By Scott Hemker | EF Group Leader
In my previous post, I wrote about the nightmares I have leading up to my tours. I stress a lot about being sure that the overall experience exceeds the expectations of my students and their parents. To help combat that I offered tips to teachers on how to engage their students before a tour. By being organized and getting students excited and prepared, I’ve been able to reduce my stress and increase the likelihood for a once in a lifetime opportunity for students.
Although I’m excited when the actual tour begins, I also know that there is a lot of work to do to ease my worries. I’m also well aware that there are other possible nightmares to be concerned about. I’m not going to make a list of potential problems, but many of them stem from allowing too much down time for students. This can be a recipe for disaster! Instead, I chose to use this time to engage them in various activities that will help them to better understand what they are seeing and experiencing on tour.
Keep a journal
The first thing I do is to require students to keep a journal. They may use their laptops if they brought them or they can simply use a paper notebook. I make sure students have them before we leave. I had opportunities to travel as a college student and I kept journals myself. I show students my journal and I share excerpts. I explain that keeping a
journal helps me remember where I went and what I did. At the time they were written, my reflections helped me put the entire experience into perspective.
Additionally, they helped me recall my experiences more clearly in order to share them with others. Today, they help me look back and see how much I’ve grown and learned. Students are impressed that I’ve kept my journal for so many years. They are interested to hear my personal thoughts and reflections. They laugh at some of my stories. But most importantly, they buy into the idea of keeping a journal. Once I’ve modeled what a good journal looks like, I ask them to write daily. They may write on the bus, in the evening in their hotel rooms, or any other free time. I never read their journals. I only care to see that they are writing. Students are amazed at how much they write. Many fill an entire notebook, some even two. I’m no longer surprised. Students enjoy writing freely, especially when the topic is highly relevant. At the end of the tour, students often comment how glad they are that they have their journals to keep. This is truly a win-win situation. We minimize down time and increase the level of student engagement.
Create a highlight video
Another idea to engage students while on tour is to have them create a highlight video of the trip to share with family, friends, sponsors, and even the school board. On my most recent tour, some of my students purchased high quality, but inexpensive, video cameras and recorded several short clips throughout the trip. Some of the cameras were capable of taking photos as well. One specific camera, the Flip video camera, is great because you simply “flip” out the USB arm and connect it to the computer to share videos quickly and painlessly. These students conducted personal off-the-cuff interviews of their classmates. During their free time in the evenings, students are able to continue shooting footage for their videos. If they have a computer (I’d highly recommend a MacBook due to its compact size, ease of use, and remarkable features), they could begin editing their videos in an easy to use video editing program such as iMovie (comes with the iLife suite for media organizing and editing on all new Macs) in order to create a polished final project. Without a computer, the videos have to be edited at home. Sometimes the simple challenge of creating something unique can be enough to keep students busy for hours. It makes it even better that it once again involves something relevant and of value.
Earn college credit
Although I haven’t yet tried this option, students can sign up to earn high school or college credit while on tour. According to the Educational Resources link on the EF Tours website, “Students can earn one elective credit for completing assignments before, during and after their EF tour.” This option would further engage students throughout the tour thus providing an even richer learning experience.
Finally, I’d like to share my number one secret for engaging students while on tour. Each evening around 10 pm, depending on the daily schedule of events, we all gather for our daily evening meeting. We meet in the largest hotel room occupied by the members of our group. We first talk about rule reminders and a brief run through of the schedule for the upcoming day. Next, we begin a discussion that often lasts up to an hour and a half long. We all talk about what we saw, what we liked, what we didn’t like, what we learned, what we thought was different. We talk about unique experiences we had individually or as a group and how we feel about them. As the teacher, I moderate the discussion. Everybody gets multiple chances to speak and share.
Our nightly meetings make a huge difference for my tours. They help students begin to critically think and reflect upon their experience as well as their own lives. The students learn from listening to others. They get to know the other group members better and a tighter bond is created. It keeps the students engaged at a time of the evening when most problems occur. It settles them down and gets them thinking. Immediately afterwards, students go back to their rooms and often write in their journals while their thoughts are fresh in their minds. At this point, it is close to midnight and wake-up call is sometimes just six hours away. The students are tired and are ready to get some rest. My chaperones and I like to wear ‘em out and put ‘em to bed as opposed to wind ‘em up and let ‘em go.
These meetings are a way for me to informally assess what my students are learning throughout the trip. I ask questions that allow me see if they are learning the educational content. I check to see if they are growing personally through reflection and journal writing. I answer any questions or concerns. I also make sure that they are feeling well and enjoying themselves. Sometimes the students from other groups on our tour make fun of my students because they have to attend these meetings. But the feedback I receive from my students after the trip tells me that the meetings make a huge difference for them.
They actually look forward to them. A student on my most recent trip wrote in his end of the trip letter to me, “I enjoyed the meetings every night with the group. I felt it helped us become closer and it allowed us to express what we were feeling and thinking. I really don’t think the trip would have been the same without them.” Like anything else I do, I make sure I sell this idea to them. Most importantly, I make sure I engage my students by letting them talk and share.
Engaging your students on tour “after hours” by having them create highlight videos, write in their journals, do coursework to earn credit on tour, or participate in meetings helps keep students in a safe environment. It creates a tighter bond within the group that also reduces problems. It also fosters a better learning environment that ultimately leads to an overall better travel experience. At the end of the trip, it’s my goal to hear my students say, “That was the best two weeks of my life.” And at that point, I can finally rest assured knowing that my nightmare didn’t come true.
Readers, what unique suggestions do you have for engaging students while on tour?
(Editor’s note: Scott Hemker’s posts appear once a month on Following the Equator. If you have a travel question for our expert group leader, or an idea for a blog post topic, you can email Scott, and he will answer readers’ questions in future posts.)