Archives For Rick Steves

Certainly, I am not the first to notice the direct correlation between the act of travel and the act of reading. One need only perform a quick web search for quotes about books and travel to find literally hundreds of writers who have written specifically about this connection:

“My grandfather says that’s what books are for,” Ashoke said, using the opportunity to open the volume in his hands. “To travel without moving an inch.”
― Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.”
― Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

In fact, there are some quotations by writers about travel where I could replace the word “travel” with “read” in order and still make an interesting valid sentiment:

“We travel (or we read), some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
― Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 7

“Through travel (or reading) I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel (or reading)  that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it.”
― Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings

While the experience of reading allows readers to imagine places they do not know, the sensory experiences of travel improves their imaginations. For example, a reader who has traveled outdoors in  frigid climates has a more accurate appreciation for Jack London’s To Build a Fire. One could travel on a ferry crossing Lake Michigan or shuttling between the Virgin Islands or cruising up the Bosphorus Strait; the rumble underfoot of a boat engine pulling and out of port, the sensations of crosswinds, and the smell of the diesel combine for a sensory impression, quite literally a “motor memory” ready for recall when one reads about maritime travel.

Perhaps it is the often demanding physical elements of travel that strengthen the link between the tangible experience and a reader’s imagination: the lugging of  personal belongings in suitcases, shopping bags, handbags, backpacks; the laboring over uneven terrains, rural and urban; or the push against a crush of people for transport on a subway, bus, boat, train. The traveler has these physical sensations cognitively recorded as salient memories to be used in imagining how the character(s) march, trudge, slog, plod, trail or trek in, on, or through unfamiliar territory.

The other advantage to travel is the “ah-ha” moment when the reader confronts first-hand the “real setting” of fictional lives. There is a greater understanding of author’s purpose when a reader can place a character within an author’s context, say Dickens’s London, Conrad’s Congo, Tolstoy’s Russia, or any one of Hemingway’s haunts: Paris, Spain, Cuba, South America, Africa. Cathedrals, rose-covered-cottages, pubs, palaces, mosques are better appreciated in their cultural contexts. Similarly, walking the landscape of a historical event that has been recounted in non-fiction allows for a greater comprehension of the significance of a rampart, fort, bastion, jetty or beachhead. One need only add the cacophony of sounds, say the calls from street vendors, the resonance of folk instruments, the chatter of foreign languages combined with the taste of exotic fruits or perfumed sweets in order to complete an immersion in a culture. The reader, standing in the authentic setting of a book, fiction or non-fiction, is connected to the author in a full sensory bond. The well-travelled reader’s imagination can then pluck the strands of travel memory, as if from Dumbledore’s pensive, in creating mental pictures of books already read or books to be read in the future. The traveler cannot help but be a better reader.

There are numerous books written to aid in a traveler who desires this cultural experience.  I have been traveling this past week through Istanbul, Turkey, and by far the most popular book carried by travelers is the Rick Steves’s  Guide to Istanbul, a travel writer who wholeheartedly advocates for a cultural emersion for travelers. On his website, he has a webpage dedicated to “travel as a political act,” which later became the title to his book.

In the introductory paragraph to this webpage, Steves emphasizes the the importance of travel in much the same way that I try to proselytize the importance of reading to my students:

Lessons learned from our travels can better equip us to address and help resolve the challenges facing our world. We travelers are both America’s ambassadors to the world…and the world’s ambassadors to America. Whether you’re a mom, a schoolteacher, a celebrity, a realtor, or a travel writer, it’s wrong to stop paying attention and let others (generally with a vested interest in the situation) make the political decisions for us. Our founding fathers didn’t envision career politicians and professional talking heads doing our political thinking for us. All are welcome in the political discourse that guides this nation. Thoughtful travelers know that we’re all citizens of the world and members of a global family. Spinning from Scotland to Sri Lanka, from Tacoma to Tehran, travelers experience the world like whirling dervishes: We keep one foot planted in our homeland, while acknowledging the diversity of our vast world. We celebrate the abundant and good life we’ve been given and work to help those blessings shower equitably upon all.

Steves’s philosophy of travel is an echo to a great writer from a different century, Samuel Clemens. Clemens was heavily influenced by his trips to Europe and the Middle East (1867-69) before he wrote his greatest contribution to American literature, Huckleberry Finn (1885). One these trips, he wrote a series of travel letters which were later compiled into the popular book The Innocents Abroad. In one letter he wrote:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
-Mark Twain

Readers, get up and pack! Seek out a different world! Improve your imagination and travel, because even the Ancient World’s Augustine of Hippo knew, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

To all those who claim that all students today are digital “natives,” I beg to disagree.

Digital natives are defined as those people who have grown-up using technology daily beginning in the 1960s, but the term is more commonly used to describe those born in the 21st Century. According to the PBS Frontline Website, 

  • Digital Natives aged 12 to 24 spend 4.5 hours a day viewing screen media (TV, Internet, Internet video, mobile video), excluding games;
  • 82 percent of seventh- to twelfth-graders “media multitask” while doing homework, e.g. IM, TV, Web surfing, etc.

