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‘The journey that matters’: Beaulieu College’s Euro Writing Safari 2015

| March 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Andrew Brouard with Sally Jones

I once made the mistake of joining a school ‘academic’ tour of the United States – forty-four students, four teachers and twenty-seven days of students’ blithe indifference to the rich culture around them.

New York was sprawling and animating, and Washington DC was dignified and stately. Our tour guide, the bohemian Gideon Levy, was alive to the history of the Capitol and to literary and cultural references in places such as Greenwich Village or the Chelsea Hotel. But when you’re strolling through the Met, or past the White Horse Tavern – haunt of New York’s 1950s literary community and a Dylan Thomas drinking hole (what wasn’t?) – and your unmoved students are peeling off to eat at McDonalds or shop at Victoria’s Secret, disillusionment begins to set in.

By the time we reached Florida for the unavoidable visit to Disney World, I had the bedcovers over my head and I wasn’t responding to knocks on the door.

Travel with students: how to do it?

Teachers need to interrogate their motivations for organising school academic and cultural tours. The principle of one teacher travelling free per ten students can lead to a mercenary approach and a muddying of intentions. If you’re preoccupied with enrolling as many students as possible so that more teachers get to go, there’s a problem.

I vowed that I would organise my own school tours one day, and that they would be different. I was joined in this sentiment by my colleague Sally Jones, a passionate and deeply invested history teacher, who had had a similar experience. We decided we would plan niche tours focused on experiencing, thinking and creating, with expressive writing as one of the main tools of thought. Other tools would be photography, discussion and art.

I define expressive writing as the writing you do, often in a journal, to play with ideas, explore your identity and investigate the world around you. I’m an English teacher at Beaulieu College in Johannesburg, and I believe that writing about what you feel and think is potentially transformative and healing.

Instinctively, you start to impose a narrative on the disarray in your mind, giving chaotic memories order and meaning.

The 2013 Beaulieu writing safari

In 2013, we did our first tour: The KwaZulu- Natal (KZN) Writing Safari. Because of the word ‘writing’, only 16 students signed up. A perfect niche audience. We visited the KZN battlefields, the Drakensberg, Alan Paton1 country and the Buddhist Retreat Centre near Ixopo.

It was a beautiful experience – one of the highlights of our professional lives. To travel with thoughtful, well-read people, then come together every night around the hotel fireplace to read from their journals and talk about the experience in an honest way, was a privilege. Sensitively managed, an atmosphere of trust and support quickly builds up.

After the tour, one parent told us: “I don’t know what happened on the tour, but my son is a different person. He talks to me. He’s interested in life.” As he spoke, we had an image of his son – an angry, persecuted boy whom we’d taught for two years and who had never uttered a word in class unless it was forced out of him – reading out his first poem to the tour group. To be honest, we didn’t really know what we were doing on that first journey. We made many mistakes. Yet students forgive your mistakes if you are honest, open-minded and adventurous.

Off to France, Switzerland and Germany

What we learned then is being applied to the Euro Writing Safari 2015, which we are undertaking in April this year. Jones and I are taking 21 students to France, Switzerland and Germany. We advertised the trip by saying: “You shouldn’t come on this tour. It’s not for you. We won’t be going to Euro Disney. We won’t be eating fast food. You’ll hate it.” It worked. We had to cut off the numbers at 21.

What Jones and I love most is speaking aloud to each other the names of places we will visit: Paris, Delville Wood, Normandy, St Malo, Bayeux, Versailles, the Swiss Alps, the Black Forest, Neuschwanstein castle, Munich and Dachau concentration camp. Jones has a disturbing obsession with the Bayeux Tapestry (BT).2 She’s never seen it, but it consumes her thoughts. She’s made BT placemats, BT posters, BT animations. She was once nearly run over in Paris, charging blindly across a street because she had spotted a vendor selling BT pictures.

I have other obsessions. Elie Wiesel wrote, “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”3We will remember the dead on this trip. I have a particular interest in the World War 1 battle fought by South African soldiers at Delville Wood, where they suffered horrific losses through six days of shelling and hand-to-hand combat. Standing on the spot for the first time, I’m sure we will see ghosts and hear voices. Perhaps our students will write things akin to Grade 10 student Carly Twaddle’s sentiments on the KZN safari: “Running my fingers through the grass, I could see the brutal battle before me. I could hear the war songs of Zulu warriors. I could hear the silent songs of Isandlwana.” But not all paths of glory lead to the grave. We will also savour the grandeur of life. Places like Notre Dame and Neuschwanstein, Ludwig’s monument to seclusion and Wagner, are glorious celebrations of humanity.

Reflections about writing a key tour aspect

The inner journey will be the one that matters. We will run a series of workshops along the way. The first one will focus on writing about our past, present and future. Other workshops will incorporate art, history, photography and aspects of novels. What better place to explore the idea of setting, for example, than Neuschwanstein castle? Hitler the fantasist imagined princesses, white horses and castles like this one, trapping himself in a juvenile dream of Germany’s ‘glorious’ past.

And, of course, each day’s highlight will always be the meeting around the hotel fireplace in the evening to reflect, write and talk.

I’m also interested in the danger of stories. Dachau4 will raise the questions: Can you write a fictional story about the Holocaust without trivialising and misrepresenting its horror? Are some events beyond fictionalisation?

A spirited bunch

If all this sounds pretentious and improbable (high school students debating narrativity while the Eiffel Tower lurks in the background), well, we don’t mean to say that there won’t be plenty of opportunities for fun as well. Our students are a spirited bunch – old in some ways, young in many others. You can see them in colourful selfies already on our Facebook page: the Music Maven, the Logophile, the Hobbit, the Twerk Queen, the Puffin, and so on. We love their ironic and playful self-deprecation.

Join our journey online Should you be interested in our journey, please go to Euro Writing Safari 2015 on Facebook. Follow our posts as we travel through Europe, starting on 16 April. And don’t hesitate to post a response yourself! Finally, we also hope to write another article for the spring edition of Independent Education, reporting back on ‘the journey that matters’.

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Category: Autumn 2015

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