Recharge your spirit — enrich your lessons
By Rachel Wilser
It’s summer! You’ve made it through another year. Congratulate yourself, if you haven’t yet. Teaching is emotionally taxing, so you should feel proud that you successfully completed another year. Relax. Celebrate. Go to the pool; eat some nachos. Take a break from teaching for a few weeks; take a vacation. Your summer travel can inspire your teaching during the school year.
If you’re involved in almost any teacher interaction online, you’ve likely heard about teacher self-care. To me, self-care means two things. First, it means that you’re making time for yourself to recharge — whether that means going to bed 30 minutes early to read, carving out an hour for exercise, making time to play games with your kids or spouse, or just quietly relaxing with a mug of tea. You need to set that time aside and guard it.
But equally important is creating boundaries so you don’t burn out. For example, you might leave school by 4:30 p.m. (barring meetings or school events), send parent calls to voicemail after 8 p.m., say no to coworkers or administrators when you don’t have time for what they are asking. The demands on teachers are practically infinite, and teaching can literally take over your life if you let it. Strong boundaries will help you prevent burnout and stay passionate, because you really can’t do it all.
Beyond engaging in meaningful activities and setting boundaries, traveling during the summer is an excellent way to recharge and relax. And it’s a great way to stretch the horizons of your classroom the following year. Now, I’m not suggesting that you only make travel plans that fit into your curriculum, or that you dedicate a majority of your trip to research. But I am suggesting that you think about how you can use a travel experience to enhance your teaching during the coming school year.
This can even be done as a reflection after your travels. Is there an artifact you’ve brought back that would enhance your classroom instruction — a flag, map, jar of sand, photograph? Intentional artifacts can help spark conversation and illustrate specific points better than conversation alone. Intentional artifacts can also be a snippet of a tour you give at a historic site (a video with narration, for instance), a picture you snap of a primary source (Hammurabi’s Code, the Rosetta Stone), or even a recorded conversation with local residents. (Obviously, pay attention to directions regarding artifact collection: Some places prohibit photography or collection of loose items, such as stones, leaves, or dirt.)
You can collect items that will go the distance in enhancing your students’ learning with minimal effort. A travel journal can help you plan how to incorporate these into your curriculum. You can record details of your travels that would normally fade over time. You can also write down details gleaned from tour guides, brochures, or signposts that you might otherwise forget. Furthermore, you can reflect daily on your travels — what did you particularly enjoy, or not enjoy? What was the highlight of the day? You can also use this space to store mementos such as tickets or pamphlets.
A crucial piece of integrating travel into your classroom is sharing with intention. It’s fine to share that you took a trip over the summer during an icebreaker on the first day of school, but that’s not necessarily enhancing your classroom. You need to create a deliberate plan for that to occur. For example, if you took a trip to the beach over the summer, maybe you can share some artifacts from this trip in a science lesson about ecosystems, habitats, or conservation. You could use a photograph as a writing prompt in an ELA class. For social studies or civics classes, you could research differing viewpoints on a local debate.
Did you take a trip to city with an historic landmark (civic or religious)? You can integrate historic landmarks into almost every subject area. In science, you can plan a STEM project, building a scale model out of certain materials, or you can have students attempt a problem that the original architect faced. In social studies, you can investigate how building the historic landmark impacted the local area. In ELA, you can read about the architect or the landmark itself, or use it as a writing prompt for either creative or nonfiction writing.
I’d also suggest that you dedicate more than just a few minutes to these artifacts. If we really want to bring our travels to life for our students in a way that enhances learning, we likely need to spend at least one day, if not multiple days, on this. More than merely sharing some photographs from your vacation, you’ll want to incorporate this into some project-based learning or other type of interactive framework, such as an experiential learning cycle or Think, Pair, Share.
An experiential learning cycle typically takes a few days, and it could take up to a week, depending on the age of your students. There are four steps to the cycle: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Obviously, the extent of independence and the amount of time this cycle consumes largely depends on the age of your students and their experience with independent learning.
In addition to artifacts from your travels, you can also enhance your instruction with virtual field trips.
Discovery Education offers virtual field trips regularly, and many U.S. historical museums and landmarks have virtual visit options. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History offers a virtual visit, and while the Smithsonian Zoo doesn’t provide for a virtual visit per se, they do have several animal cameras showing live feeds of pandas, elephants, and lions.
The National Park Service offers a virtual ranger program called Web Rangers where your class can explore specific aspects of the NPS.
You can also visit art museums and famous works of art around the country and the world, thanks to Google. Google also curates collections and has featured themes and stories. Because they rely on virtual visits, you can actually do some things you wouldn’t be able to do in an actual museum — even zoom in really closely on a Monet to see the different brush strokes that made the flower!
Basic Google searches of “virtual field trip” or your desired destination plus “virtual visit” or “virtual field trip” should yield a variety of results. Edutopia also has a curated list of resources.
Deliberate and intentional reflection while traveling can lead to enhanced instruction throughout the school year. When you push your boundaries and horizons, you return to school recharged and able to ignite that same type of growth for your students.
It’s easy to talk about enhancing your classroom with travel, but it’s another thing to budget for travel. Outside of normal advice to save or budget for a trip, I’d also recommend investigating grant or exchange opportunities for low-cost or free teacher-travel programs. todayct.us/2FRCodD
Some companies that rely on teachers to lead their tours allow teachers to travel for free, such as EF Tours.
The Peace Corps and Fulbright Foundation also both offer summer opportunities mainly designed for teachers. Most application deadlines for summer travel are the previous winter — so plan to apply in December 2019 or January 2020 for summer 2020 travel. todayct.us/2HFWpXd
While these companies and grants do help defray the costs, you shouldn’t expect to travel without cost. You’ll definitely need spending money, if nothing else.
The four steps of experiential learning
Concrete experience: This is where students examine or interact with the authentic resource or artifact(s). It might be listening to something you recorded, watching your tour video clip, or looking at pictures you took side by side with “official” pictures, or some combination thereof. It doesn’t need to be limited to only one artifact, but this is the step where students engage with your artifacts firsthand.
Reflective observation: In this step, students compare the resource to their own ideas, experiences, and feelings.
Abstract conceptualization: Students make connections between the artifact and broader issues/theories/ideas in this step. It’s likely they’ll need some additional support from you during this step, as it’s abstract — a bit like text-to-world connections in literature.
Active experimentation: Students are encouraged to interact in a new way with the artifact, or to create a new artifact or experience of their own based on their understanding of original concrete experience or artifact. This step is a synthesis; they’re taking all the learning they’ve done over the previous days and making it into something new. It’s likely that this final step could take more than one day for some learners.
Experiential learning works with students of almost any age, although younger students will need more support during this cycle.
Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle schools. Now she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.
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