Permanent Vacation

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A trip to Europe proved woefully out of sync with today's pedagogical priorities.

I can’t believe how much time, energy, and money school districts waste. A perfect example was the frivolous expenditure on the part of my own district in spring 2003.

There I was, teaching English as traditionally as possible in rural Pinal County, Arizona, to teenagers who were—more so than most—at risk of imprisonment, pregnancy, and addiction. It was gearing up to be another normal semester of the old standbys: readings, worksheets, essays, and tests. Then, out of the blue, some half-crazed, bleeding-heart type tried to fix what wasn’t broken by organizing a trip to Europe. So what if our children were travel-deprived? So what if among our student body of 70, fewer than 10 percent had ever been to the Grand Canyon, merely six hours away? So what if research shows again and again that travel is vital for healthy brain function? Those kids needed to learn what’s really important in life: scoring well on tests. Yet our district was led astray, and as a result, we wasted valuable resources on a completely superfluous trip to Europe.

The primary instigator of this folly was the social studies teacher, Jeffrey Mead. Just because he had been to Europe more than 30 times, and just because he was experienced at navigating the chaotic streets of Paris, and just because he was able to line up a series of reduced rates for places completely off the beaten path and connect our students with French peers and basically finance the 10-day trip for less than $1,200 per person, our stupid district—in a momentary lapse of reason—accepted him as some sort of expert and actually endorsed the shindig.

By a stroke of bad luck, I got roped into being a chaperone. What a waste of time. Upon our arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris, the first thing that struck me was how impressed the students were with the lush greenery of the French landscape—as though the barren desert, 7 inches of rain annually, and the stifling 100-plus-degree temperatures of their native Arizona weren’t good enough for them. Let me tell you: Had they been content to sit in air-conditioned rooms and memorize stuff instead of wasting valuable learning time in Europe having "fun," then they would have done a heck of a lot better on their Stanford 9s. There’s a reason our library has books on France, Germany, and Belgium—so we don’t actually have to visit those places. If the students wanted "lush" and "green," they should have dissected more meticulously that essay on deciduous woods from the semester before.

We started out in Paris, then whiled away the time outside the city in Chantilly before piling into our rented nine-passenger van and driving an hour north to Soissons, where we checked out the cathedral. Yeah, yeah, our kids live in junky 8-year-old apartments made of Styrofoam and chicken wire crusted in stucco, and this crib dated back to the 1100s or whatever. Big deal. Look it up in a book. All I could think of was how we could better spend the time going over Arizona standards, doing rote drills, and practicing filling in Scantron sheets. But no, we were stuck in Northern France, touring abbeys and World War I sites, then darting up to Bouillon, Belgium, for a self-guided exploration of its castle.

Heaven forbid I should leave out Trier, Germany. Oooh, the Porta Nigra, the largest Roman gate still standing in Europe. Ahh, the equally old Roman bathhouses. Wow, a Baroque cathedral—and the Basilica, and wine country, and a culture that our students couldn’t have ever imagined in their wildest dreams. But why would they need to? There’s only one thing they had to imagine: passing the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards. This pointless stint along the Moselle River only acted as a distraction.

Of all the time-wasters in Europe, though, two stops in Paris reverberate as the biggest: the Louvre and the catacombs. First, if the visual arts were so dang important, they would comprise a section on standardized tests; but do they? No! So why did our district have to toss unnecessary resources out the window just to enable a group of at-risk teens to see the trite cliché referred to as the Mona Lisa? No wonder our schools are failing. Second, the catacombs—underground tunnels containing the remains of untold numbers of people—proved just as useless. When American students observe the consequences of war firsthand, instead of as statistics in dry, passively voiced documents, those students might actually reflect on the ramifications of life, death, and war. And in today’s black-and-white political climate, acknowledgment of gray is just about the last thing we need.

Fortunately, thanks to pressure from the state, our district has acknowledged its mistakes and taken steps to avoid repeating them. During this past school year, student trips were delightfully squelched. As a result, there was no Europe trip, no San Diego trip, and, in a stunning victory, not even an afternoon trip to a nearby lake. The district has readjusted its focus to where it should have been all along: standardized testing.

With that in mind, administrators have brought on board a glut of relevant experts like reading specialists—usually middle-age, ex-elementary-level teachers with all the proper endorsements. Granted, to the extent that they are held accountable for their efforts, these specialists earn every penny trying to market Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to a bunch of kids whose primary parental figures, in many cases, are their probation officers. It’s a tough sell, but obviously it’s the only legitimate approach in education.

At long last, our school district has grown a backbone and refused to be bulldozed by the experiential education types who think that taking a kid to Europe and showing him or her history, art, and culture are somehow more effective than filling out worksheets and administering lengthy tests. Thankfully these so-called hands-on teachers, having suffered blow after blow, are now appropriately demoralized—yet another indication of the pedagogical triumph of good over evil. Our assessment-oriented administrators and teachers can sleep soundly at night, knowing the district sparkles where it matters most: on paper.

Vol. 16, Issue 1, Pages 59-60

Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as Permanent Vacation
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