Thursday, October 02, 2008

Teaching's Opportunties for High Adventure

As the New York City representative to Impact II's Education Summit at Snowbird, Utah (199?)I met colleagues from around the USA and got in a little mountain climbing before solving the problems of the world's schools.
Retired from teaching now, I think back about my 31 years with the NYC public school system (the first 18 of which I spent in the classroom as a teacher) and realize that my experiences traveling to exotic locations throughout the world, doing amazing and inspiring things, and meeting astounding people, THROUGH MY TEACHING JOB, were both an expression of my need to have teaching be an exciting career and an affirmation that it truly can and must be so.
I published my very first article ever, on this theme (Teaching’s Opportunities for High Adventure) in the New York State Department of Education’s “Possibilities Catalog” in roughly 1992. The article that follows is an unpublished and expanded version I wrote a couple of years later, primarily to inspire teachers I worked with in my new role as Staff Developer.

I believe very strongly that as the current culture of education continues to degrade the profession of teaching further and further, the possibilities I describe through relating my own experiences in this article are more relevant and necessary than ever. Teachers must have the opportunity to shape their careers to be interesting, exciting, and satisfying. Please read on…

High Adventure
I have a professional hero. He’s a teacher who has inspired me to keep my job fresh and interesting. However unorthodox my role model may seem, he has served me better than any other I can imagine.

Since the first time I saw him in the movies I’ve idolized Professor Jones - Indiana Jones, that is, professor of Archeology. “Indie” not only commands total respect from his adoring students but goes to great lengths to prepare his lessons. He does this by excavating jungle temples, exploring the ruins of ancient civilizations, and traveling the world. Now that’s my idea of a teachers’ life.

Of course, I always wanted to be like my hero. I wondered, however, is this the stuff of pure fantasy or could I somehow transform my career from one of classroom drudgery to that of high adventure. I knew I had to try.

My opportunity came one day when it was least expected. This was nine years ago. While teaching a ninth grade art class during that peculiar last period before a desperately awaited Christmas vacation, a student monitor brought in a printed notice from the Asia Society. I read it to myself and then in a dreamlike state boldly announced to my class “This is a contest for a student teacher/team… the winners will go to India. I’m going to win it with one of you. Please think about this over the vacation and whichever one of you is going to be my partner, please let me know when we get back.” As soon as school started again, Kevin, a strapping fifteen year old from the South Bronx, informed me that he was available to work with me on our entry everyday at lunch and after school.

In Delhi, India with my 9th grade student Kevin (1988 or thereabouts)
We worked like crazy for ten weeks and won! Our adventures were many and included trips to: the Taj Mahal in Agra; Rishikesh, a holy city on the Ganges; and Jaipur, the pink city of the Rajastani desert. We lived with Indian families, rode elephants, and were interviewed by local TV and newspapers. We taught and studied at an Indian school, visited theaters, museums, and temples and made so many friends. It was a fantasy comes true.

The energy and materials gotten from this trip transformed my teaching for a long time to come and got me started on the quest for more teaching related adventures. My career was forever changed.

Hanging out with Purepucha Indian kids in remote Mexico. They didn't speak any English and I didn't speak any Purepucha...but we connected!

A few years later I found myself one July morning measuring the façade of an exquisite conquest vintage church in the remote Mexican village of Angahuan. At lunchtime, while I reviewed my field notes with my legs dangling over the edge of a cliff, I munched a sandwich and looked out across the lava field of the volcano, Paracutin. Poking up through the dried lava was the steeple of another church, marking the spot where a village was swallowed up by the 1948 eruption.

This adventure was made available to me by Earthwatch, an organization that is dedicated to pairing interested laymen with scientists doing field research. For the privilege of two weeks of long days of hard work and the Spartan life of a professional field researcher, many amateur scientists pay as much as they would for a luxury vacation. Earthwatch however, invites teachers to apply for full fellowships, and so I spent two glorious weeks with archeologists from the University of Texas jeeping into the back country of Michoacan State to study and catalog Mexico’s heritage of unspoiled 16th Century architecture before progress destroys it forever.

Here I am with Dr. Jerome Hall, maritime archaeologist on Isla Cabrita, Dominican Republic. That's a 16th C. Dutch clay smoking pipe in 'Jeronomo's" hand, one that we pulled from a shipwreck a hundred yard's away from this field lab where we archived and preserved artifacts for the Monte Cristi Shipwreck Expedition.
A few of the other adventures that teaching has brought me over the years include studying Spanish and living with a local family in Costa Rica, painting sets used on stage at Lincoln Center for the National Dance Academy, traipsing with a class through the catacombs of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine to watch a sculptor at work on a giant statue for the cloister, and living on an uninhabited tropical island, helping underwater archaeologists with the excavation of a 16th Century shipwreck.

In the city of Nara while on my Keizai Koho Center Fellowship to Japan
Most recently I spent three weeks traveling through Japan with a large group of like minded educators as guests of Japanese Industrialists. We toured the country, inspected industrial plants, took baths in hot springs, visited Shinto temples, and observed classes at Japanese schools.
Presenting a panel of The Gorgeous Mosaic Project to teachers at Nishinodai Elementary School
At the farewell banquet I shared cocktails and observations about education and life with Akio Morita, President of SONY. Right now I’m deciding whether to apply for a study of Caribbean language in Belize, an archeological dig on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, or a tour of Korea.

I enjoyed the company of Morita-San even more than the fine Sushi and Cocktails

No, teachers don’t have to settle for fantasies. Opportunities for real adventure are available to all those colleagues of Professor Jones who are willing to seek them out. I believe that to do so is important too, for in our day and age with so much working against the classroom teacher, burnout is a prospect that looms ever present. Teachers must find ways to make their job exciting. Most importantly, unless teaching is an adventure for the teacher, learning will certainly never be one for the student.

Mark GuraProject Director,
Division of Instruction and Professional Development
Board of Education – City of New York

Below are some sources to contact for information about travel oriented fellowships for educators:

680 Mount Auburn Street
P.O. Box 403
Watertown, Mass. O2272-9924

Fulbright hays Seminars Abroad
U. S. Department of Education
Office of Post Secondary Education
Center for International Education
Washington, D.C. 20202-5332

Kezai Koho Center Fellowships
17 Eagle Rock Road
Mill Valley, CA 94941

Note: the above data has not been updated since this article was written