This past week I had the opportunity to chaperone the Secondes’ English-speaking trip to Cardiff, Wales, and Bath, England! It was great to be able to travel and get my feet wet in regards to chaperoning my first student trip (assuming I use my teaching degree there will probably be many more to come!)
The professional high school where I am teaching this year caters to students particularly interested in specializing in industrial and hands-on careers. Many students take engineering or tech-ed type classes, as well as science and math in ENGLISH. Since Cardiff is a very industrial city in Europe, that is why it was this year’s destination of choice.
The week before the trip I exchanged my euros for pounds, and then on Sunday afternoon around 14h30 we left for Cardiff, Wales! The actual travel time was very long, but not as horrible as I had predicted. We drove in a large coach bus from Toulon, on the southeast coast, all the way to Caen (my old hood), on the northwest coast, which took about 15 hours. From there we boarded a large ferry and embarked across the English Channel to Portsmouth, England, which was then followed by another full day of driving. A couple of students got weirdly ill, but in all honestly it was because they did not sleep at all on the bus.
That first afternoon we stopped in Bristol, England at the Suspension Bridge, where the students had to embark on a scavenger hunt and answer questions about the bridge. Afterwards we continued onwards towards Wales, and arrived at Cardiff around dinner time. Students were greeted by their host families and then my colleague and our bus driver (a 28-year-old proud Marsaillais named Rabie) parked the bus at the nearby hospital and then traveled by foot to our host. A single guy, native to Cardiff, he had many animals (both real and stuffed) in his house, as well as his lady partner whom he preferred to keep out of sight from us. Without giving too many details, I’ll just say that it was the most awkward home-stay I have ever done and I was relieved to leave. I was told by my colleague that a huge difference between European and American host families is that most Europeans are paid to have students stay with them, whereas Americans do it for free. So, as a result, sometimes some European families welcome people strictly for business and extra income, with no actual interest in welcoming or getting to know their guests. However, as you all know, I had the most amazing host family experience in France, and I’m still very close with this family today, so obviously this large generalization is not the case for everyone. I guess the positive is being able to have spent a few nights in a Welsh home.
The first full day in Cardiff we first brought the students to see parliament, and then to St. Fagan’s, which is sort of like an Old World Wisconsin. Basically, it is an old village with ancient Welsh homes, farms, tools, and shops. Everyone there speaks Welsh and is role playing a part of the community. Walking around makes you feel like you’re back in ancient Welsh times. The students had to again fill out a questionnaire and find answers to different questions around the grounds, which at least got them searching and reading and speaking in English. I really enjoyed St. Fagan’s as well, and learned a lot about Welsh history.
That afternoon, after a quick lunch, we traveled to the city of Blaenafon in order to visit the Big Pit Mine. Wales is especially known for its coal mining, and there is a lot of rich history throughout the country. Here, students were divided into three different groups. We got to put on helmets and buckles and all the necessary tools and then descend 300 ft (90 meters) underground and tour the mines. I found the tour to be very interesting; we got to see the different techniques used and how they have evolved with time and safety restrictions. Afterwards we had a chance to take a tour of a memorial building, which was set up to memorialize past miners from this mill. There was a locker room display as well as various memorabilia; I know it left an impact on me. That night, after the students returned to their families, us staff went out to the local pub for a pint (look how Welsh I sound!)
The second day we traveled to the west of Wales, Swansea to be exact, to visit the National Waterways Museum. Again, due to the impact of coal mining as well as the world wars, there was a lot of technology development in Wales. Students had to again complete a survey and questionnaire created by the staff. That afternoon, half of the group went to the Sony Factory for a tour while the rest of us went to the seaside, where we enjoyed 100 mph winds. (I’m not kidding!) The day ended with some free time in the city center of Cardiff. Here I introduced my professors to the idea of to-go coffee, and drinking warm liquid while exploring the city (They were not having ANY of it.) We ended with a private tour of Millennium Stadium, home to Cardiff’s well-known rugby team. For dinner that night, after the students returned home, the staff decided to check out a local Indian restaurant.
On our final full day, we left Wales and traveled back to England, where we spent the day in Bath. We had a wonderful guided visit (in French), where we learned about the famous Roman baths, the prison, and of course Jane Austen. During lunch the staff visited the local indoor market and then had a coffee. I ended up staying longer at the coffee shop just because at this time I really needed a few minutes to myself. Afterwards I wandered the streets and enjoyed the beauty of Bath. That afternoon we had a guided tour of the Roman baths as well as the Bath Abbey, where students filled out the questionnaire I completed.
That night, we made our way back to Portsmouth and enjoyed a British trade mark, fish n’ chips, on the seaside before boarding the boat. We sailed all night on the rough waters and spent the rest of Friday morning, afternoon, and evening driving back to the south.
There were countless cultural differences during this trip. The first concerning when the trip took place. In French public schools, students and teachers are given eight weeks of vacation (our winter vacation starts after next week!) However, this trip was not during our vacation, but during the school week, so the kids missed school. In fact, it is actually not allowed for students/teachers to work/travel during the vacations. (I explained that in the USA, typically the only time school trips are generally only allowed to take place are during vacations.) The other biggest cultural differences I noticed were in regards to smoking, movies, and alcohol. Remember how I told you that the majority of students and staff smoke, and that all they have to do is leave the walls of the high school? Well, even though these students are only 15 and 16, and the legal smoking age in France is 18, the teachers still had to tell students and parents that this was a “non-smoking trip.” (Let’s just say that regardless of the rule, it was still a problem.) Additionally, the movie choices on the bus were rated R, or France’s equivalent, filled with swears and sexual innuendo and other general topics we would not in general be allowed to show at an American high school. I love the fact that France is a lot more relaxed about these things, because Americans in general are much too prude, but it was still an initial shock to be watching The Hangover with a bunch of high school sophomores. Finally, the rules in regards to adults and alcohol were a lot more relaxed.
Overall I am glad to have been given the opportunity to chaperone this trip with my students. It was great to get to know some of my colleagues better, as well as realize that it is so immensely evident that I am only in my early twenties and still have a lot to learn about life and teaching.