If you’re traveling abroad with students—whether touring, volunteering, or participating in an exchange, you don’t have to worry that your charges will take plenty of pictures. Given the omnipresence of cell phones, not to mention that a carefully chosen camera is pretty much de rigeur for a trip abroad, you can be sure the kids will catch those Kodak moments. What could get lost, though, are verbal images—the pictures people paint with words. Journal entries recall different details about a trip than photographs do. Words capture mood and tone and nuance–subtleties that cameras often miss.
Furthermore, journal entries lend themselves to reflective thinking. You’re going abroad for a reason: to learn a language, to fulfill a mission, to discover another country and culture, to make friends with people from afar. You, as the teacher leader, want to facilitate the reflection that comes at the end of a trip because reflection spells the difference between mere observation—noticing a difference between cultures, say—and internalization—altering one’s viewpoint because of that observation.
For example, when I traveled with students to Russia, almost the first thing they noticed was that the Russians didn’t stick to a timetable. My students would be up, dressed, and ready to embark on the day’s adventure at the appointed time. We’d (most of us) gather at the school—and invariably have to wait—sometimes a half-hour, sometimes, forty-five minutes—for everyone to arrive. No one apologized, and the bus driver didn’t blink an eye. The fact that Russians were frequently “late” might have remained an observation but that we teachers specifically asked the students to reflect on the importance of schedules in the US. Then they would discover, though dialogue with their counterparts, that the Russians thought the Americans were obsessed with time. We all wore watches, and our magazines are full of ads for watches. A timepiece—the Rolex—is even a status symbol. In school, we Americans live by bells. And bells at odd hours: 10:02, 11:18, 1:44, for example. When the bells don’t ring, schools are paralyzed. It was all pretty funny and certainly instructive: Through reflection, we learned that understanding a cultural difference like that could help us avoid being irritated with each other and, ultimately, avert conflict.
Making time for reflection is critical for achieving the goals of any trip abroad. Here are five ways to do it:
1. Take turns taking notes: Purchase a journal that is reserved just for the purpose of taking lecture notes. When you’re in a museum or art gallery or at a presentation, have the students alternate taking those notes. Only one person needs to focus on writing down the facts, the dates, the statistics. Everyone else can use their personal journals to record impressions or draw pictures or make diagrams—whatever will help them to remember. Later, you can Xerox the official notes for everyone else—or, if the notes are taken on an iPad—you can instantly email them to everyone else.
2. Keep a group journal: In this case, you purchase a journal that is the official Log of the Day. The students circulate the book, taking turns writing about the events of a particular day. While you might think this would result in dry reading—a straight chronology—it doesn’t. The students will comment on what they are seeing and doing, and their reactions to the experiences of the day will dominate the discussion. Their voices will be strong, clear, and uninhibited. They know their audience—each other. An internal dialogue will quickly develop. Nicknames, group jokes, asides, graphic symbols, and friendly joshing back and forth will capture the students’ personalities and recall the trip later from a completely different perspective. As a writing teacher, I came to cherish these group journals. I would only occasionally see the book as it changed hands, but at the end of the trip, they’d give it back to me. I’d make copies for everyone. Once again, technology has improved since my day, so today the same thing could be accomplished with an iPad. In that case, the entire piece could be forwarded to everyone at the end of the trip.
3. Make it a point to conference every day for at least half an hour. By carving out a little time just for your group to talk together, you can take the group pulse and get a feel for how individuals are reacting to the cultural differences they are experiencing. My students lived with Russian families—their Russian “bothers” and “sisters” had lived with them in the fall in Indiana. Questions of etiquette frequently arose. How do I refuse more food? How does the shower apparatus work? Why isn’t there any hot water? Is it okay to change money on the street? Sometimes the questions were more serious than that. Medical issues. Homesickness. A death in the family. Once, a tornado had destroyed the home of one of my students. Problems like these involve everyone when you are a group abroad. Cut off from family, the group becomes your family. It’s also a good time to pose questions of your own: What has been your biggest challenge so far? What has surprised you? What have you changed your mind about? What has been the most fun? Has that surprised you? What lessons have you learned so far?
