Travel is at the Peak of Education, Above Extracurriculars and Test Scores

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This article is sponsored by EF Educational Tours, the leader in international student travel, helping teachers and students discover the world through immersive educational travel.


I look around at my students, on the plane ride home. Some are sleeping from the pure exhaustion of the trip. Some are chatting, giddy from the new experiences. Some are looking out the window; I find myself wondering what moments they were reliving. I wonder what dreams those experiences inspired.

In this moment, my students are filled with possibility. As their middle school years quickly come to a close and thoughts of high school linger, I find myself even more appreciative for this experience they’ve been given. Sure, I’m thankful for my own memories. I’m thankful for the new foods I tasted and the new activities I tried. I’m thankful for the croquettes and the city tours. I’m thankful for the museums and the kayaks. However, do you know what have been the most fulfilling moments of the experience? The ones when I saw the lightbulbs go off for my students; the moments when they realized there was more out there in the big world. Their growing hearts and minds weren’t confined to an eighth-grade classroom. Their worlds grew more immensely in just one week than they ever had before. Languages we had studied came to life, expectations were met, and then exceeded.

Let me walk you through what this experience looked like. Just a year before, it was all merely an idea to fulfill the dreams of 25 middle school students after our eighth grade English lesson on Spanish literature, reading a story about a young girl visiting Madrid. “How awesome it would be to be that girl and see a place like Madrid!” one of my students said to me after school that day. That comment led to me, the determined teacher, convincing the principal and school board to organize the trip of a lifetime.

We started our guided tours on our second day in Madrid. Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, and the Market of San Miguel were our destinations for the day. My students, traveling from rural Alabama, stood among one of the world’s busiest town squares, surrounded by foreign language, fashion, and scenery. The famous clock towered over us as we took in the newness around us and gave ourselves a moment to enjoy the overwhelming awe of those first moments in Madrid. The tour guide never skipped a beat as we studied the intricate Spanish landscaping. We had read about Spain in preparation for our visit, but our tour guide wove storytelling through his descriptions of the interesting city. He pointed to the President’s Office in Puerta del Sol as he shared some current happenings with the regional government. It only made sense to begin our trip here, as we quickly realized it was truly the heart of Madrid. From that central position, we branched out into other locations, including the Plaza and the Market.

Cibeles fountain at Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid in a beautiful summer day, Spain
Cibeles fountain at Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid in a beautiful summer day, Spain

Day three brought an experience full of depth, beginning at the Royal Palace, the largest of all European palaces. As I think back on this particular visit, the sheer size of the palace is what seemed to stun the students, again reminding them of how small their world had been and just how much it could open up. At the same time, they were starting to develop an understanding of how pictures sometimes can’t do an experience its rightful justice. Leaving the palace, it wasn’t the grandeur that stuck with me most, though. What stuck with me were the interactions with people outside the palace’s walls. There was a couple who spoke both Spanish and English, waiting outside a nearby food cart. Our group gathered around the couple as the short conversation that had sparked moments before turned into a full-blown lesson on Spain’s food culture; we learned of its great importance. It was a lesson the students couldn’t gather from a textbook. In that circle, they studied the couple’s facial expressions and clung to every heavily-accented word.

The next few days were a mix of self-exploration and continued guided tours. There were meals late at night when we’re used to sleeping. There was sleeping in, well past the time school would start back home. There were schedules and there was down-time. There were conversations that lasted for hours about topics we’d never have explored so deeply during class. The trip brought about friendships and memories that would not otherwise have existed. And knowledge—so much firsthand knowledge I couldn’t possibly have supplied outside of this environmental context.

In nine short days, I watched my students explore Spain’s landscapes and the culture—and themselves. And watching them rest and refocus on the plane after the experience of a lifetime, I can’t help but be thankful for the week and a half we’ve been given. Travel is at the peak of education, I realize, above extracurriculars and test scores. Travel opens doors and heightens ceilings. As an adult, seeing the big world somehow makes me feel not so small. At 31,000 feet in the air, I wonder how high the ceilings will feel for my students when they arrive back home.

Travel is at the Peak of Education, Above Extracurriculars and Test Scores

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