The NYTimes 2010 article, “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online” discusses the use of digital devices stating, “Those ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day with such devices.” Certainly, use by our students has increased since then.

Despite  these statistics, I am convinced that many students are not digital “natives, ” they are digital “tourists.” Really bad tourists. I’m talking the “standing in line to see the Mona Lisa on the busiest day of the year and then leaving the Louvre once they saw it” kind of tourist. The “only want to eat at McDonalds in a foreign country because I don’t like food I don’t recognize” kind of tourist. The “I have no idea what kind of money this is” kind of tourist. In other words, bad tourists.

This past year was a eye-opening experience with my bad tourists. There was a  1:1 integration of student to netbooks in the English and select social studies classrooms. Initially,  members of my department and I were nervous about how we would need to keep up with what we imagined would be an onslaught of tech-savvy teens. We  prepared ourselves by practicing various software platforms that we thought would be used successfully. We played with Google Docs, Edmodo, Edublog, WordPress, Blogger, PBWorks, Twitter, and Quizlet.  We reviewed presentation software: Prezi, Animoto, Glogster, Voice Thread. We made decisions as to how to integrate these platforms gradually and at various grade levels to help us transition students to a paperless classroom. We imagined our classrooms would be full of students investigating and testing which software would best suit their needs. We were ready for the digital natives to collaborate and teach us about this “undiscovered country” of educational opportunites.

Instead what we discovered was that many of our students were reluctant to try new platforms that differed even slightly  in organization or layout. A login in a different location was perplexing; an embed code or link could not be located.  We found our students were not naturally tech-savvy, save the requisite number of computer geeks per class. They did not want to move out of their comfort zone in technology, partly because they knew that work was involved, but, in fairness, partly because they were intimidated.
For example, in every class, a few students would have problems logging on.

“It’s still loading, Mrs. B.” says Student A
“Did you try shutting down and starting up again like I showed you last week?” I respond.
“No,” a flat statement.
I sigh.
Of course not. Student A who knows how to quickly log on to her computer at home to check Tumblr and Facebook, considers this contraption on her desk as a foreign object. She is a digital tourist waiting hours on line for the same roller coaster ride she rode on yesterday.

There were always problems with software.

“Google Docs isn’t showing my changes,” says Student B
“Are you using Firefox or Google Chrome as a browser?” I respond.
I see a glazed look. He is a digital tourist who is having a hard time with trying alternate routes in a foreign city without asking directions.
“No,” a flat statement.
I sigh, again.

They failed to save word documents, adjust file extensions, and rarely took advantage of the spell-check or grammar check functions. And they were always losing their passwords….their “passports” onto websites. They acted as though we had co-opted their toys for unnecessary purposes.

In retrospect, I don’t blame them entirely for their hesitations in traveling through unfamiliar digital territory. Because of their proficiency with social media, there is an expectation that all students attending school today, at any grade level, are endowed by their creator with a new strain of technology enhanced DNA. Because they can operate a joy stick or the Wii remote with grace and ease, they are expected to come pre-familiarized with keyboard commands that would make them more productive (“What do you mean ‘Paste Special’? What’s unformatted text, anyway?”) Our anticipation that our students  are capable with all things digital has led a combined sense of frustration.

That is not to say, however, that student can return home to the land of the pen, pencil, and worksheet. They need to be travelling on this Internet highway, but our digital “natives” need to stop acting like reluctant tourists safely traveling on a prescribed tour bus that never ventures into TCP/IP’s  backcountry. Educators have plenty of support in meeting newly adopted standards. There are a number of organizations who support the development of 21st Century skills-ISTE, 21st Century Partnership to name a few. Plus, this experience has prepared us for next year when our 1:1 initiative will be expanded.

I believe that our students need to break out of the Magic School Bus model of Internet exploration staffed by Ms. Frizzel, the contemporary Pied Piper, who could transport them effortlessly into new  experiences . While Ms. Frizzel served as the elementary school expert in Outer Space exploration, the study of anatomy and physiology, and all things in  underwater research, the magnitude of information and means to access that information on the Internet today far exceeds the abilities of one teacher, even a teacher with Ms. Frizzel’s infinite patience and wisdom.

A better model to adopt for for our students as digital tourists is the Rick Steve’s model, where “travel is a political act.” In this model, students travel the alternate routes for productivity and interact and collaborate with others using many different software “languages”. They may stumble in these challenging and unfamiliar digital locations, but they will benefit from this exposure to the strange and unknown. They just need to get over their xenophobia of new software platforms. They need to develop a sense of curiosity and adventure in order to make their visits in the Internet productive. To facilitate their exploration, educators need to stop assuming that students are comfortable in the digital world and deliberately force students into becoming explorers out of their comfort zones. We need to convince our students that the double-deckered tour bus playing the pre-recorded soundtrack will not make them independent learners whose future success depends on the ability to mingle and cooperate. We need to encourage each of them to become a digital “native”  rather the digital “tourist” who cautiously picks his or her way through the Internet rather than be  immersed in the 21st Century cultural experience.