4. Give students a list of journal topics that will inspire reflection:
• Three things I should have brought…
• Three things I didn’t need to bring…
• Three things I didn’t expect…
• Three things I’ll never forget…
• Something I’d like to forget…
• Things I love about Russia (or any country)…
• Things I miss about the USA…
• Things that made me sad…
• Things that made me glad…
• A surprise
• A disappointment
• A moment of gratification
• A moment of annoyance
• A wish
• A hope
• A dream
• Advice I’d give to someone else traveling here…
• Advice for people traveling to America…
5. At the very end of the trip, set aside an evening just for reflection. You can do this in a hotel gathering place—a lobby or a floor lounge or even in someone’s room if it’s large enough. You can sit in a circle on the floor in the airport while you’re waiting for a flight. But don’t let the students disband without discussion and final assessments.
Here are some of my favorite final questions and some answers from some of my Russia Travelers:
What do you admire about Russia?
• People who hadn’t met me brought me food.
• Their knowledge of their history. So many of our kids don’t care or know our history.
• The boatload of information coming out of nowhere whenever we walked anywhere.
• Nothing is wasted. We had leftovers for breakfast.
• Art and monuments everywhere. Even the bus stops on the way to St. Petersburg were mosaics!
• Walking arm in arm is okay.
• They don’t label people. They don’t make assumptions.
• Russians are more easy-going.
• Hard-working people working in their dacha gardens.
• The whole dacha thing is so mellow.
• They live so simply [at the dacha]. They get water from a well. They’re self-sufficient.
• I admire the desire to communicate. Her mother tried to talk to me in English.
• Sasha’s mother used a dictionary to communicate with me.
• Articulate, poetic answers.
• They appreciate their history. They are proud to be Russian.
What do Russians seem to value?
• Sit down dinners: They take pleasure in eating meals together. They take time to sit down even when something is on the schedule.
• Close-knit families.
• Friendships are really close—people go out of their way to help friends.
• Pride in their country, their city—it’s somehow different than American patriotism.
• You can be late here.
• Conversation at dinner.
• Pushkin—Even the bus driver could recite Pushkin by heart. We have nothing like it.
What do you realize Americans value?
• Sanitation—you can drink water out of taps.
• Good roads
• Hot water
• Structure and schedules
• Laws and government: Taxes do help us—I understand that now.
• Direct answers.
What have you learned from your experience?
• Appreciation. I take things for granted at home.
• I’m okay. I can handle myself. Now I am not too scared to travel.
• People are people no matter where you are.
• A week [in the country] and all the girls were sitting together finishing each other’s sentences—people are the same everywhere.
• We were on the other side of the world, but we were at home.
• It meant the world when his father spoke to me in English.
• I learned I could do this. Growing up, I couldn’t spend the night at a friend’s…but I wasn’t homesick…here I am halfway around the world and I wasn’t homesick at all.
• I learned I can step out of my worrying self.
• I’m not the only person in the world.
• Everyone doesn’t speak English. We’re all the same, but the common barrier is communication…yet we found a way around it.
• Russians think America is so wonderful. I want to say, “Do you see where you live?”
• They haven’t sold out their culture. A fortress is next to a block of apartments. In America, “old” becomes a park you have to go to or it’s a space for advertising—it isn’t just a part of what’s there. Russians embrace their culture.
How will this experience affect you in the future?
• I’m not so scared to try something.
• I don’t have walls anymore…I knew this exchange would open doors…
• I have more confidence in myself now.
• I always hated cities before we came, but I learned I can’t be so close-minded. You just have to try it.
• This experience has made me stronger. I felt isolated sometimes, but I could get through it…if I could do this, I can do anything.
• I found my Russian family, but I feel like we were all a family.
What was the hardest part?
• Walking away.