Batavia students tour Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands

Caption by Kevin Scheel: After touring Quito, we headed about an hour north of the capital to the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) where we were able to stand on the actual equator! Pictured in the background is a statue of Diablo Humo, a famous folklore figure seen all over the country, taken on June 3, 2019.

By Brett Milam

Kevin Scheel: Spanish teacher, soccer coach, and … world traveler with Batavia Local Schools. ¡Toma!

Caption by Kevin Scheel: One of our first official group pictures taken in downtown Quito outside the San Francisco Monastery with the Virgén de Panecillo statue in the background, taken on June 3, 2019.

Scheel recently returned from a trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands with 26 students and several teachers.

The idea of the trip began to germinate in the fall of 2017 after a previous trip to Spain. Over the next 15 months, the students, two adults, and four chaperones signed up, and trip “prep mode” began: the mechanics of what was needed ahead of time, how to get around once inside the country, safety protocol and expectations, packing and dress, Scheel explained.

He applies the educator attitude of “70 percent of the work is done before the lesson” to prepare for the trip. And then once immersed in the trip itself, it’s all about enthusiasm and being involved, Scheel said.

Caption by Kevin Scheel: Snorkeling the famous La Lobería beach on June 6, 2019 with our amazing local guides Humberto, Alexi, and Marcos (as well as our tour guide Diego) including swimming with sea lions that came up right next to you.

“A deeper answer would be that I myself traveled twice in high school (once with my Spanish teacher to Spain, a second time with an art teacher to Italy), which was a contributing factor in not only my wanting to give students the same experience I had, but also was a factor in my decision to become a teacher myself,” Scheel said.

Scheel has taken these tripes every two years to Spanish-speaking countries — which parlays with being a Spanish teacher, after all — but it’s also about his desire to experience as much as the world as possible. His dad, a Marine during the Vietnam War, saw a lot of the world and his mother who never had those opportunities, both pushed and loved for Scheel to experience those things as a kid.

“A number of travelers are fortunate to have parents who do the same. For the most part parents use this as an opportunity to teach their kids responsibility having them cover $1,000 or half on their own. Birthday and holiday presents definitely come into play as well. I also have had a number of students pay for the entire trip themselves,” Scheel said.

As of now, the trips are being financed by the individual (or their parents) involved. Scheel said he would love to be able to offer a scholarship program or do some sort of fundraising for those who can’t finance such a trip, but it’s not at that point yet.

Caption by Kevin Scheel: Some of the guys taken under a cool arch built outside the Charles Darwin Research Center (you can actually see Darwin’s face top center) where we visited Giant Tortoises including the famous Lonesome George and Super Diego. June 4, 2019.

Spain and Cuba, after relations improved with the latter, were trip options in 2017, but it came down to Ecuador and the Galápagos after issues in Cuba changed. Panama was also a consideration, Scheel said; that’ll be the next Spanish-speaking location, however.

Scheel has led students on trips like this three other times: he took four students to Costa Rica for his first trip, 19 students, plus an adult to Peru, and 32 students plus two adults to Spain.

Any student is welcome to come, but most so far have tended to be from the Spanish classes and a number of them are soccer players. Some are seniors, but not all, Scheel explained.

“I once had a younger sibling travel before his freshman year as his brother was going as well. He actually intends to travel for each year of his high school experience. His mom helped with the first two trips, and he is paying the [next] two trips on his own,” he said.

While there is no assigned work or “homework” while on these trips, the students are encouraged to have the experience educate them, Scheel said.

“I tell students often that I’m not going to be looking over their shoulders [to check] their speaking ability, and most of them love the opportunity to try it out anyway,” he said. “They quickly realize that by trying to use their language and respecting them, they will receive respect and a friendly response in return.”

Interested students can get half a high school credit or college credit, if they do want to do more formal activities during the trip, however. Some students even make a travel video Scheel uses in the classroom.

Ultimately, the trips are a way for the students to demonstrate their own responsibility and decision-making skills — and for Scheel to as well, even though he’s that quasi-leader for the students, he views the trips as a growth experience for himself.

The trips are about immersion into a new culture and getting out of their respective comfort zones.

“It’s always fun to watch them trying new foods and seeing new places. Without fail I have at least one student each trip so far who has never flown on a plane,” Scheel said. “It has been an amazing opportunity for me when I was younger, and I’ve seen the same from students as well.”

He added, “It varies from a number of them, but a few of them do reply with that amazing, ‘This changed my life,’ story that you hope for but never are sure if it happened.”

One such student even went on to study abroad in Australia, and work opportunities that took her to Buenos Aires, Argentina with Junior Olympics, Scheel said.

Scheel said it’s hard to say what his favorite trip has been. There was the whitewater rafting experience in Costa Rica, or the hot springs, or the hotel with 30-40 Scarlet Macaws (an endangered species) flying around. Or the opportunity to knock one of the Seven Wonders of the World off the list in Machu Picchu in Peru (“everything and more than I expected”). Or the three days spent in the Amazon Rainforest on a night boat ride.

The Galápagos also lived up to expectations.

“Watching the students as well as my wife struggle to stay six feet away from the sea lions, marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and other wildlife practically begging to be touched for fear of the $17,000 fine and possible jail time was immensely fun,” Scheel said. “But even greater was seeing the friendships grow from our amazing guides that were with us throughout the trip.”

Scheel’s next trip will be his first non-Spanish speaking trip to Europe in 2020. He said seven students are already enrolled, with an information meeting set for September.

The trip will start in London and then move to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, and then on to Munich, which features a most anticipated moment for Scheel in seeing the Neuschwanstein Castle. Then they’ll head up to the Swiss Alps and Lucerne. The tour finishes traveling to Prague, which Scheel said he’s excited for students to see such an old-world city.

Scheel’s goal is to do these trips every year, with odd-number years being Spanish-speaking and even-numbered “wherever else in the world I want to go.”

With Machu Picchu done, Scheel also has a personal goal of seeing the other six Wonders of the World, which would necessitate trips to China and Brazil down the road.

“Overall, I just wanted to start a travel program at Batavia for students to be able to see the world,” he said.

Another teacher at Batavia, Jolene Pappas, offered a science trip for students to work with sea turtles in Costa Rica, Scheel said. Pappas first took students in 2018 and is planning a summer 2020 trip.

“There are a number of other teachers interested in going or leading these trips as well, and I’d love to be able to see every teacher at Batavia travel at least once if possible. So far, I’ve taken seven teachers already, and hopefully I can take another three or four next year!” he said.