By Peter Dawes, @P_Dawes
At the end of the summer term I was lucky enough to be involved with a school music tour to Austria. Due to an enforced last minute dropping out of a member of staff, I became the replacement - not wanted for my tin ear, rather for my fluent German. I naturally offered my language services. Big mistake. I got to go up on stage and translate all the introductions to songs. Fine with the obvious stuff - but "here's a three part madrigal originally composed for a lute as a lullaby"? Yes, I exaggerate a little, but there were certainly some character building moments, shall we say.
The aspiration of this blog piece, by the way, is less to detail "first we did this, then we did that" but rather to focus on the whole ethos and benefits of such trips - and why they are so vital in an age where they are becoming an endangered species.
Taking about 60 pupils in coaches to Austria may sound like your idea of hell. I must admit I was dubious. But it not only worked, it was actually a great start to proceedings. A huge amount of bonding occurs in that time, and crucially, it being a mixed Yr 9-13 group, the sixth formers set the tone and there were few juvenile incidents of the type you might expect on a single year group trip.
Stopping at service stations, etc, becomes a mini adventure in itself. Not only are your senses assaulted by foreign sounds and culture, it is a perfect chance for pupils to see staff actually using transactional language, French and German in this case. Starting here, and throughout the trip, pupils would check with me how to say certain things and the meanings of signs.
Kudos to the language teacher.
Crucial first steps in sparking off a life-long love of language in some pupils...(I'm not overstating the case here. Back in the day, I ran several exchanges to Germany myself. Two pupils from those cohorts now teach German. Another lives and works there.)
Let's be honest here. Mozart, skiing, "the Hills are Alive", and birthplace of Hitler. That's about the extent of our knowledge of Austria. Writing as someone who lived there for a year, I have to say it is one of the best kept secrets, especially as a summer destination.
We toured the Villach-Klagenfurt area of Carinthia (Kärnten). IPeter Dawes Dragonfly Training t's about the southernmost tip of the German-speaking region of Europe. Carinthia has literally dozens of lakes, many of drinking-water quality, and all of them beautiful to swim in. And warm. Slovenia is to the south, the countries separated by the Karawanken mountains, a fact you should studiously keep from pupils (when pretty much everyone else was marking the end of WW1 in 1918, Carinthians returned to find their homeland occupied by Slovenians: it wasn't until 1920 that they were repelled.).
The views are utterly spectacular, especially on the cable car trip we took up one of the mountainsides, the Gerlitzberg. You are taken up 1,500m and we then walked the remaining 400m to the top. At one point, our guide, Werner, got us to stop and just listen.
No sound. No hum of traffic.
Maybe the occasional tweet - of the real variety. He then got us to look in 3 separate directions. At 3 countries. Austria, Slovenia and Italy. Several firsts for nearly everyone there. Werner, like many of his nation, is a great Anglophile. This came as a surprise to the pupils (doubtless due in part to our continued 'received wisdom' of "Don't mention the War"). After WW2, Germany and Austria were occupied by the Allies, responsible for different sectors. The British occupied his area, and by all accounts we were perceived as the most even-handed occupying force.
Werner also mentioned that he had researched his family tree back to 1535. He was the first family member to live entirely through a period of peace. You couldn't ask for a better embodiment of the European ideal. These visits and personal contacts genuinely impact on breaking down divisions and stereotypes.
One of the concerts was performed in Bad Bleiberg (literally 'lead mountain'). This was a relatively small settlement, formed for its lead mining potential. The mining was finally wound up in 1996, but by very good chance, as they were securing tunnels, they accidentally discovered water springs, which turned out to have just the right qualities to transform the region into a major spa. The week before we were there, a top English football team had done their pre-season training there.
Apart from one free day, there was a concert per day. The venues were hugely varied. As a result of this, pupils were exposed to all the following....
A Roman Catholic mass, during which they sang at appropriate moments.
A performance in a chapel, along with 3 other local choirs all drawn from the village's 300 inhabitants.
Singing to a few tables of drinkers in a pub. Performing to an outdoor audience on the banks of Lake Villach. Performing to an audience of several hundred at Bad Bleiberg, to spa visitors and local dignitaries. At the top of the Gerlitzberg, our intrepid sound engineer decided he would paraglide down the mountain. The choir broke into song and gave an impromptu performance to bewildered but delighted onlookers. (We were just sorry "I believe I can fly" is not in the repertoire). Where else do we see such a breadth of experience within education?
The pupils witnessed the astonishing levels of hospitality that are simply de rigeur in Austria (and Germany for that matter). We'd booked the pub bowling lane, and struck up a few songs almost as an afterthought - the landlord gave nearly 70 of us a free drink.
The Bad Bleiberg concert was followed by a full on 3 course meal. Post-concert CD sales at all venues were brisk.
This is not the sort of piece that needs a summary as such. However, I do need to state how passionately I believe in foreign visits.
Pupils saw European integration and friendship at first hand, and what a far cry it is from the headlines of interfering Brussels burocrats, which dominates the popular media's view.
They saw a variety of parts of the curriculum spring to life.
And not least of all, they experienced all manner of unfamiliar influences. First-hand, not through a screen.
Nothing beats a first hand account of a well remembered school trip…you can imagine the passion as well for a teacher of MFL when they see their pupils emerging themeselevs in different cultures and languages.
Pete Dawes has been one of Dragonfly’s senior trainers for many years, and his course, whether they be iPad, MFL or generic teaching and learning, have always been well received. To view some of the courses Pete has to offer, why not browse his page at the following link:
Peter Dawes Dragonfly Training