Brussels Study Trip: Blog 7

**Note: Previous posts from our trip- 1) Blog 1; 2) Blog 2; 3) Blog 3; 4) Blog 4; 5) Blog 5; 6) Blog 6.  I am writing as little as possible on each blog post because I want my students’ voices to really tell our story.  For the most part, my thoughts on a lot of the topics we’re learning about can be found elsewhere on my blog.

Today was our last full day in Belgium, so we went to Bruges.  We spent about 3 1/2 hours there and got a chance to see Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child.”  Instead of eating at a restaurant, we decided to buy some sandwich supplies, fruit and veggies, and of course, chocolate, for a nice picnic lunch.  The final teachable moment was me showing them how to read the train timetable.

After Bruges, we hit up some of the souvenir and chocolate shops by the Grand Place to bring back gifts for our family and friends. For dinner, we had leftovers from lunch in the courtyard of our hotel, Hôtel du Congrès.  This was my second time staying here (the first being back in 2011), and both times were wonderful.  It’s hard to believe that our week here is over, but alas, we leave tomorrow for Wisconsin.

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For every blog post this week, I’ve given thanks to the people who made the day memorable for my students and me.  Since this is the last one, I want to say thank you to every person who made this entire trip possible and memorable.  Your efforts and enthusiasm when talking to my students helped make it a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  I truly appreciate everything you did, whether it was coordinating a visit, speaking to my students, giving recommendations for restaurants, or joining us for the EUTweetUp.  I am so, so thankful for each and every one of you.

Merci beaucoup!  Vielen Dank!  Tack så mycket!

Ali B.
Unfortunately, today was our final day in Belgium. I am so grateful to Mr.Knoll and all of the wonderful people we met for such a successful, educational, and most importantly, fun trip. We spent most of our day today in Brugge, a elegant city in Northern Belgium. I was blown away by the towering castle-like buildings and stunning cathedrals. We went inside the Church of our Lady, where a piece created by Michelangelo is displayed. After that we picked up lunch at the market and continued to walk around and souvenir shop.

During this trip I was able to learn more than I ever thought possible. I discovered that there is only so much that you can learn by reading a book or website and actually traveling to the place to discuss with real life people who work in the job; makes a world of a difference. By seeing all of the European Union buildings I was able to truly grasp the culture of Europe and how things operate in the EU. It was an honor to have the opportunity to expand my knowledge of European politics during this trip.

Andy K.
I may not always agree with the EU and I still don’t in many cases. However my goal was to expand my knowledge of the institution and gain an understanding of why things happen. Without a doubt this goal was achieved. Unlike before, I was able to hear an actual analysis by many experts on how it functions and why this is beneficial. I personally value sovereignty highly, hence why I sometimes disagree with how the EU acts, but I now have an understanding that most decisions taken are discussed for years on end and end up benefiting a majority of the institution. Interestingly I learned the most of why it exists not from the parliament or council, but from the Museum of European History! From gaining an understanding of the true divisions between countries in the past and the horrific results of this, it makes more sense to me why countries are willing to sacrifice rights to a subnational organization in return for peace. This is one area where I highly value the EU. For over 60 years peace has been kept relatively well In the face of the worlds most dangerous weapons and hopefully this lasting peace and friendship can overcome the centuries of wars and hatred. One way I believe this can be continued is by getting rid of the democratic deficit and instead empowering bodies like the Committee of Regions which are made up of locally elected officials who are beholden to the electorate. The more and more people see they have a voice, the more people will become sympathetic to the union and attempt to help it create a free society based around free trade and human rights. My only worry is too many people simple think Brexit is the result of racism or stupidity. This was of course true for some people, however the vast majority who believe in a Brexit believe in things like self-determination, devolution, and the feeling that their voice should actually matter in government instead of having choices made by other governments who do not understand another countries situation on a deeper level. If the EU stops shaming people for being against the body and instead acknowledges their concerns and adjust accordingly, I can see the EU continuing to dominate the globe as a major power player who improves the life’s of millions everywhere. This trip has sharply increased my knowledge on the EU and how it operates. This experience could come in no other way and I am forever thankful to Mr.Knoll for organizing this trip and for my parents willingness to send me on it. I can’t wait to be back in Europe again.

