‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation…’

‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation…’

Sandburg celebrates its teachers’ travels.

There are two maps in the front office of Carl Sandburg Middle School. On the U.S. map, push-pins are stuck into 20 states that teachers visited this summer. The world map next to it shows Sandburg teachers visiting countries as diverse as Norway, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Russia, France, Italy, Iceland, China and Taiwan.

Principal Wendy Eaton said teachers bring their experience abroad back to the classroom. “[Traveling] allows you to see various cultures and to learn about the history of different countries,” she said. “Even if you’re a math teacher, certainly you can relate things that you see in other countries to your class.” She added that the maps in the office are one more way for the school’s numerous and diverse faculty members to relate to one another.

Band leader Joe LaBrie experienced Italian history as ancient as the Roman Empire and as current as the last whistle of the World Cup finals. He visited Italy, Greece and France with 46 middle school students (none from Sandburg), and three other adults, through “People to People,” part of an organization called Student Ambassadors, an exchange program established by President Eisenhower in the 1950s under the assumption that “the best way to keep peace between countries is through people, not governments,” LaBrie explained.

“You read about the Acropolis; you read about ancient Greece, but it’s different to actually be there,” said LaBrie who had never traveled outside the country before. “Firsthand experiences blew me away.” He described standing in the center of Pompeii, the Roman city buried in volcanic ash in 79 A.D., and staring at Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed it. Later, he had the opportunity to climb to the summit of the scarred mountain. “When you’re up at the top and looking down at the crater, you can still see steam rising.”

LaBrie and his students played sports with French students in a village outside Chartres, ate a meal with families in Italy and learned to dance in Greece. Their visit to Rome coincided with the World Cup finals, in which Italy beat France. Throngs of people with faces painted and flags waving roamed the streets on foot and roared past on motorcycles. “The City shut down,” LaBrie explained, as did the restaurant where they were booked to eat. “As soon as that last ball was kicked. You could feel the entire city just sort of shake and hear it rumble.”

“Soccer is a way of life over there,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how old you were, if you were a boy or a girl, what you did. It broke down all those barriers. Of ethnicity, religion, all that.”

“I went to a Nationals game last night,” he added. “And I think there was probably 3,000 people there. I was wishing I could be at a match and have that sort of crowd around me, being just completely engulfed.”

TIM COLEMAN, who teaches social studies and English as a Second Language, went to Quito, Ecuador as a student. He spent six weeks studying Spanish one-on-one for five hours a day at a school he found online. He lived with a host family the entire time, for practical reasons.

“I requested a host family because it was $14 a day, including food, and I figured if you go to a restaurant, even thought it’s cheap down there, its still possibly $10 a day. Plus you get to practice some Spanish. Whereas the hostels are known for partying with all the gringos.” The family he lived with had hosted students for 20 years, “so they were pretty used to the drill,” Coleman said. He spent most of his time seeing the city by himself or with classmates, or just hanging out with his host family in their apartment.

He said Quito is similar to an American city, but the rest of the country, dominated by the Andes mountains, is “much more rustic: a get-onto-a-dirt-road, travel-in-the-back-of-a-pick-up-truck kind of deal.”

Coleman believes he went from being an intermediate Spanish Speaker to a low-level advanced. The immersion experience improved his Spanish, and it helped him be mindful of the frustrations of many of the students in his English-language class. “It reminds me the challenges of learning a language, which my students face. I think it helps me relate to my students who are learning English. It also allows me to communicate better with them and their parents, and it makes me realize how fortunate I am to live in the United States, in terms of the American society as being capitalistic, having plenty of resources, good standard of living and infrastructure.”

Coleman has made a habit of traveling abroad over the summer. In previous summers he visited Morocco (to learn Arabic), Spain and Guatemala. His colleague, Adrian Cleckley, a history and English teacher, applied to an overseas study program because he wanted to visit a foreign country (not counting Cancun and Canada) for the first time. He was one of 25 teachers chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ to participate in a six-week “Summer Institute” in South Africa. “It was going to be educational,” said Cleckley, describing his motivations, “therapeutic as well.”

“And free,” Coleman interjected.

After a week of lectures at the University of Western Cape, outside Capetown, Cleckley and his colleagues traveled across the country on a bus, stopping for lessons along the way. “When you go to major cities you really, really felt at home because it was very westernized, from shopping malls to the style of dress,” Cleckley said.”But when you left those major cities, it was what you saw on National Geographic or Discovery. We started calling it the bush.”

The bus began many travel days on a major highway. After a few hours, it would turn onto a secondary road and travel several more hours, “then,” Cleckley said, “in order to get to where you spend the night, you get on a dirt road for another 10 or 15 miles. And you’d get out and be like, ‘Wow.’ You were the only people there. Literally.” He recalled passing through isolated areas and seeing cleared fields of grass with two posts at either end. They were soccer fields.

Cleckley said what he learned about apartheid will influence how he teaches about Civil Rights in America. He will also have a wider perspective from which to teach about democracy. The South African students he met were not always impressed by “American Democracy,” as they called it. One student wondered how Americans could be represented when they could only choose between two candidates. There were 13 presidential candidates in South Africa’s last election.

But recalling the trip, Cleckley spoke most passionately about the relationships he formed with his American colleagues as they rolled day after day through a land that was utterly different from anything they knew. Perhaps the most powerful part of the trip, Cleckley said, was “just to sit on a bus for four weeks and talk about your experiences and how you’re going to use those experiences in your day-to-day lessons.” The students did not have to take lecture notes, but they did journal every day. These journal entries, whether about the land they were seeing or the lives they’d left behind, formed the basis for conversations that are still continuing, months after Cleckley and his new friends have returned.

Like Coleman and LeBrie (who has already signed up for a People to People trip to Fiji, Australia and New Zealand) Cleckley says he’ll travel again, but not to South Africa. “There are so many places in the world to see that are equally as vital and as vibrant.”