NEW ULM - Jan Keaveny, multicultural literacy instructor at Jefferson Elementary School in New Ulm, has just returned from a teacher study tour in Turkey.
The two-week educational trip was organized and sponsored by the Turkish Cultural Foundation and promoted by the Minnesota International Center. The application process included writing a proposal for bringing Turkey back to classrooms and communities, explained Keaveny.
"This was my first opportunity to travel abroad," said Keaveny. "We had a marvelous tour guide, a full itinerary and wonderful accommodations."
The group of 25 teachers came from California, Washington, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nevada, Maine and New Hampshire. Keaveny was chosen in part thanks to her position with the Cottonwood River Integration Collaborative, which gives her an avenue to share her experience with several school districts, in addition to the students at Jefferson.
The teachers in the group were given books and web sites to read in preparation for the trip. They listened to presentations and met teachers, business leaders and historians during the two-week stay. They spent four days in Istanbul and then traveled throughout the western part of Anatolia. The group visited schools, museums and mosques, Ephesus, Cappadocia, Anzac Bay and Troy. They spent one morning with an ebru (marbling) artist in his home studio. They enjoyed the Turkish Shadow Theater and several musicians.
"We had ample time to shop in the various bazaars, markets and malls," adds Keaveny. "Scarves, rugs, jewelry, ceramics and hand-made goods were prevalent."
Asked what surprised her the most, Keaveny noted that she had been expecting a greater Muslim presence. Instead, she observed a broad spectrum of customs and behaviors, raging from secular to observant.
Turkey is a Muslim country, but it has a secular government, and women have been encouraged to participate in education, government and business since the 1930s when Ataturk became the leader of Turkey, learned Keaveny.
Turkey is rich with history, continues Keaveny. The country has been central to Jewish, Christian and Muslim cultures.
"The ancient ruins are amazing. The structures are huge and it is apparent that there were thriving communities with libraries, amphitheaters, aqueducts and artisans. Thousands of people could be seated in the stadiums, which had intricate hand carved designs in the stone. Archeologists continue to uncover more ruins and learn of the life of people thousands of years ago.
"I found the people of today to be friendly and eager to share their culture. Turkey is an amazing country. They are experiencing a rapid growth in their economy, yet they struggle with poverty and a high number of immigrants. The education system for children is nationwide and changing, but there are 7 million illiterate adults in Turkey..."
"I must also comment of the food. It was delicious! There were fresh fruits and vegetables served with every meal. There was a thick, sour yogurt served with meat and with honey. Turkish people were frequently drinking hot tea served in tiny glass cups with saucers. The breads were excellent. We had chicken, fish (served with the head and tail on), lamb, beef and veal. There was an elaborate array of olives and nuts and hummus. Desserts included baklava and honey soaked cakes. Most of the restaurant seating was outdoors and we appreciated stunning scenery and no mosquitoes!"
Keaveny hopes that being able to share her increased knowledge of a region whose history spans thousands of years - and also being able to tap into materials she was previously unaware of - would directly benefit her students.
Just being able to tell her younger students about children in another part of the world who share their pursuits and concerns could help take away "a little of that fear part" that comes with the unfamiliar, notes Keaveny.
She has prepared a scrapbook documenting her experiences, to share with her students. She also expects to do some public speaking, sharing her impressions with area communities.
"I encourage everyone to travel! Experiencing other landscapes and languages, food and festivities helps us appreciate our own lives and have a broader global perspective. I hope Turkey is the first of many countries I may have a chance to visit," concluded Keaveny.