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School Travel Program Blunders and the Lessons Learned
Last night I was lying in bed recovering from a minor stomach bug. I was reminded of the time I thought I had rabies on a school travel experience to Costa Rica. That's how this post came to be! This article will be the launching point for a grander series of posts on student travel.
Most of you know this already, so I'll keep it brief. When I was teaching (I am now temporarily home with my children), I coordinated a lot of school trips, from nearby camping overnights, to elaborate travel experiences abroad. In my nine years teaching there, I planned, coordinated and chaperoned dozens of trips. Take a look at at my school travel blog to check out some of our travels. The first trip I ever took with students was a service learning experience to Texas after Hurricane Ike tore through cities like Galveston. I took that trip as a first year teacher. It was a tough one in many ways, but upon reflection, I realized just how dramatically the lives of students were forever changed (for the better). From that point on I was committed to providing as many of these life-changing-experiences with my students as possible.
Traveling did not come without a lot of trial and error! As I said, there were some mishaps on the Texas trip......and the Costa Rica trip, and California, Florida, Colorado, Hawaii. Pretty much all of them. I look back on those experiences now and laugh, because everyone got home safely, some of the mishaps were comical, and ultimately, each obstacle we faced was a learning experience. These adventures and mishaps bonded us (many of us for life). They presented opportunities to problem-solve in real-life situations, resolve conflict effectively, push through even the harshest of conditions. We all came out on the other side as stronger individuals for having endured and overcome these blunders.
1) "Awe, your friends came to welcome you home!" - Texas
The mishaps (a nice way to put it) on this trip were humdingers, to say the least. I have it listed as the first story strictly because it happened first chronologically. But it probably should be saved as the grand finale. I was a first year teacher, so hadn't planned any school trips up to this point. A colleague of mine at the time organized the trip, and I just tagged along as a chaperone, which even that I was ill-equipped to do at the time. Together we packed 10 kids in a van, hitched a trailer for our things, and trekked across the country from Minnesota to Galveston, Texas, which took about 3 days.
On the way to Texas there was an under-the-radar feud developing between two students. My colleague and I were for the most part completely oblivious to this fact. When we got to Texas, minor altercations started to surface here and there. We'd see conversations between students elevate a little, we'd quietly calm them down and move on with our work. About half way through the trip, a couple students sneaked into another students room in the middle of the night, took all of his things, and threw them in the hallway. My colleague and I dealt with that the best way we knew how at the time. We got mad, pulled the "I'm disappointed" card, had a mediation circle. The works. They all agreed they could tolerate each other for the rest of the trip, which they did as far as I was aware. We thought we were in the clear.
On the drive home everyone was joyful, happy, friends. We sang songs, played road-trip games, laughed, reminisced about the trip and the important work we did and the people we helped. When we pulled into the school parking lot I saw a large group of people congregating around their cars. I thought, "Oh wow, how nice. The students friends and families have come to welcome them home".
We all stepped out of the van, and before I could even open my mouth to say hello to the visitors, a full-blown riot erupted in our parking lot. Students, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends of our student travelers all felt the need to get involved. People throwing punches, tackling, taking each others shoes. Yes that happened. Turned out that our two rival students had planned this before we left, and were texting away, recruiting their people on the road trip home. Right. Under. Our. Noses. The only thing I knew to do was call the police. They arrived and everyone scattered. The rest is history.
The aftermath involved standard school protocol for such an event. There were some suspensions, some expulsions, some restorative circles. The usual. I will remember that trip forever, for one because I couldn't have in my wildest dreams expected what happened to happen. I learned a lot about myself as a person and as an educator. Students did as well. One of the kids involved in the the altercation graduated that year, and has since stayed in touch. That was nine years ago. He successfully started his own business, and is a kind individual. This is an example of how our past mistakes don't have to define us. I try to remember this with each new student I encounter. Who they were before they came to me is irrelevant. They start clean in that moment.
