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Conn. teacher brings travel lessons to classroom

By Stephanie Reitz
Associated Press / January 1, 2012
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HARTFORD, Conn.—When Connecticut teacher Larry Shortell talks with his students about cultures and traditions in other countries, he can do more than check a textbook for background. He can consult his own memories gathered in trips to all 50 states, more than 80 nations and every continent.

As national and state education officials emphasize the importance of global studies, Shortell's experiences have become more than a series of interesting journeys in one man's life. They've also become a teaching tool for his teenage students at Explorations Charter School in Winsted and, through his new book, for others interested in the wonders and weirdness of worldwide travels.

"Summers Off: The Worldwide Adventures of a Schoolteacher" was released earlier this year, just in time for Shortell to set off on more travels. Those journeys included a stop last summer in southwest Florida for his first book-signing, which took place at one of his three alma maters, Edison State College.

From Brunei to Barbados, Shortell tries to visit and learn about schools in each country whenever possible, often discovering that his American experiences are just as interesting to those educators as theirs are to him.

"It's really helped me understand different learning styles, so I feel like I can relate to the kids a little bit better and maybe adjust my teaching style to what's best for them," said Shortell, 47, an Enfield resident who taught in Alaska, Florida and Hawaii before returning to his home state of Connecticut.

State education records show Connecticut's students speak 148 languages other than English in their homes, usually because they or their parents are the first generation in their families to immigrate to the U.S. from other nations.

State leaders have taken note, both because those students often need help learning English and because native-born students can learn from those foreign-born peers about the increasingly interconnected world.

Local and state educators have also been taking increasing notice of teachers like Shortell who've been able to travel, because they can bring their experiences back to Connecticut and can make connections with international students whose homelands they've visited.

In fact, the 2012 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, Berlin High educator David Bosso, was picked partly based on how he's used his own international travels to help students understand world issues.

"It's important that our students have a global perspective even as they acquire knowledge within their own classrooms," said Connecticut state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor. "And the best teachers use information from their own explorations in the course of travel, or in the course of reading for professional purposes and for pleasure, and combine that information with a more conventional curriculum."

Shortell, while adhering to his school's curriculum, has combined his experiences from years of travel to answer students' questions, dispel stereotypes and give them a feel for cultures and traditions far different than those they know in northwestern Connecticut.

"Some students have a favorite place they want to visit and I've probably been there, so I can tell them about what I've seen and get them excited about it," he said.

The summer trips started about 15 years ago with scuba diving adventures, quickly blossoming into more ambitious journeys that have taken Shortell to deserts, remote beaches, penguin colonies, booming cities, silent pastures and just about any terrain imaginable.

He's not only driven by curiosity, but also by a promise he made to himself in 1990 to live his life to the fullest -- a promise that came after a boating accident that killed his best friend. Shortell barely survived after the rowboat flipped over and wasn't rescued for hours. His friend's spirit for adventure is now part of what drives him.

"That experience got me thinking about, `Am I doing this life the right way by working all the time and not having any social life?' " Shortell said. "It could have been something that destroyed my life and turned me into a sad sack, but I think it did quite the opposite."

On a teacher's salary, though, traveling the world every summer isn't a luxury tour of high-end hotels and fancy meals. Shortell cuts corners all year by taking sandwiches and home-brewed coffee to work, picking free entertainment such as kayaking and hiking, and staying in modest places on his trips.

"Sometimes a little too modest," he added, then paused and laughed, "OK, dumps. Some of them are dumps."

He knows enough Spanish to get by in countries where it's spoken, and says many people who know snippets of English are eager to practice with him. He's often also recruited to teach some English phrases to students at the schools he visits.

He's preparing for another round-the-world trip next summer and is especially excited to see silverback gorillas in Rwanda for the first time.

"I do feel like I'm a better teacher because of the travels and because of the experiences I've had," he said. "I've been lucky that if a student has an assignment in history or geography or has a writing assignment or something and I've been to the place, I may be able to help them envision it and bring it to life."

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