglades to study local ecology and human-animal interactions, is getting her high school science students out in the environment and creating community engagement labs around plastic bag awareness.

In other examples, Meridith Reddick has established a snail mail pen pal program between her students and students in Mexico; Ann Marie Blackman is involved with an Egyptian Exchange program in her school; and Annie Gibovic is doing a year-long community study of Kenya.

Ripple effects

It is clear that the benefits of international travel made possible by the Global Fellows program produces wide-ranging and positive outcomes for teachers and their students. Teachers realize that the risk-taking and discovery that gave them new understanding and confidence can be paralleled in their classrooms.

Most importantly, in the estimation of many participants, was what they learned about the rest of the world: how it made them more open-minded and appreciative of other cultures, and what that means for what and how they teach their students.

“We are living in a global society,” says Johnson. “Teachers have to grasp that in all its complexity if they are going to align what they do in the classroom with the in-depth learning that students need to be prepared as global citizens. It’s good for people to see that when cultures come together, they don’t have to clash.”

For more information on the Rural Trust Global Fellows program, visit www.globalteacherfellowship.ruraledu.org/.

Read more from the September 2012 Rural Policy Matters.