2) "There's a bat in the room" - Costa Rica
My sister, a volunteer chaperone, and I took a small group of female students to Costa Rica in 2014. Anyone who has been to Costa Rica knows it's a wild place, hence the reason we went. I am a biology teacher with a background in ecology and conservation, so the purpose was to study tropical biology. We got what we asked for. There was tropical life EVERYWHERE - beetles the size of cell phones barreling into our foreheads at max speed during dinner, howler monkeys providing our daily morning wake-up calls, poisonous frogs, "bullet" ants (just imagine what that means), some of the most dangerous snakes in the world, invisible stinging insects, and bats. At times it felt like a scene out of Jumanji or Avatar. Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful places I've been by the way. I don't mean to make it sound bad.
One of the hotels that we stayed at had an open ceiling sort of concept. There was technically a roof, but the walls didn't go from floor to ceiling, so anything that flies could be in your room at any given moment. One evening my sister and I were winding down from a full day hangin' in the rain forest. We were lying in our beds, watching a Spanish version of Frozen on TV. Something was telling me to look up. My eyes slowly directed their gaze toward the ceiling like a scene from a scary movie, and low and behold, right above the bed on the ceiling was a bat. Now normally a bat is not something I would be afraid of. I'm a biologist after all. But the hypochondriac that my sister is felt the need to dive to the floor like a bat outta hell (ha, good one, right?) She was literally shaking in fear. She proceeded to explain to me, as I'm still laying in bed with a bat hanging over my head, that sometimes people get bit by bats and don't know they were bit. They die from rabies within hours. Parts of that are true. I've heard stories. Just a little dramatic. I got out of the bed to go get a hotel staff member to remove the bat from our room, when suddenly the bat started flying around our room and took a dive right at me. I dove to the floor, army crawled to the corner of the room behind a small desk, and proceeded to lay there in fetal position for the next ten minutes. Finally a couple of our students came knocking, walked in to see my sister and I both curled up in corners while a bat continued to fly around the room. Surprisingly the students were cool as cucumbers, and went to get a manager for us (because my sister and I were afraid to get off the floor).
A manager came into the room and basically laughed. By that point the bat had crawled into some small space in the ceiling. Not only do I think the hotel manager didn't believe us, but he walked into a room with two grown women shaking and screaming on the floor, while two young students saved the day. Tourists at their finest. We ended up going to bed and crawling deep down under the covers to avoid any bat attacks in the middle of the night.
Around 2 a.m. I awoke, drenched in my own sweat, but shivering. My muscles were weak, my bones were sore. I was cold and weak. I was so lethargic that I had to drag my body across the floor to the bathroom where I attempted to take a warm shower. It was cold and there was only a trickle. My sister rolled my suitcase in the bathroom where I proceeded to put on every item of clothing that I brought, crawled back into bed, and didn't sleep a wink because I was CERTAIN that I had rabies. How could I not? The next morning I was still in a bad way. Still weak, still freezing, but sweating profusely. But we had plans, I was their instructor, I had to pull through. We had plans to go white water rafting that day, and it was absolutely the most miserable experience of my life. Nothing like getting drenched in frigid water when you have rabies. Ok, turns out I didn't have rabies, obviously. But it's pretty crazy that I just happened to get a 24 hour flu the same night we slept with a bat flying around our room. Things happen on all school trips that you don't anticipate. That's a great lesson in life - for all of us.
3) "Uh, my pack broke. Do we have another one?"
- Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
"Ummmmmmm, no!?" I believe was my answer to that question, along with something like, "Are you kidding me right now? You're kidding, right? Right? RIGHT!!??", in a tone somewhere between frustration and utter and complete panic.
Approximately three hours prior to this conversation, a group of students and I set off on our 5 day trek along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It is a stunning hike along Lake Superior, with a mix of pine forest, rock cliffs, and sand dunes. It's one of the most beautiful places I have been. We arrived after a seven hour drive from Minnesota to our trail head, excited to get started. Now let me give you some background information before I continue. The school at which I worked serves inner-city, at-risk students, many homeless, almost all under the poverty line. They are not rolling in the best backpacking equipment. And anyone who has ever done serious backpacking knows that you can't bring a 20 lb tent, a huge camping stove, a pillow, a drawstring bag for your pack! Everything you're going to eat, cook with, sleep with, dress with ends up on your back, which is carried with you for the entirety of the trip.
