Meet Our Winner
Q & A with ExperiencePlus! 2017 Send A Teacher Traveling Award Winner
Each year, as we review applications for our Send a Teacher Traveling Award (S.A.T.T), we are reminded of the inspirational work that takes place in classrooms across the U.S. Since the program’s inception in 1996, ExperiencePlus! has given away bicycle tours to outstanding K-12 public school teachers throughout the U.S. We are thrilled to announce this year’s S.A.T.T winner Denise Wright.
Q&A With Denise
It sounds like your parents made travel a priority as you were growing up. Is there any trip in particular that stands out as the moment you began to value travel?
There is not one trip that stands out as making me value travel, but several trips stand out as examples of why I value specific types of travel. In 8th grade my mom took a group of Girl Scouts to Mexico and we raised 100% of the funds. Our troop was a mix of students with special needs, from all economic backgrounds and several that did not fit the Girl Scout stereotype. This is the trip that showed me that travel is possible for everyone.
My parents went through an adventure phase and they took us hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and also hiked up to stay at Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park. Both of these experiences showed me that travel should be active and adventurous.
Finally, they took us to Europe when I was a pre-teen and that is the trip that opened up the value of traveling within different cultures. We stayed in the house of a French family, visited with family friends in Germany and generally had fun exploring new cultures. My mom showed me the value of visiting museums and castles (we hit them ALL – I’m sure of it) and dad taught me the value of researching how to find the best meal possible wherever you are in the world.
Tell us what was going through your head when we told you you’d won a cycling tour?
Well, at first I was very excited. However, as I thought about it more the enormous size of it set in and I felt completely overwhelmed. I didn’t tell my husband for two days and it was several more before I told my kids or other family members.
I work in a school and in an industry that has so many deserving candidates that it really took me a few days to process the idea that I had won. It is still overwhelming when I really think about it.
Have you told any of your students that you won a cycling trip in Europe? If so, what was their reaction?
I am just starting to tell students. One student who knew that I was having trouble processing the enormity of this award wrote me a note of congratulations that said, “I believe that there comes a time of recognition for those who deserve it. This is your time.” Some of my more eloquent students simply exclaimed, “OMG! OMG! OMG! Mrs. Wright!”
Just to keep my head from getting too big, my son responded with, “What are you doing winning awards? Why did they pick you?” Despite how it sounds, he was actually very excited about the award.
As I am processing this amazing news, I am honored to be recognized and grateful that there are organizations such as ExperiencePlus! that appreciate the work of teachers everywhere.
What is your experience with cycling? (Do you ride often locally, have you traveled by bike before, etc. ?)
I have always wanted to go on a bike tour, but they’ve always been outside of our family’s vacation budget. This will be my first bike tour which is one of the reasons that I am so excited about it. I bike locally and enjoy both road and mountain bikes, but this trip is going to motivate me to spend even more time than usual on a bike this summer. I live in an area with a lot of biking options, so I am looking forward to the extra time on a bike.
What influence do you expect this trip will have on your teaching process moving forward?
There are the obvious connections between travel and teaching, such as bringing in stories about different cultures, showing pictures of historical sites, talking about connections between people that live in vastly different spaces, etc.
However, I think that one of the biggest lessons will also be that students should set their sights high. I applied for this award because it would be an amazing opportunity to travel, but I had no idea if I could win or not. I did win. Life will also sometimes surprise them in the most wonderful of ways if they take the time to put themselves out there and just try for the award.
What inspires you most when you’re teaching?
The students. I love it when I give them an assignment, such as creating a documentary, and they blow me away with their intelligent approach to the topic, creativity and enthusiasm.
I am also inspired when I have an opportunity to read their life stories. I often have professionals in to help with senior scholarship essays and other activities. The community members are always touched by the lives these students have lived. Some have stories and backgrounds that make their academic accomplishments pale in contrast to what they have accomplished or overcome outside of the classroom.
You helped organize and fundraise a student trip to Costa Rica for students that likely would not have been able to take this trip otherwise. What were a few of the highlights or takeaways from that experience?
When the Costa Rican group of students started fundraising they only had a vague idea of what it meant to save for a trip. We opened a school store, worked to find the right mix of merchandise, painstakingly worked everyday to earn money, and developed numerous additional fundraisers to earn money. However, when we got to the airport they still had no real idea of what it means to travel.
On the first night in Costa Rica my group of six students went to a small restaurant for dinner and the kids all scoured the menu for hamburgers. I ordered a traditional Costa Rican meal and they all teased me. “Mrs. Wright, we eat pizza and hamburgers.” Just two short nights later the six of us went to a traditional Costa Rican restaurant and they all ordered something different so the entire group could try the different meals. On the taxi ride over the students (who are fluent in Spanish) talked to the driver about a wide range of topics. At the restaurant they struck up a discussion with the waitress. At one point one of the students turned to me and exclaimed, “I can’t believe that people come to places like Costa Rica and never take the time to talk to the locals or try new foods.” They had crossed over from simply being American teenagers in a new place and had become world travelers.
However, the longest lasting takeaway from that trip was that they motivated the next generation of travelers. Last year two students in my business class were making arrangements to come to Belize and another student sat behind them listening intently. I asked her if she wanted to come, and her eyes got wide as she said, “Can I?” Yes. Any student who is willing to put in the effort can travel. In this way, the take away from the Costa Rica trip is that an entire new generation of students is becoming world travelers.
As an avid traveler and reader, you must have a great list of travel-related books. Can you recommend a few of your favorites?
I don’t read many books about travel, but I love to read books about places. My current favorite is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi which is set in both Ghana and the United States. I also love Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, and anything by Dan Brown because his books provide such a thrilling trip through Europe.
What books do you use in the classroom to introduce students to the idea of travel?
I am a big believer in choice, so I usually provide a wide range of books for students to select from for each unit. I’ve found that if students are introduced to a place and a culture, even if the story itself is not positive, it creates an interest. Thus, books like Memoirs of a Geisha, A Long Way Gone, Homegoing, The Mountains Echoed, and Falling Leaves can pique an interest in traveling. Although I try to have a wide selection of choice, I often choose books from places I’ve been so I can expand on the culture and the place during class discussions. Thus, this trip will expand the types of books that I bring into my classroom.
Hypothetically, you can only bring five things (other than clothing) with you on this trip, what do you pack?
I’m not sure that I need five items to be happy. I’ll need a good book, a passport and enough clothes to not make a spectacle of myself.
Is there any question that you wish we’d have asked?
What is the best part of traveling with teenagers?
Their energy and excitement. Whereas adults look at the opportunity to jump off a bridge as crazy, teenagers only see the chance for excitement. Whereas adults get to the end of a long day of traveling and just want to sit back and rest, teenagers see the evening as just starting and are ready for more. After a while this energy and excitement rubs off on even the most grumpy of adults and we join in with their fun outlook on life.
That being said, I am looking forward to a trip with adults where I can enjoy a day of biking, a glass of wine and a nice dinner without teenagers.