Elizabeth Zingales is a French Teacher at West Lake High School in West Lake Ohio. Her French teacher at West Lake HS, Nicolette Miller, has been an ACIS Group Leader for over 20 years, and it was Nicolette who mentored Elizabeth when she first got started as a teacher. Elizabeth didn’t set out to become a teacher, but her love for French culture and international affairs led her to a career path teaching world languages. Once she got started teaching, she felt a calling to continue the tradition her mentor started at West Lake of leading international trips.
We interviewed Elizabeth about her experience working with ACIS, her favorite moments on tour, and the creative ways she helps her students fundraise for her trips:
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I wish that there was this “aha” moment when I realized that I wanted to be a teacher but for me, it was more like a very long love affair and I was in denial for a few years! Although I grew up playing school with my friends, always wanting to play the role of teacher, I never really thought that teaching would be my career path.
In my younger years, I twirled baton competitively, which allowed me to meet people all over the US and some abroad. My coaches served as excellent role models whose careers were guided by their passions and at one point in my life, I thought that I too would be a twirling coach but it wasn’t quite right for me. At heart, I’m just too much of an academic.
I studied French and History during my undergraduate days. My first semester in college I didn’t study French and I missed it so much that I signed up for classes second semester. I was influenced by the novels of francophone authors and at one point had aspirations of learning Arabic, traveling the Maghreb and becoming a history professor. I ended up getting an internship for the International Children’s Games that was being held in Cleveland. I loved interacting with the delegations from around the world and knew that I was passionate about other cultures.
There was a long-term sub position for French at a local high school and I thought that there was no way that I would get the position but I had nothing to lose. I was so naïve to think that teaching would be easy! Those early teaching years offered some of my biggest challenges as I was trying to figure out the balance of classroom pragmatics and how to share my passion for French language, history, literature, and culture. The students always served as an inspiration to me and still do!
How long have you been traveling with students?
I have been on three ACIS trips with students: two as an assistant group leader and one as a group leader, in addition to a global conference in Paris.
What inspired you to lead your first trip with your students?
Leading my first trip seemed like a very natural transition because my mentor teacher, Nicolette Miller, had already established a culture of travel at our school by taking students on trips every other year. I wanted my first trip as a group leader to focus on France and provide students with experiences in different regions and a contrast between city and country life.
What led you to choose ACIS as your student travel provider?
Because I had been on two of Nickie’s trips that offered so many memorable moments, the decision to continue traveling with ACIS seemed natural. It was very helpful to have started my student travel experiences with such an experienced role model that could pave the way. I also was able to gain first-hand insight into what ACIS is all about. The tour managers that I have interacted with at ACIS have always been first-rate, amazing, well-traveled people that were able to connect with the students. It was and is important to me to have someone who you can collaborate with and is so well versed in the language and in travel.
Having hotels in key locations is so important in maximizing your students’ experiences as well. Experiencing cultural connections with local Parisian chefs won me over and the food in general! I love the spirit of collaboration that the company provides from working with consultants in the planning phases to tour managers during the trip and even the quality control measures with visits from consultants onsite. I had researched some other companies and talked to other teachers and ACIS was the clear choice.
How do you structure your trips to accommodate your educational goals?
Students are included in the initial phases of selecting a trip. When students are registered, we have about 5 to 6 meeting before traveling where we discuss a variety of topics: passports, money, packing tips, roommates and the itinerary. It is in these initial meetings that I try to establish a group culture and collect some information about what students are really interested in doing on the trip. I always give suggestions of things that I have done in the past and allow them to include some new options. I can then evaluate if I need to connect with my consultant and add something into the trip, like a bike ride in Versailles or just discuss something with the tour manager when we arrive in Paris, like eating ice cream at Berthillon.
I try to plan future meetings to focus on students’ interests or gaps in their knowledge. For example, if we have a cultural connections experience planned to paint like Cézanne and my students don’t know much about his life or art, I present some information at the meetings to enhance their experiences when traveling. It is amazing what students can recall from those initial meetings. Plus, the meetings help to generate a lot of excitement.
What were some of the highlights of the trip for you and your students?
Answering this question is like asking a child what their favorite Christmas present was! Memorable moments are at the core of ACIS travel. Personally, I remember being charmed by Mont St. Michel from our tour manager’s narrative about Bretagne and Normandie, interactions with the locals, sipping café and eating savory crêpes in a building with Scandinavian influences and winding stairs and then ending the day at a biscuiterie suggested by our amazing driver, Hervé.
On my latest trip, two memories stand out. Our large group very efficiently got all of the luggage off of the TGV with a minute to spare. Did I mention the importance of having an appropriately sized suitcase? At any rate, everyone on the platform (not just our group) started clapping their hands and cheering. Then, we headed to the Pont du Gard and our amazing tour manager provided everyone with a picnic of some French classics (madeleine, Nutella, and Tagada) as we all swam in the river with the Pont du Gard in the background. Amazing!
What do students stand to gain from a life and educational experience perspective by going on a trip like this?
I love to see my student travelers with ACIS become more mature and gain confidence. In the beginning, students are timid in their language interactions and by the end of the trip they are ordering their own food and bargaining at the flea market. The group experience promotes inclusivity as students who would probably never have interacted back home forge friendships through their similar experiences. Most importantly, the trips trigger a passion in students for culture and travel. I love when former travelers contact me to tell me about their university experiences abroad. It is the true measure of how travel changes lives.
What do you do to help your students prepare for trips, in terms of fundraising, cultural expectations, etc?
Fundraising has been something that my group has really been working on with this trip. I appointed a student ambassador, Norah Wilson, who has been doing a great job using social media to connect the group, in addition to coordinating some fundraising experiences. She set up a day at a local ice cream/chocolate shop, Malley’s, where a percentage of the proceeds went to the group. Additionally, Norah set up a bake sale on Election Day, which was quite successful.
Our latest fundraising effort was a student designed cookbook with over 60 recipes from local families. I always encourage my student travelers to take risks in their culinary selections and our cookbook provided such an eclectic sampling at a time in our country’s history when I thought it was important to highlight an appreciation for differences. What better way to show how our differences can unite and enrich our lives than around the table?
What’s your favorite place to which you’ve traveled (with or without your students)?
I’ve had so many great traveling experiences but I really enjoyed my ACIS global conference in Paris. When in doubt, Paris is always a good option! Appetizers in the Louvre, a proper French dinner in the Bois de Boulogne, a historical tour of the Opéra Garnier and meeting some amazing colleagues, who unabashedly sang French classics au Lapin Agile were the stuff that dreams are made of, or at least this French teacher’s dreams! Such an incredible experience!
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