Knowing that my students didn't have all of this equipment sitting around, I gathered what the school already had, got a few donations, and thought we were good to go. My students and I spent a significant amount of time before the trip planning for it, talking logistics like what to pack. I unloaded all of our equipment in front of them offering each one of them great packs. Each student except one insisted that they had their own stuff. I remember thinking it was a little strange, but trusted that if they said they had it covered, then they had it covered.
We arranged to meet at the school before our departure to get the school van and pack up our stuff. When students pulled in, got out of their cars, and walked toward me with little to no gear, I started to get concerned. I asked one student where all of his stuff was. He turned around to show me his bag - a small, black, draw-string bag, no bigger than 18 inches long, with fraying seams and wearing ropes. I never swear in front of students, but there were no other words at the time. They just tumbled out of me under my state of complete shock. "Holy shit!" I believe were my exact and only words. I think I was truly waiting for him to say "gotcha!" and run back to his car to grab a legitimate pack. He did not. You'd think I would have marched right into the school to grab one of our bags. I didn't, and I don't remember why now. It was either because I couldn't get in the school, or it was sheer stupidity on my part. Likely the latter. None of the other kids had drawstring bags, but their arrangements were not much better. Somehow we managed to stuff everything we needed into all of our bags. I do remember having to hang a lot of things off of their bags with bungee chords. I think we even put a bunch of food in a plastic shopping bag and tied it in a knot around his drawstrings! Ha. Ah, it's so crazy to think about now. I'm not sure how we survived it.
Flash forward, we start our hike. It's gorgeous! We're admiring the view, telling stories, laughing, blah blah blah. We had been hiking for hours, and about 5 miles in I see a good photo op, and let the kids walk ahead a bit. Once I got my picture I sped up to catch up with the group, and from a distance saw them all crouched down on the ground. They must be checking out an insect or a toad, I thought to myself. As I got closer I noticed one of the students was fiddling with his bag. When I approached he gently let me know his bag was broken. There was nothing we could do. We couldn't turn back, we didn't have an extra. We reallocated some of our things, and because I had the best equipment, I ended up carrying most of our gear. Within the first hour of this arrangement, I was pretty sure I was going to be crippled for the rest of my life. But we pushed on. To top the cake, it started down-pouring about five minutes before we needed to set up camp. All of our gear hanging off of our packs (because there was no room inside them), including our tents and sleeping bags, were soaking wet within seconds. We arrived to our site, set up camp in the rain, and slept in puddles all night. The students didn't complain. Not once.
The rest of the trip was a series of this type of mishap. All of us were tested that week, and we all came out of it stronger and better for having experienced it. At times I thought we might die out there. I realize now that that is hyperbole and irrational. But it's how I felt at the time because we were so unprepared for the physical and mental rigor of this trip. My students were rock stars, and to this day, I would hire any of them for a job that requires working under harsh conditions, because they will get it done, they'll push through, and they'll probably enjoy every second of it. My students taught me that week to be positive, and regardless of the circumstances, see the beauty in front of me, because if I allow myself to get bogged down in pain, hardship, frustration, then I will miss it completely. I think about that when I think about raising my own children. There are so many pieces of life where this philosophy holds true.
Many lessons were learned on this trip. The biggest takeaway though, for me anyway, was to go with my gut. I knew my student's backpack would give out. I knew it, yet I let him bring it. Your gut is probably right most of the time. I have learned that the hard way, and after too many times. Thankfully we all survived it and learned a great deal from the experience.
4) "What if he has to get his foot amputated on my watch?"
- Hawaii, 2017
I took a group of students to Hawaii in 2017 to study environmental science. Earlier the year before, a student of mine did a project on Hawaiian monk seals. It spiraled into a variety of other interests like the Pacific Plastics Patch and climate change, both heavily impacting Hawaii. This student decided she wanted to help coordinate a trip to the Big Island, and so we did (a lot of fundraising and detailed planning later). I lived and worked in Hawaii a decade ago for the endangered palila project with USGS. The organization arranged within the first week of my arrival a mandatory seminar on the dangers of Hawaii. I was 22 at the time, frontal lobe not entirely developed yet, and of course thought I was immune to any significant danger. Turns out at the time I was immune. Thankfully nothing dire happened to me while I lived there, but looking back I realize I made a lot of reckless choices. Anytime I bring students to Hawaii I think of that seminar I had to go to - shark attacks, getting caught in the rip tide, falling through lava rock, stubbing your toe or falling on lava rock, getting sucked into an underwater lava tube, severe sun burn, drowning, falling through the cone of a volcano. Yes. He talked about that. The Big Island of Hawaii at the time had, and still does have an active volcano, so hiking to one of many pu'u's (volcanic cones) to take a look at the action is not unheard of. In fact, some of my colleagues at the time did hike right up to the cones of Pu'u O'o. I opted out. It was a life-changing experience for them I'm sure, but not a safe one.
