Traveling Teddy: Theresa class takes a ride

The note arrived in mid-March, less than one week before the start of spring.

“We have been enjoying your letters and treats from all over the world,” the students wrote. “Last week we ‘traveled’ to the Arctic in our studies and thought we’d send YOU a picture for once. Our igloo has made a ‘cool’ reading spot for our classroom.”

A couple of dozen boys and girls, wearing mittens and winter caps, waved and grinned while surrounding a cabin of ice … or was that a dome of empty milk jugs? It certainly was way cool and way creative.

Teacher Kathy Sterr of the Theresa Learning Community in Fond du Lac County has been helping me take her third-graders for one ride after another this year. Their class representative (a stuffed koala bear) and my own buddy (a curly teddy bear) kept me company during thousands of miles of travels.

The students’ first assignment was to name my companions, and they came up with Lewis and Clark because they were “two adventurers seeing the world.”

About once a month, we sent trip pictures via email, a postcard and a treat with some type of learning material from the place visited. Sometimes both Lewis and Clark traveled, and sometimes there was only room for one in my suitcase.

The students tasted blueberries from Michigan, received little boxes of Crayons from the Crayola Store in Kansas City and bookmarks made from papyrus paper in Egypt.

Lewis and Clark had their photos taken behind a news desk during a CNN network tour in Atlanta and in front of a gondola in Venice, Italy. They have slept in Chicago’s elegant and historic Palmer House and toured the Irish castle where Beatle Paul McCartney was married (for the second time).

Jessica Doyle, Wisconsin’s first lady, posed with Clark at the Executive Residence in Madison before Christmas. An Egyptian man held him two months later, at the Giza Pyramids.

So we learned about new places, people and cultures. We decided it was important to both identify and respect differences when we travel, and that travel is good because the world is a better place whenever we widen our perspectives.

Students were curious about differences in foods and clothing. They wondered about houses and cars, and whether we saw animals or forms of transportation that aren’t typical in Wisconsin.

The differences between rural and urban lifestyles also were of interest. We tried to explain why communities begin where they do, noting that sometimes a nearby river or railroad tracks made a place attractive and practical enough to call “home.”

My buddies returned to Theresa this month and were delighted with the questions that the children generated for us.

“Did you ride a camel?” asked Meghan Becker. Uh-huh, and the trickiest part is knowing to hold on when the animal rises from a sitting position.

“Do people wear green in Ireland?” asked Ira Manthey. No more than we do (and they don’t dye their beer green).

“Does the writing look different in another places?” asked Becca Kemmel. It sure did in Egypt.

“Are the faces on the money different than what we see here?” asked Hailey DeBoard. Yes, when outside of the United States, and some countries have women on their currency.

“Do you ever go to the same place twice?” asked Elizabeth Helsell. When close to home, yes – but the further away I go, the less likely I am to revisit.

“Were you scared when you went on your first trip away from home?” asked Trevor Fry. You bet. My first airplane ride was as a college student, to visit my grandmother in California. While I was growing up on a farm in Wisconsin, we never had overnight vacations, so that made me want to travel even more when I was an adult.

“Who pays for all the trips that you take now?” asked Tony Brown. Excellent question. I am most likely to pay for my travel when I am closer to home. The further away that I go, the more likely the trip is to be subsidized by a city, state or nation’s tourism office. There are exceptions, like our fall vacation to Italy.

A goal is to show the children that travel is good and possible. Inspiring a desire to travel means widening perspectives of the world and its people. From one country to the next, we are so much more alike than different.

So, what do these students want to see, and where have they already been?

Antonio Lopez wants to go back to the NASA Space Center in Texas. Kara Wendt got her first airplane ride, to Columbia, S.C., to see her brother in the Army. Mason Sewell says he used to live in Louisiana.

Irene Aguivre would like to see Arizona, where she was born. Zachary Prunty wants to see the Talladega car racing track in Alabama. Tyler Giese decides he won’t limit himself to one destination.

He wants to go “everywhere I haven’t been.” Atta boy, Tyler.

This travel mascot program is patterned after the Traveling Teddy Bear Program, a Society of American Travel Writers project that began in 1994. The bear is a goodwill ambassador that bridges cultures and often travels to places his owners can’t go.

I’m looking for a new traveling companion, from a different Wisconsin town, for the 2009-10 school year. If you are a teacher and this interests you, please contact me by July 1. Send a note about why you’d like to participate and briefly explain how you would incorporate this program into your classroom.

We have fond memories of our previous travels with Buttons, from Patrice Pierce’s first-grade class in Weston (Marathon County) during 2007-08, and Slinky, from Beth Zingler’s kindergartners in Lena (Oconto County) during 2006-07.

For more about these travels, check out “events” at www.midwestfeatures.com.