Monday, November 11, 2013

The Teaching Component of the Loong Way Home

One of my first school visits, Udine International School, Italy.

I’ve been to 15 different countries and visited just over that many schools along my route.  Before I left, I wasn’t exactly sure how these visits were going to work. With all the other logistics, I had really only contacted one school in Milan, where a former colleague of mine currently works.  The idea to create weekly or biweekly activities related to my cycling experience was an after thought and came to me while I was on the road.  Even though it adds a layer of complexity to my trip, for me, visiting schools and preparing weekly resources is a way to keep connected to the classroom, a place I love to be, even while pedaling on the road.

Lots of people have asked me how I go about contacting schools.  I’m open to visiting both local and international schools, but international schools are more feasible logistically.  Their contact information is readily available, their curriculum is flexible enough to make time for a visit, and language isn’t a barrier. When I arrive to New Zealand, Australia, The States, and Canada, I imagine that I will be visiting more public schools.  For now, I research schools that are on my route online, using the IB website as well as Googling international schools located in major cities.  I search for a contact person, usually a primary principal, school director, or curriculum coordinator, and send out a standard letter introducing myself, and The Loong Way Home.  I have to title the email creatively or else I’m sure it gets overlooked so I usually put “Teacher traveling on bike around the world visiting (name of city)” and that is enough to catch their attention. 

Put on your climbing face!

Unfortunately almost all the international schools are located in major cities.  Usually I would avoid these cities on my bike because it just isn’t easy to travel into an urban center, fully loaded, on two wheels!  I can look back and laugh now as I see myself navigating the streets of some of these cities.  After being in both Hong Kong and Istanbul, it makes maneuvering Genova and Tirana seem like a breeze! Traffic, hills, and a whole network of streets that I’m not familiar with make commuting on bike a challenge in any city.  In order to find the schools, I enter the address on my GPS and I try to follow the route as best I can. 

Sometimes the hardest part of a school visit is just getting there.....

I’ve had invitations from a handful of schools that aren’t on my route, which made me realize I could easily take twice as long to complete this journey and extend my route as far as Africa, Central Asia, and even South America! Stay tuned, I’m sure there will be a part 2 at some point in my life!

On a few occasions I’ve had to cancel a few visits due to the logistics.  For instance, in China, once I saw how crazy the streets were in Hong Kong, it seemed too overwhelming to maneuver my way around the Pearl river delta and the cities that lie within.  All the roads in this area are major highways with overpasses, bridges, and tolls.  Bikes are prohibited on these roads.  It is a real challenge not to end up on these roads and find the minor alternative routes that are safe.  Therefore, I decided to bypass both Dongguan and Gaungzhou and take a ferry over to the west side of the river delta.  In Istanbul, the schools were locate on the outskirts of the city, but that meant a good 30 to 40 kilometers away from the center on opposite sides of the Bosphorous river, which made commuting between them difficult.  Not to mention the stairs that await me at some schools makes riding 100 kilometers with 40 kg. seem like no big deal in comparison to carrying 40 kg.!

Nova International Schools, ES Assembly  "What do you love to do?"

When I arrive at the schools, I’m considered a motivational speaker, which is a new title for me.  That wasn’t my intended purpose, but I know teachers are naturally role models for children and this happens to be the role that I’ve fallen into.  I really wanted my interaction with students to go more in the direction of using the bike as a topic of conversation.  I’ve found a way to merge the two talking about my passion to be active, ride, and travel, and ask kids about their passion in life, talking about our dreams, both in the near future and far off in the future.  Presenting at a large assembly is usually how schools introduce me to the students.  When time permits or I have an all day visit, I make my way around to individual classrooms.  I would love to be able to tailor some activities to classroom units, but because of the nature of traveling on a bike it isn’t always possible.  However, I’m happy to have question and answer sessions or do a few more specific follow-up talks with kids at the teacher’s request. Kids never run out of questions to ask and are curious to get up close to my bike!  My favorite question so far was by a first grader in Italy, “Ms.Melissa, do you have any special buttons on your bike that you can push, so maybe you could fly?”  Sometimes I wish I did!  Other teachers are usually curious to know where I will end up after my loong trip, so am I!

Former BFIS students checking out my website back in Barcelona

Crazy enough I’ve had some job offers already come from my trip, and teachers contact me as far away as Angola, Namibia, and Bangladesh!  It wasn’t my intention to use this as a way to network professionally, but naturally it has happened!  More importantly there is a great network of teachers out there working overseas who have passed me contacts at the various schools I end up visiting.

I never really know which schools out there are following me and use my resources.  Therefore, when I get emails from former students or random students, I’m happy!  Yesterday morning I woke up to an email from the current teacher of my students last year and it made me so happy to know they had spent one of their homeroom periods catching up on my latest posts and watching the recent videos.  Other teachers at BFIS and the schools I’ve visited have also contacted to show me how excited their students are to be using my website.  I spend a lot of time on my own, but It’s neat to know that I’ve left my mark at different schools along the way!  I guess they really won’t forget that crazy teacher that came to school bike on her loong way home!

Grade 4, BFIS using a postcard I sent in their morning message

ILG Students in Kosovo with the poster on the wall they created to follow me on my trip

With the winter holidays approaching, I know it is going to be hard to continue with the visits during mid-December and January, but I will try my best to get to a few schools before they close.  It might also be an opportunity for me to go to some local schools that don’t have our western vacation schedule.  I guess we’ll just have to see how it works out!

Thank you to all the schools and kids out there following me!  I enjoy hearing from you and love the pictures!

A drawing my a 6th grade student at a school in Mahon, Menorca.  They use my blog in one of their classes.

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