“Travel broadens the mind” is an old chestnut that’s hard to dispute. The ancient Roman philosopher Saint Augustine famously said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page.”
Students in Hoboken High School’s Classroom Without Walls program are devouring that book page by page.
Classroom Without Walls is a district initiative, started by Schools Superintendent Dr. Christine Johnson. Ms. Geidy De La Rosa teaches Spanish and advises the group. “The idea for the program came from Dr. Johnson,” she relates. “Our students had the desire to travel to Costa Rica after we discussed it in class. When Dr. Johnson came to our district, she initiated the program, and the students loved it since day one.”
In 2016, the group visited Spain and Rome; in 2017, London and Paris; and in 2018, the grand tour of Italy. In 2019, they will travel to Japan, where they will visit Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hakone National Park, and ride the high-speed shinkansen train. In 2020, it will be Greece, where they’ll visit Athens, Delphi, Epidaurus, and Cape Sounion.
In 2021, it’s off to the Galapagos Islands, where they’ll tour Isabella, Santa Cruz, and San Cristobal Islands, as well as mainland Ecuador.
In 2022, China is on the schedule, with stops in Beijing and Yangshuo.
On Location at HHS
Photographer Victor Rodriguez and I visited HHS early on a Wednesday morning. There was the usual hubbub of kids swiping their cards. Principal Robin Piccapietra rescued us and led us to the upstairs office, where we met in a conference room with Ms. De La Rosa and four students from the Classroom Without Walls: Ariana Henriquez, Brandon Lyons, Angel Quinones, and Giselle Quinones.
You sense immediately that these are young people with a purpose.
Brandon, a senior, went on trips to France, Italy, Spain, and the U.K. “Since the program was created, it’s opened doors for us,” he says. “It was my first trip out of the country. It was an amazing learning experience.”
For many of these kids, even getting a passport is a new experience.
Just five days earlier, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had wed in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. The students in the room had visited there. It was a perfect illustration of the power of travel. It’s one thing to see it in pictures or on the screen, but all the students were awestruck by seeing this royal residence in the flesh, built by William the Conqueror after the Norman invasion in 1066.
While Native Americans have been living in North America for millennia, the United States is a fairly young country. Seeing sights that are almost a thousand years old, and in some cases, much older, gives students a strong sense of our place and time in the world.
When in Rome…
“It’s a big world, and you need to know as much as you can,” Brandon says. He plans to go into local politics, a career, he says, in which it’s important to know other cultures. “In Hoboken there are different kinds of people, and you can see how they live in their countries of origin.”
Giselle, a freshman, who wants to go into law, says that travel opens your eyes and helps you to understand diverse cultures. “I’d like to study abroad when I’m older and gain knowledge of different countries,” she says.
Angel, a junior, was really enthusiastic about the food in the various countries they visited, rattling off a menu of items, including London’s fish ’n’ chips and “real” pasta from Milan, citing the carbonara in particular. I wonder if we have an Iron Chef in the making, but he says, no, he wants to be a physical therapist or go into sports medicine.
Ariana, a junior, who also wants to go into medicine, has set her sights on a nursing career. She’s looking forward to touring Japan in 2019, when the group will visit a hospital there. “It will enhance my knowledge,” she says.
Everyone we talked to about the Classroom Without Walls emphasized that no student would be turned away because of lack of funds. This was an important point for both students and staff.
“With fundraisers, we make sure every child has an opportunity to go,” Brandon says.
The students hold the usual events, such as bake sales, empanada sales, basketball events, tricky trays, card parties, and raffles, and they use crowd-funding platforms like GoFundMe. The proceeds are shared among the students.
Parents and guardians benefit from an array of payment plans. They can supply a down payment, pay by the month, or pay in full at a time that’s convenient to them.
One of the first things the students wanted me to know is that they “had the blessing” of Dr. Johnson. It helps when the person at the top has such a strong belief in the benefits of travel. Dr. Johnson was on hand the day we visited.
“One of our focal points is global awareness and learning about diverse cultures,” Johnson says. “To see other places together is an important global learning experience.”
While the students learned a tremendous amount during their trips to Europe, Johnson expresses pleasure that they will be broadening their experience to include Asia and the Galapagos. “I’m excited that they will be visiting parts of the world they never thought they would set foot in,” she says.
Johnson, too, notes that the ability to pay would not be a deal breaker for any student, pointing out that some 90 percent of participants are economically disadvantaged. “It’s really important that global awareness and learning be equitable,” she says.
Global awareness also includes the U.S. and our own backyard. In November 2018, students will be visiting Atlanta, Montgomery, and Birmingham for a Civil Rights Historical Tour, cities where some of the most important events in U.S. history unfolded.
And what about traveling across the river? Hoboken students have the entire cultural smorgasbord of NYC within spitting distance and avail themselves of all it has to offer, taking field trips to the Guggenheim and many other world-renowned sites.
Johnson smiles at how students’ perceptions of the travel experience depend on their frame of reference. She tells the story of Hoboken students visiting Sussex County, N.J., for a teen convention. “They were in awe of the ‘rows and rows of corn,’” she laughs.
Talking the Talk
“Tour guides speak the lingo of the country,” De La Rosa says. In France, they visited Paris and Versailles. “In Paris we spoke French—Bonjour!—it’s an important part of the Classroom Without Walls.” Brandon points out that when they went to Italy, the HHS Italian teacher was on board.
Johnson also touts the state’s Seal of Biliteracy program. On Jan. 19, 2016, New Jersey became the 15th state in the nation to implement a legislated statewide Seal of Biliteracy. In achieving this seal, students demonstrate that they are able to speak, read, listen, and write in two or more languages at a high level of proficiency.
“I connect the two programs,” Johnson says. Seven Hoboken students have earned the seal.
Knowing the language of the countries visited brings us full circle. If the world is a book, imagine reading that book in multiple languages.
“I have pride in the students and faculty,” Johnson says. “They support and engage in ideas that are not traditional, and they benefit from the experience. That makes my work meaningful. These kids are the most passionate I’ve ever worked with.”—Kate Rounds