I was sixteen when I boarded the plane to Germany with fellow students and just one teacher.
It's effortless to pull up memories from this time, all as vivid as a movie: I recall the nervousness that came with navigating a train station for the first time. I remember the feeling of triumph that came with overcoming the language barrier as my host family explained that light switches are found on the outside of the room. I can picture the map I drew on a napkin so I could find my way into town and home again. I distinctly remember being given my first beer, discovering that I didn't like it from sip one, then discreetly dumping it in the grass when I thought no one was looking (they were). I can taste the unfamiliar, bitter sip of my first coffee and still hear the snippets of conversation from the passersby at the cafe as I watched their comings and goings.
Traveling with other students and an attentive teacher opened up whole universes for me, not just in the sense that I saw and did something new, but it open up a Pandora's Box of questions that made learning about other people, other places, and other ways of living a priority. This initial trip showed me that so much discovery of oneself and others comes from traveling.
I haven't forgotten that and I want to give that to my students.
When telling adults that I was getting on a plane with middle schoolers to take them across the country to the mountains of southern Arizona, many asked the same worried questions: "How many kids are going? Are other adults coming with you? Aren't you concerned about the heat?"
In other words: What are you doing? Are you insane?
As I write this, I've recently returned from this trip to the Patagonia Mountains of Arizona, just eight miles from the US-Mexico border. I journeyed there with eleven of my students, all of which are incoming eighth and ninth graders. We had three different purposes: to learn about local cultures, to explore nature and the ecology of the area, and to participate in service projects that restore the natural habitat.
My students were everything a teacher could ask for-- they were eager to learn, present in the moment, collaborative within their group, respectful of those we met, and open to trying and doing new things. Looking back (at this nearly miraculous, best-case scenario), I couldn't be more proud of how they acted and their willingness to embrace a newness many adults shy away from.
Their openness to their experience allowed them to have such strong, poignant, transformative takeaways from the trip, things that won't be lost over the years to come.
Traveling, as young people, teaches a number of significant lessons.
For many students, traveling with a school group is the first time they've gone really anywhere without their families. No siblings clinging to them, no helicopter mom with her head on a swivel questioning all of their whereabouts, no father dictating the activities. The kids– in many ways– have to determine for themselves how they want to act and be. In short, they have to think for themselves.
There are rules, of course: always go somewhere with a buddy; be back at a certain time; make sure to put on sunscreen and chug water (hey, it was Arizona, after all.) For the most part, though, the kids really have to rely on themselves, for better or worse: when should I go to sleep so I'm rested enough for tomorrow? Do I need to shower? (Please do.) Who will I spend my time with? How do I say that I have a problem? How can I accomplish what needs to be done?
While learning outdoor survival skills with a wildlife biologist at Raven's Way Nature Sanctuary, my students were given the task of building a shelter that could withstand Arizona's challenges: the flooding, the heat, and the creatures. As silly as shelter building may sound, I witnessed my students become advocates for their group and persevere without asking for assistance from an adult. One complaint I often hear from teachers in the classroom is that students give up and wait for help without really trying on their own first.
GROWTH & CURIOSITY
Curiosity is an understated trait. It's what pushes us to learn, to grow, to excel, to question the world around us. It's what urges us to try out new avenues, pursue sparked interests, make new friends and form strong bonds. Traveling is natural fuel for this fire inside. Being open to seeing new parts of the world, a country, a state, and heck, even a city, engages our interest in other people and cultures. This is how all people– including young students– develop compassion and see things more on grander scale outside of themselves.
While on our trip, my students and I met with La Danza Folklórica, a group of indigenous Aztec dancers, to learn about their culture, history, and folklore. Dressed in traditional garb, they danced for us and along the way explained the significance of their dances and described the current state indigenous people are in throughout the United States and in Mexico. My students learned sayings in multiple languages, practiced the steps to a cultural dance, and asked questions about their tribe. Their fostered curiosity exposed them to worlds that were all but inaccessible before.
UNDERSTANDING & OPENMINDEDNESS
How many adults really embrace newness, even with change being a constant, inevitable reality? Instead of viewing change as something to avoid at all costs, traveling teaches young people to welcome the unfamiliar, to adapt to new situations, and to thrive in an ever-changing environment. All of these things help build toward successful personal and professional relationships and are lessons only taught through tangible experiences.
Traveling, too, helps young people become more openminded to ideas that once might have been foreign. Through experiencing everyday life in different ways, students become more conscious deliberators, pausing to see all sides of an argument before making a judgement or decision. As a teacher, my hope is to instill these qualities in young people: to think outside ourselves, to see all sides of a story, and to listen more than we speak. Traveling teaches those things.
There’s a catch, though.
Like with most things, lessons are lost without purposeful reflection. These milestones reached through traveling might not become cognizant thoughts without a guiding hand from you, the teacher. Talk with your students about what they’re feeling and experiencing. Lead them through journaling and discussions. Nudge them to go below the surface.
Don’t be afraid to share the experience of travel with your students. You and your students will come to life, and you’ll be providing a pivotal moment in their lives that might change the way they see themselves, others, and the world. That can't be beat.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.