The Battle of Fromelles took place in 1916. On the first day of battle there was over 60,000 casualties. If you read this in a text book you might say ‘Gee that is a lot’, but as you drive past cemetery after cemetery you realise what 60,000 actually means. We stopped at the Australian Mass Grave at Phesant Wood where we located the grave of the Great Uncle of one of our students. We prayed in this cemetery holding a small ceremony for those that gave their lives for our country. Each student and teacher found a gravestone to place a poppy and an Australian flag. We will all remember those soldiers names for as long as we lived.
Fast forward a few days…
The language school was in Rouen just past the dungeon where Joan of Arc was held captive. We stopped for some eclairs. The girls ordered in French as we gaped at the vibrant colours filling the glass cabinet before us. They were crunchy, creamy and delicious. I walked the girls to the language school waving goodbye as they entered the large red doors to begin their lessons. I had some time before I had to meet the art students so I wandered down to the Joan of Arc Cathedral and stood in the place she was said to have been burnt at the stake. The enormity of the history within this medieval town left me breathless. Realising I had lost track of time I power-walked to the Rouen Cathedral entering the building directly opposite. The art students were just finishing their life drawings and were ready to show the history students and teachers their art from the last two days. I looked out the window of the studio at the cathedral. This is where Monet stood and painted and here my students were having the same experience. After admiring their works, I returned to the language school to check on the others during their lunch break. They were cooking crepes with students from Belgium as they conversed in French. The smile on their faces said it all.
The clouds drifted over a blue sky creating the perfect backdrop for the small little cottage in our view. The garden was pulsing with life. Sunflowers rose above my head, bumble bees buzzed between the many blossoms and the stream gently trickled by. We sat on wooden benches and took out our watercolours and visual arts diaries. This was my first ever watercolour and I was going to get it right! The art students gave me advice noting techniques and brush strokes. The joy in that moment was palpable. Painting in Monet’s Garden is an experience I will never forget.
We travelled from Sydney to France with fifteen art, language and history students from year 10 and 11 and three teachers. Over 14 days we travelled to the Somme, the Western Front of Ypres in Belgium, Rouen, to the site of the D-Day landings in Normandy, Bayeux, and finished off in Paris. As I took in the twinkling lights of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower I was struck by all I had learnt over the previous two weeks. I know the girls we had travelled with had learnt a great deal too. For many of them it was their first time overseas or even away from their parents for such a long time.
We as educators need to create as many of these opportunities for our students as we can.
We need to advocate for these types of experiences because they are invaluable.
You cannot learn what we learnt about Australian History from a textbook.
You cannot learn what we learnt about art from a the internet.
You cannot master a language like our students did in a classroom.
I know overseas trips are not always possible, but sometimes it is as simple as walking out the school gate. Don’t let the walls of your classroom define the space in which your teach. Define your own space and create your own experiences… because experience is the most powerful pedagogy there is.