Bailey A.
Today was our relaxing day to walk around Bruges and buy our souvenirs. The old but updated buildings give Bruges an interesting look and makes you feel like you’ve stepped in a faulty time machine that takes you back but leaves all of the stores. We wound our way around to the Church of Our Lady and saw one of Michelangelo’s sculptures, a truly amazing sight for a very low price. I think it was the perfect way to sum up this trip. The whole point of the EU is to remember the past but keep moving forward in a peaceful way. The architecture might be old, but the ideas are new and exciting. The fact that so many cultures can exist in one small country, in one city, is a revolutionary idea when you look at the past, and seeing the whole operation from the views of our various speakers on the inside has been an amazing way to see it all. I can’t wait to come back not only to experience Belgium but all of the countries that make up this exciting place, but for now we’re heading home.

Cat G.
Bonjour! Today was definitely a bittersweet day.  On one hand it was fantastic, it seems I will never tire of the city’s magnificent buildings and grand architecture, but on the other hand I was waking up with the knowledge that it was our last official day in Brussels.  Our day started a little bit early, but I was excited because on our agenda today was a trip to Brugge!  The train ride was awesome, I actually really liked seeing the Belgian country side and it was a nice change from the busy city.  Seeing flashes of the classic red tiled roofs as the train rushed by and fields full of cows was still beautiful to see, even if it was in an unexpected way.  The actual city itself was absolutely gorgeous.  The traditional style streets and quaint building styles created an almost fairytale atmosphere.  It was incredible watching the huge church in the center of the square slowly get bigger as we got closer.  I don’t think I could ever get tired of seeing giant detailed churches and eloquently designed castles.  The city looked amazing at any and every angle and there always seemed to be something to look at.  We even got to visit the Church of Our Lady which was absolutely stunning.  The high ceilings and extravagantly detailed art left me speechless, and I still can’t get over the fact that I actually saw a Michelangelo sculpture in person.  For lunch we picnicked in front of another magnificent church and although it was a little chilly, the company was good and so was the city.  

This trip has been such an amazing experience and has defied my every expectation.  Every single day I’ve learned so much and seen so many incredible new things.  The buildings, the people and the food have all been so good and I’ve loved every second.  Overall I have learned more about Europe and the EU than I could in any classroom.  This trip has not only reminded me of the value of learning, but it has inspired me even further to pursue my love of language, foreign affairs and history.  I always love to travel and see new things because its a good reminder for me of what I truly value and care about.  This city is beautiful, the people are wonderful, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more.  As heartbreaking as it is, one last time, bonsoir from Brussels 🙂 -Cat

Greta S.
Today was a great end to this wonderful trip. Brugge was more beautiful than Brussels because all of the architecture was older and there wasn’t the occasional new building to disturb it. I really liked seeing the art and sculpture in the cathedral and it was unlike anything I had seen before. The picnic was really fun and different from other lunches on the trip. I also really liked the train ride because I’ve never been on a train for a long time before, and it was really new.

Overall, I learned a lot on this trip in a variety of ways. I obviously learned a lot about the EU and how it works as well as about language. But I also learned a lot about traveling and interacting with people in a professional manner. I’m really sad we have to leave tomorrow, but it was one of the best experiences of my life.

Joe G.
We left the hotel early this morning so that we could catch a train to Brugge. The city was beautiful and rich with history, culture and art. I immensely enjoyed the architecture and quaint feel of the city despite all of the tourists. We ate lunch in a park in front of a cathedral making sandwiches from ingredients we had bought at a grocery store. I am immensely sad that we have to leave tomorrow morning, as I have loved the city of Brussels and its people. Everything about this place resonates with me from the mannerisms of the people to the culture to the long history of the city.

