October 8, 2013

Harvard-Westlake Super-Star Teacher Speaks about Traveling with Us

Cheri Gaulke, the Upper School Head of Visual Arts at Harvard-Westlake School and teacher of Video Art at introductory and advanced levels, and her students are embarking on an educational adventure to Rwanda this upcoming January with Friendship Tours World Travel (FTWT). Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide when hundreds of thousands of Tutsi were slaughtered by the Hutus. As this significant date approaches, it’s important to remember and reflect on the atrocities committed during the Rwandan genocide. Cheri and her students hope to spread awareness through the creation of Visual Arts.

Cheri with Lao children, 2013

FTWT: Why did you become a teacher? What do you love about it?

Cheri Gaulke: Two of the things I love about teaching video is developing critical thinking skills within my students and developing collaborative skills as film is a collaborative medium. For the critical thinking part, we live in a media-saturated world and yet we do not learn how to be media literate…To not be a passive “couch potato” but rather an engaged and intelligent consumer of moving images is life changing…As savvy media producers themselves, students can have an impact on their world.

Why do you like leading trips of students abroad?

CG: I love travel and being exposed to different ways of thinking and being. Taking students to different countries opens up worlds of consciousness for them and allows them to better know who they are. I love the kinds of trips that I am doing with FTWT because it is not just about going and seeing, but also about students reflecting upon their experience and giving back. We charge them with the responsibility of doing something with their experience by turning it into a video documentary, a news article, a photographic exhibition, or whatever form of public expression that they desire. In doing so we are challenging and empowering the students as agents of change.

Cheri with Harvard Westlake students interviewing a
UXO victim at the COPE Center in Vientiane, Laos, 2013

What do they learn on these experiential adventures that can’t be taught in the classroom?

CG: Instead of learning about war in a textbook, they see where a war was fought, meet people affected by it, and they get to confront who they are as US citizens and what their role is in relation to these issues. It makes history tangible and personal.

Leading these trips is a lot of work and responsibility. Why is it “worth it” to you?

CG: Being a teacher is a never-ending experience of being a learner. Travel offers a lot of learning. I love getting to know students in an environment outside of the classroom, where we share in a process of being challenged by looking at difficult issues and pushing through to making art out of those experiences.  It is a lot of work but it also makes me a better person – more open to change, more experienced with transforming life experience into art.

Have you traveled abroad with other tour providers before? Why is working with Alethea and Friendship Tours better/ more rewarding?

CG: I have done a little travel with other providers. Alethea’s values match mine. Most trips are simply about visiting places and learning about them. Alethea’s values go way beyond. She’s all about a much deeper mission of learning about war and peace. As a person who has been passionate about fighting against injustice my whole life, I love how these trips introduce these ideas to students. What better reason to study history than to not repeat its mistakes? What better reason to meet people different than yourself than to realize we may not be that different.

What I saw on the trip to Laos is 15 year olds many of which had never traveled outside of the US and who certainly knew little about the Vietnam War and nothing about how Laos was illegally bombed by our own country. Now those young people know Laotians who have been personally affected and these young people deeply care about them and are working hard to let others know about their plight. That’s truly amazing and represents the beginnings of a generation of peacemakers.

Cheri and Harvard Westlake students with UXO survivor, Mr. Yelee and
his family.  The group assisted the family with basic needs and continued
to raise funds for the family after their return from Laos, 2013.

What would you say to a teacher who is considering taking students abroad for the first time?

CG: Go for it. But work with someone organized, smart and passionate like Alethea, because your trip will result in a more profound experience for the students and yourself.

Alethea Tyner Paradis, Director of Friendship Tours World Travel
and Cheri Gaulke

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