All abroad brings German lessons to life
There are occasions during the planning of a school trip abroad when you wonder why you're doing it. The bookings, the paperwork, the meetings, the passports, not to mention the constant feeling of panic that there's something you've forgotten to do.
I've been teaching German at Therfield School in Leatherhead, Surrey for six years. For two of those I have taken charge of the Rhineland Trip for Year 7s. Each year we take 40 to Boppard with a tried and tested programme of excursions and activities. This area of Germany is spectacular: as an introduction to the country it is hard to beat.
I would defy anyone not to be stunned by the craggy, steep gorges with their impossible looking vineyards and the famous castles. There are beautiful, half-timbered towns hugging the bank of Europe's most important river, cruise ships, and huge barges struggling between Rotterdam and Switzerland. History too, from Roman times to the present, and geography, in the rift valley that makes the area unique. However, a diet of history and nice scenery is not enough for a bunch of 12-year- olds, so our programme, which centres on Boppard, Koblenz and Ruedesheim, provides a varied diet.
We go shopping for local flavour and atmosphere, and swimming for a good time. We visit the 13th century in the Marksburg, an intact medieval castle, and become romantics standing high up on the Lorelei looking for Rhine maidens. We visit twee Ruedesheim and its fascinating musical museum, take cable-car trips and have a two-hour Rhine cruise, all with the intention of inspiring these young pupils with such a love of the place that they will want more of it.
We British have a poor reputation as language learners, so pupils need all the help they can get. On German soil, lessons come to life when they recognise shop names, items on a menu, or go and ask, in German, for an ice-cream.
Socially, too, the experience is invaluable. For a few pupils it's their first trip abroad, for others their first trip away without parents. The learning curve is steep - compromising with room mates, making a good impression as an ambassador of school and country, not getting lost and budgeting with a foreign currency.
Over the years, trips abroad have become more sophisticated and regulated.
Youngsters' tourist expectations are more demanding now than when I began teaching. We keep them away from theme parks, but they still want to be entertained and have television in their rooms. If you get it wrong, they'll let you know that it's boring.
Our increasingly litigious society means that you have to get the paperwork right with obligations and responsibilities in black and white and signed for. After well-publicised tragedies, we now routinely check hotel security, door locks and fire regulations, all eminently sensible, but emphasised far more these days.
So, last July, there we all were on the last night in Boppard, content to have no broken limbs, major diplomatic incidents or missing persons. The best thing I do all year? Without a doubt.
We do more or less the same programme, but each time we see it through new eyes, and the sense of wonderment we witness from the pupils makes everything else in the school year worthwhile.
As a thank-you, the kids had bought me gifts, presented with a little speech that brought a tear to the eye. I told them we were proud of them and that they could be proud of themselves.
* Therfield School travel with group and school travel specialists Dragons International, Douglas House, Tollgate Park, Stafford ST16 3EE. Tel: 01785 224420; email@example.com; www.dragonsinternational.co.uk