D.C. schools use spring break to teach students through travel

As spring break begins Monday for public schools across the District, students are fanning out across the globe on trips designed to impart lessons that can’t be learned from a book.

More than a dozen students from Washington Metropolitan High, a D.C. alternative school, and the selective School Without Walls are journeying to West Africa. They will practice French in Dakar, see the shocking pink waters of Senegal’s salty Lake Retba and witness a slice of rural life in the Casamance region.

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But most of all, they’ll be immersed in the unfamiliar — a transformative experience, their teachers hope, for students who rarely have traveled.

“I don’t know what to expect,” said Diamond Fleming, a 17-year-old Washington Metropolitan senior who had never stepped on airplane, much less left the country, before this trip. The thought of being so far away from her mother made her nervous, she said.

Fleming hopes to attend the University of the District of Columbia on her way to becoming a social worker; Koura Gibson, her French teacher and a leader of the trip, hopes that a glimpse of the world might persuade the teen to travel farther afield for college.

Gibson helped pay for her students’ journey by organizing a car wash and a raffle. She also stocked up on Snickers bars, Starbursts and M&Ms, selling 3,277 packages at a dollar apiece.

“Travel has been my best teacher,” Gibson said. “Go away and you’ll grow up. I’m always encouraging my students to get out of here, leave D.C.”

Across town at Alice Deal Middle School, teachers and administrators are leading three separate trips to France, Costa Rica and China for more than 100 eighth-graders.

It’s a chance not only for students to test their language skills, but also for students and teachers to bond, Principal James Albright said.

“You have conversations with a kid you would never in school,” Albright said. “You’re sitting on a bus for two hours, two people having the same experience. It becomes an entirely different kind of relationship.”

This is the second year that the school has organized a trip to China. Students are headed to Beijing, Shanghai and scenic Yangshuo County, where they’ll have a chance to tour landmarks, meet their pen pals and practice Mandarin.

“Our teacher says that we speak well,” said Matthew Dulaney, 13, who has been studying the language for three years.

“I think it’s going to be a real eye-opener,” said his classmate, Walter Riley.

Their teacher, Yanming Zhi, said middle-schoolers are still young enough to soak up language. The trip also is a chance to soak up the place. “I want to see them melt into the culture,” he said. “Everything will be a surprise to them.”

History students from E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, meanwhile, are boarding a bus instead of a plane, heading south to Atlanta to visit landmarks of the civil rights movement.

Eight students from Montgomery County’s Blake High School will join them, a partnership meant to encourage students to talk about issues of race and equality with people of different backgrounds.

The trip is meant to help bring history alive for students, said teacher Barrie Moorman. And it’s also meant to help motivate them to notice and interrupt injustices they see in their own lives and communities, Moorman said.

To go on the trip, students had to agree to study the civil rights movement beforehand and to take on an advocacy project of their choosing afterward.

Moorman patterned the itinerary — which includes stops in Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham in Alabama — after a similar trip she took years ago. That trip was led by civil rights leader and former NAACP chairman Julian Bond.

“I figure he’s the expert,” Moorman said. “It was really powerful to be in those places and feel the energy and history that had happened there, but also to feel really moved that the work wasn’t done. I came home with a really strong sense that I had a responsibility to continue the work.”

 
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