Back to the students. So when I decided I would take students to Hawaii, I had all of these risks in mind. Hawaii has this beauty and power over me that I haven't experienced anywhere else in the world. I knew that a trip like this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of my students, and life-changing for all of them. I also had matured since I'd last been there, knew the island well, as I lived there, and would take every precaution I could to keep students safe, without taking away the experience. Generally, that all worked out. Everyone is alive. But one student in particular experienced or came close to experiencing almost every hazard mentioned above.
Let's start from the top. We went kayaking the very first day. This student proceeded to get the worst sun burn I have ever seen, on any individual, my entire life - the worst of it was on his feet. Note, Hawaii is all outdoor activity. You don't spend time inside, and when you are out, you need to be able to walk to see anything cool. The best sites are those off the beaten path. At first his feet were just red. Peeling a little here and there. Slowly but surely his feet started to swell, a little more every hour it seemed. He continued to keep up with the group, and I kid you not, didn't complain once. So I really thought he was fine. He could just put some aloe on it, and the swelling would slowly go down.
I mentioned earlier that lava rock is brutal. It's like millions of teeny tiny shards of glass clumped together. If you fall on a rock in Minnesota, you get a scrape on your knee. If you fall on lava rock your knee is pretty much gone, especially if you were wearing shorts! We went swimming in a river one day, and this same student cut his foot on a lava rock in the water. When he got out of the water, I looked at the cut on the bottom of his foot, and it, in combination with his sun burn was crazy gnarly looking. It was a long gash, but not that deep so I thought we could just bandage it up and move on. We did that. He didn't complain, and continued to quietly participate in whatever plans we had the rest of the day.
When we got back to the house where we were staying, I pulled out some aloe and fresh bandages for his foot. He pulled off his sock, and I just about passed out right there. Not only was his foot still bright red and swollen from the sunburn, but it was now starting to turn purplish/blackish/bluish/greenish - every color that your foot is not supposed to be - and the colors were in tracks. It looked like a splatter painting of the most grotesque colors of the rainbow. My stomach already turning, I asked him to take the band aid off the cut he got earlier from the lava rock. As he peeled the band aid back, a huge patch of skin came with it. The gash it turned out was long, not deep, but it was also much wider than I thought. This lava rock basically took a silver dollar sized chunk out of his foot. I turned to my sister and said, "We need to get him to a hospital. I think he has gang green." I was certain that there was going to be an amputation before we left Hawaii.
He didn't have gang green. He didn't have anything amputated. Again, totally irrational thinking, but when children are under your care, and parents are expecting to get their kids home with all of their limbs, your mind goes places. I'm not sure what the lesson was here truthfully. It still amazes me that this particular student got home all in one piece. He is accident prone, but again, minor injuries are part of life in Hawaii. What really blows my mind is that this student still had a great time. He still learned a lot. He didn't complain, and loved every second of it. He was a total mess, but was determined to get everything he could out of a trip he may never have a chance at again. Maybe that's the lesson? Carpe diem. It's so cliche and I'm not always certain that it's great advice. But that this student made it through this trip AND took advantage of every opportunity to grow and learn, is really inspiring. It was to me and I think it was inspiring to the other students on the trip as well.
I think that'll be all for now. I have many more stories on student travel mishaps. I'll share them next week in part 2!
If I haven't scared you away from school travel experiences, check out this template for planning a school trip. It's free, and makes a good PBL project for students - How to Plan a School Travel Experience: Student-Directed PBL Project.
You can also take a look at Project-Based Learning: Plan a Trip Around the World - a hypothetical plan for a trip around the world.
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.