I have learned a great deal about the European Union and transatlantic relations since i’ve been here. I’ve learned how the EU is organized, which institutions have which powers, and have gotten many personal perspectives on what it is like to work in the various branches of the EU. I have also learned many policy points and plans that stem from the EU, but most importantly I’ve learned of the importance of the European Union. Without this structure, Europe would very easily fall into disarray and war. The lengths to which the people working at these various institutions go to make sure they are representing the whole of Europe is very impressive. With this union between countries nationalities are put aside, and progress and freedom for all becomes the focus. The EU makes life easier and safer for all of the citizens of its member states and I have gained even more respect for the necessary work that it does.

Julia P.
Today, in one word, is indescribable- because there’s absolutely no way the beautiful city of Brugge can be summed up in one word. We left the hotel at 8am (I think…it was early ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) and walked to the train station! We took a double-decker train to Brugge, and walked into the absolutely gorgeous city. It had a feel to it that you could turn back the clock tens, even hundreds of years, and the only thing that changes would be the clothing people wear. We explored the two famous steeples, and got to see the famous Michelangelo sculpture, and had a charming little picnic lunch. We also stopped at a really good chocolate company – but then again, we’re in Belgium, what’s not a good chocolate company?

After we finished our time in Brugge, we took the train back to Brussels and, in the pouring rain, shopped a bit for souvenirs! Then the rain let up as we walked back and we had a little dinner in the quaint, beautiful courtyard in our hotel.

It’s absolutely unreal that tonight is my last night here. This experience has been so fun (again, how can I pick one word?) and so informative, it’s amazing. I’ve learned so much about trans-Atlantic relations and the EU, I can’t wait to share what I’ve learned with the people in my community, both at a school, state, & national level. I’ve loved talking with officials who work here and truly understanding the EU from these people. This experience is one I’ll never forget, so merci to Mr. Knoll, all the absolutely fantastic people who have volunteered their time to meet with us, our families back home, and Twitter for making this trip possible. For the last time, & in my mother tongue, goodnight, all. Thank you for following along on this adventure!!

Katie B.
Today we took our trip to Bruges! From Brussels it was just a short hour train ride, and I’m so glad we went. The town is so beautiful, from the quaint and lovely homes to the second tallest brickwork tower in the world, everything about Bruges’ architecture is stunning. The highlight of our little trip for me was definitely getting to go into the Church of Our Lady. Among all of the beautiful artwork, and the tombs of the last Duke of Burgundy and his daughter, there was the infamous Madonna and Child by Michelangelo behind the altar. Walking into the church and seeing the sculpture that I had been anticipating since I found out we were going to Bruges was so surreal(I may have cried a bit).

Overall this trip has been so incredible, and I’ve learned so much. I got to learn more about how people view the different parties, and how the smallest of communities aren’t left behind within the huge system that is the EU, and how Sweden plans to eliminate the race to the bottom seen in the labor market. These are only a few of all the great things I have gained from this trip. I’m so thankful to have gotten this opportunity and I really hope to be back to Europe soon!

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I’m Back

It’s been a while since my last post; almost six months.  One would think given my progressive/social democratic views that a Trump presidency would give me plenty of material on which I could write and that I should have a lot more posts.  The bottom line is that I’ve been busy.  I felt that while writing was a good way for me to express my ideas, actually doing some work on issues that meant a lot to me might be a better use of my time.  That’s not to say writing isn’t useful or worthwhile- I just wanted to take a break and actually do something about the problems we face in this country.

So what have I been up to?

Last year my students and I started VAHSAid, a charity thinking globally, but acting locally, by helping those affected by poverty in Dane County and Wisconsin.  We did a lot of great work helping Porchlight and the United Way of Dane County, as well as the UNHCR.  Building off that success, we wanted to do even more this year.  The past few months we’ve been working tirelessly setting up two events and looking into starting a food pantry at the school at which I teach.

