You might say Josh Landers, seventh grade geography teacher at Maryville Middle School, had a non-traditional classroom for his “summer school.”
Landers accompanied five students and their parents or adult guardians to Europe this summer for a week of exploration and education.
The group of 10 traveled to Rome and stood in the Coliseum, went to Vatican City and gazed at Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel, visiting Pompeii and saw bodies preserved in volcanic ash, and then stood in the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Greece.
Landers said the students and their parents/guardians got the opportunity to walk where history happened. Landers organized the excursion through Education First, a specialty travel agency that is based in Boston.
“Education First is a tour company that caters to college, high school and middle school students. Their goal is to offer tours that give customers the best value for their money,” Landers said.
Landers, who has been a teacher 12 years and worked the last five at Maryville Middle School, first worked with the company in February of 2009 when he spent four days in Paris learning about how to plan trips, recruit students and organize tours that go as smoothly as possible.
Landers had his first meeting with those interested in making the trip in spring of 2009.
“We talked to our principal and administrators. They’ve been excellent in letting us recruit over the intercom, and they give us a voice to encourage students to travel,” he said. The trips are privately funded and are not sanctioned or funded by the school.
The trip to Europe cost between $2,500 and $3,000 a person. “That’s why the process begins a year in advance. We start recruiting in May so they have enough time to see if they can save enough money and work around work schedules,” he said.
More parents or guardians also go when middle school students are traveling, Landers said.
The teacher said traveling through Education First gives parents and himself peace of mind. “If I’m going overseas, I want to use someone who speaks the language and knows the ins-and-outs of where we are,” he said. “The comfort level is so much better when you have someone familiar with where you are.”
Normally Education First tours involve students from two different schools. In this case they traveled with a group from a high school in Alaska. “That was neat in itself,” Landers said.
The teacher said all the normal rules that would apply for middle school kids apply on the tour, and there are curfews at the hotels each night. “That’s not an issue normally though, because it is a fast-paced tour, and they’re exhausted,” he said.
The group left McGhee Tyson Airport on July 3 and returned on July 12. Once they landed in Rome, a tour director traveled with them throughout the entire time until they got on the plane to return home. In addition, the always had local tour guides who met them at each stop along the way. “A lot of them were archeologists,” he said.
Landers said they spent two days in Rome and half a day in Vatican City. From there they rode on a tour bus four hours south to Pompeii. “We were only in Pompeii four hours, and then we drove another four hours to Southern Italy, near Naples, where we boarded a ferry that was at one time a cruise ship, ‘The Ionian Queen,’” he said.
The group spent the night on the ship as it travelled along the Mediterranean coast. “It let people off in different cities. We would dock in tiny towns, but our final destination was Patras, Greece,” he said. “We drove to Argos, and we finished up in Athens where we stayed two days.”
Landers said what stood out in his mind in Italy was visiting Vatican City and going to the Roman Coliseum. “It was fascinating. You see it on television and read about it, but to be in a place that is hundreds of years old, it was a whole different perspective,” he said.
In Vatican City, Landers said the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted was impressive, as was St. Peter Basilica. “They said it was the largest church in the world. I couldn’t imagine a church being any larger. It was massive,” he said.
In Pompeii, Landers said the students saw remains of people who were almost perfectly preserved by the molten ash that destroyed the city. “You see these people in glass-coffins, and you see the detail that went into such an ancient town,” he said.
In Greece, Landers said the students visited the original Olympic stadium but unfortunately many of the structures were gone. “In Greece you had to use your imagination more, Marble has been taken from temple structures and used on new churches. You might have one column remaining, and these flip books in the gift shops helped you recreate in your mind what it would have looked like hundreds of years ago,” Landers said.
The students also picked up on the influence of the ancient Roman Empire in that region of Europe. “Whether you were in Rome or Greece, you saw and heard about the Roman Empire. It was massive and powerful, and everywhere they went, they left their mark with architecture or culture,” he said. “It was their stamp.”
Landers said in Rome, as he stood in the Coliseum, he thought of the Christian believers killed on that site during Biblical times.
“Being a Christian, I was moved. In its time, this was a place where believers were killed,” he said.
Landers said even the food was an educational experience. “So much of what we think of as Italian isn’t. We’ve Americanized it. Alfredo sauce is something we’ve added. It seems Italian dishes here are more fattening. Their breakfast was never heavy, and they didn’t have very many carbonated soft drinks,” he said. “It seems like people there eat healthier.”
The teacher said transportation also was different. “Everywhere we went, there were motorcycles. It seemed if you are on a motorcycle, you can drive on the sidewalk, in between lanes, pretty much anywhere you wanted,” he said. “It was like they were mosquitoes buzzing around. The kids were in awe.”
Landers said it is important for students to travel because it expands their world view. “You live in one place your whole life, and you can have a biased view of what life is like,” he said. “We spend a lot of time in class teaching how different things are in other places, but until you take them to other places and let them experience foreign cultures, they can’t appreciate it as much.”
Students who went on the tour included Cara Greenacre, Nathan Smith, Andrew Ten Eyck, Chris Stephens and Parker Pewitt.