Educators are always talking about what happens in the classroom—from the Common Core State Standards to testing to social-emotional learning. So much of what happens inside school walls is based on results, not the journey that led to them.
But as students grow into professionals, they will need skills that many teachers have never taught, such as collaboration across digital networks and the ability to assess new information as it becomes easier to obtain. One of the most important conversations educators should be having now is how to bring our students out into the real world and teach them the skills to interact with it.
As an English teacher, I spent much of my time challenging students to find inspiration, consider multiple perspectives, and explore their passions. I know that students feel they have more to say when they root their words in their experiences, and it is those experiences that push them to create their best work.
In fact, a 2016 globally representative study by the Student & Youth Travel Association, a nonprofit that seeks to improve and increase travel among young people, found that “a travel experience triggers a process of accelerated personal development, contributes to better academic performance, and improves social interaction between young people.” The same study found that students who traveled had an increased willingness to learn and explore and more independence, curiosity, self-esteem, and confidence. I know of few school-based initiatives that have the same kind of impact on students.
A Personal Voyage
I know firsthand the lessons a journey outside of school can teach. When I was 12 years old, my uncle took me to Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. I remember very clearly the sternness and pride in my uncle’s expression as he told me that I could very likely be standing in the same spot as a Harvard student in a few years if I put my mind to it. Even though neither of my parents had gone to college, nor were they capable of paying for it, I believed him.
My uncle had told me this many times before at home—as had my parents, grandparents, and teachers—but this moment resonated with me more than any of the others because we were sitting in Harvard Square. It’s one thing to tell a young, low-income girl that “she can do anything she puts her mind to,” but it is quite another to take her to a spot unimaginable to her and let her live the possibilities in an immersive way.
That moment opened me up to other opportunities as well. My high school art teacher planned a student trip to Europe, and when she handed me the flier for the informational meeting, I felt my face burn with desperation—I had never wanted anything more in my entire life. My parents sensed how important this opportunity was to me, so they told me if I could earn my spending money, they could muster up the rest. My mother took a job working nights at a convenient store to send me to Europe.
It is tactile experiences that transform people from merely talented into the kind of people who use their talent to make a mark on the world."
There, I met people who spoke different languages, ate foods I couldn’t pronounce the names of, walked into buildings erected during time periods I only knew from history books, and watched as my art teacher wept at the Sistine Chapel. Those experiences changed my view of what the world could be.
Looking back, I recognize that those formative experiences I had as a young person sent me on the trajectory for the success I’ve known as an adult. They were more important than college. Why? Because travel can transform us into the people we were meant to be. I felt inspired by the things I saw and the people I met, and was disturbed by my own prior lack of understanding of the bigger, grander world.
A History of Learners Changed by Travel
There are few experiences more powerful than travel for awakening passion in young learners. Take author Toni Morrison, who spent her youth in Ohio reading books by white writers. It wasn’t until her student days at Howard University in Washington that she finally encountered books about the contemporary black American experience by black authors. She was frustrated to learn that few of those books actually existed and began writing them herself. Traveling was the catalyst for her life’s work. Author Ernest Hemingway, who was born in Illinois, also found inspiration abroad in the form of mentors and friends who helped him develop his straightforward writing style.
One might imagine that these pioneers would have found their way no matter what because of their talent and skill, but I believe it is tactile experiences that transform people from merely talented into those who use their talent to make a mark on the world. And the educator in me believes that we should be cultivating this desire and providing opportunities like these for our students.
Of course, there are many financial issues that affect schools’ ability to send students on field trips, much less around the country or abroad. But prioritizing such opportunities, especially for struggling students, is not impossible. Why should middle- and upper-class students be the only ones to receive such opportunities, especially when the impact could be far greater for students who have yet to experience travel at all?
Expanding the Walls of the Classroom
In my tenure as an educator in Kentucky, I’ve advocated for experiences outside of the classroom walls for my own students. Going somewhere new or getting the chance to interact with an interesting person impacted my students in ways they couldn’t have imagined.
When I took my suburban, mostly white students to the ESL Newcomer Academy, a public school in Louisville, Ky. where all students are beginning English speakers, one of my students told me later that the experience was the most important moment of her educational career, inspiring her to study Spanish in college.
I’ve taken students to local writing conferences, where they’ve received one-of-a-kind workshops with prestigious writers such as Helen Oyeyemi and Frank X Walker. I’ve taken students to farms, museums, plays, candy factories, printing presses, universities, and other schools very different from their own. And when funds have fallen short, I’ve asked guest speakers—ranging from forensic scientists to district court judges to literary agents—to come to us.
Teachers can look beyond their content and the material limitations of their environment to give students real and unique experiences that impassion them to think outside the bounds of their neighborhood, school, or classroom. Learning from a textbook will not be the catalyst for change in a child’s life, but experiencing a world beyond their own just might be.