Our first event is the 1st Annual Camp Out to Stamp Out Child Poverty and Food Insecurity.  On May 20-21, we’ll be camping out in the parking lot of Miller’s in Verona, to raise awareness of child poverty and food insecurity in Dane County and Wisconsin. We’ll be taking food donations to give to Badger Prairie Needs Network and monetary donations to help the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.   We’ll have tables set up to talk to people about those issues, as well as a table to learn about the Sustainable Development Goals and a table for children’s activities.  

Our second event is the 1st Annual VAHSAid Read-A-Thon at the Verona Public Library on August 12.  In addition to reading books and children’s activities, we’ll be collecting school supplies for students in our district who need help.

As for the food pantry, you’ll have to stay tuned for that.

Finally, I’ve also been busy planning a trip to Brussels for students to learn about the EU and transatlantic relations.  Based on the amount of work and coordination that has taken, I think it’s safe to say I will never go into event planning as a career.  I am however, very excited about the trip because I’ve put together, what I think, will be a truly memorable experience for the students.

So, now you know why I’ve been silent for the past six months.  Hopefully, now that the events and my trip are pretty much settled, I’ll have more time to write in support of progressive/social democratic ideas.

Thanks for reading.

Inauguration Contest

Hi everybody, I need your help.  I’ve entered a contest to take 5 students on an all-expense paid trip to attend Envision’s Presidential Inauguration Leadership Summit in Washington, DC.  Schools win when people vote for them by going to following link– http://contest.chasetheraceinschool.com/.  You can vote for our school every day.
Our school’s zip code is 53593, and our school is Verona Area High School. You have to fill out your name and address, your role (teacher, parent, or student) and select how you heard about it.  Please put “social media.”  If you could spread the word to other parents, students and teachers, I would appreciate it.  The school with the most votes wins.
Thanks.

Ideas for a Study Trip to London and Brussels

I love the idea of study trips for students.  They are great opportunities to make the curriculum more real, and they can make lifetime memories.  Our school offers a number of trips through the foreign languages department (I actually get to chaperone the German trip), but I’ve always wanted to offer a study trip for one of my courses.  As such, I’m thinking of offering a trip to London and Brussels to study British politics and the EU.

Why those topics?
One of the courses I teach is AP Comparative Government & Politics.  It’s probably my favorite course to teach because we focus on six countries (China, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, and the UK), and the EU is part of the curriculum.

On top of that, I’ve been to Brussels before (once as part of a trip sponsored by the Delegation of the EU to the US, and another time for a seminar hosted by the German Marshall Fund).  Plus, in the past five years I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve been fortunate to have made a number of connections with people who work in EU institutions or write extensively about the EU.

London
Here are my learning objectives for London, followed by ideas to accomplish them:

  1. Learn about the parliamentary system and the functions of the House of Commons and the House of Lords- Tour Parliament (talk w/ MP’s?)
  2. Learn about the major political parties (Conservatives, Labour, LibDems, UKIP, SNP, etc.)- Meet with members of political parties (tour HQ?)
  3. Learn about the election process- Meet with somebody from the Electoral Commission
  4. Learn about the role of the media- Tour BBC and The Guardian, and maybe talk with journalists
  5. Learn about unions- Meet with representatives of the Trade Unions Congress
  6. Learn about the NHS- Meet with representatives
  7. Learn about UK foreign policy- Tour the Foreign Office and talk about US-UK relations and Brexit

Brussels
Here are my learning objectives for Brussels, followed by ideas to accomplish them:

  1. Learn about the EU institutions- Tour and talk with representatives of the European Parliament, European Council, Council of the EU, European Commission
  2. Learn about the role of the media- Tour PoliticoEurope and viEUws and talk with journalists
  3. Learn about transatlantic relations- Meet with representatives from the US Mission to the EU and the US Mission to NATO

Funding
As it stands, the students will pay for the entire trip, but I wonder if there are any grants for such opportunities, especially ones that promote transatlantic relations.

What I Would Like from Readers
If you have ideas about how to make those objectives happen- people to talk to, places to see, funding, etc.- please leave a comment below.  Also, if you happen to work in one of the places I mentioned, or you know somebody who does, please leave me a comment with the best way to contact you.  Finally, one of the factors I have to consider is that some places want a certain of ratio of students to chaperones, so if you’re aware of anything like that, please let me know as well.

Ideally, I would love for this trip to occur every other summer; so, if I can make this first one a success, I should be able to continue offering it.

**UPDATE: As I’ve been doing research and talking with all of the people who have made suggestions/offers on Twitter, I’m thinking it might be easier for me to make the first trip a Brussels-only trip.  It will be easier for me to plan and get my feet wet in the world of study trips.  I will, however, still definitely welcome suggestions for London for future trips.

Thanks for reading.

 

A Case for Proportional Representation in the US

For a few years now, I’ve thought that the US needs to move to proportional representation (PR) for our electoral system.  Now that we’re done with the conventions for both major parties here, it is more apparent than ever that we need to move to it.

What is Proportional Representation?
Basically, PR is an electoral system in which parties on a ballot are given the same percentage (or as close to it as possible) of seats in the legislature as they received in the election.  Usually, parties have to receive a certain percentage of votes (a threshold) in order to receive seats.  For example, if your party of choice received 25% of the votes in the election, it would have 25% of the seats in the legislature.  It should be noted, however, that PR is used in parliamentary systems, which means the US would have to move to one as well.

Why Is Now a Good Time for the US to Adopt a PR System?
PR is much more democratic than our current First Past the Post system.  As it stands, all a candidate needs to receive to win is a majority of the vote.  So, if they receive 51%, they win and go on into office.  That also means that 49% of the population now feel they are not being represented.

A PR system would also make voting more pleasant in situations like we now find ourselves.  We’ve got two candidates for president that are quite disliked.  Take a look at this article, for example, over at fivethrityeight, “Americans’ Distaste for both Trump and Clinton is Record-Breaking.”  In it, Harry Enten, points out that “Clinton and Trump are both more strongly disliked than any nominee at this point in the past 10 presidential cycles.”

In addition to the unpopularity of the candidates, the two major parties are split over their nominees.  As we saw at the recent Democratic convention, Bernie Sanders’ supporters are unhappy with the process and the results.  On the Republican side, Ted Cruz spoke at the convention about voting one’s conscience (i.e. don’t vote for Trump if you don’t like him).

So, if you don’t like either candidate, for whom do you vote?  Progressives are being told to suck it up and vote for Clinton because if they don’t, Trump will win, and that could lead to a dictatorship.  Conservatives are being told to suck it up and vote for Trump because if they don’t, Clinton will win, and that will mean at least four more years of Obama-esque policies.  They’re also being told a vote for the Greens and Jill Stein, or the Libertarians and Gary Johnson, is just a wasted vote and could lead to Clinton/Trump winning.  What do you do then if you truly believe in the platforms of Stein or Johnson?

What Might a PR System Look Like in the US?
Based on the current situation, I think we would have at least six big parties.  These are just generic names, so you can name them whatever you please- Greens, Social Democrats (Bernie Sanders’ supporters), Moderate Democrats (Hillary Clinton supporters), Moderate Republicans (non-Trump supporters), Nationalists (Trump supporters), and Libertarians.

This system would truly allow people to vote their conscience and feel represented in government.  It might also help avoid the gridlock and government shutdowns we currently experience.

For more information on the PR system I recommend the two following websites: FairVote and the Electoral Reform Society.

What do you think- is it time for the US to change our electoral system?

Thanks for reading.