Sometimes the best place to really learn is far, far away from the classroom.
Dan Meddaugh, a social studies teacher at Catholic Central High School in Burlington, has been taking his students on experiential learning trips for nine years. He’s best known around the school for hosting a popular springtime adventure to Gettysburg that allows his students to deepen their understanding of American history by standing on the very ground where Union and Confederate soldiers fought the most significant battle of the Civil War.
“We tour the field, and I get to be the tour guide, because that area of history is really where my expertise is,” he said.
On the way back from that annual trip earlier this year, Meddaugh had an idea.
“I was thinking that this trip is the best thing I get to do all year long; let’s do more of it,” he recalled.
Meddaugh began to ponder what destination would provide the most educational benefit to his students. Previously, he had noticed that many were particularly passionate about delving into the history of the 20th century Civil Rights Movement, and coincidentally, Meddaugh’s mentor and former CCHS colleague, Dr. Richard Gardiner, teaches at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia. He bounced the idea off Gardiner, who encouraged him to bring the students down south to walk in the very footsteps of the freedom fighters of the 1960s.
“It was an idea that started to gain ground and then became a trip, and I didn’t really know how it was going to go,” he said. “One of the great things that I have here at Catholic Central is a strong community that’s open to this type of authentic and experiential learning that I think at other places would be a much bigger challenge.”
Within just a few weeks, the trip came together to include 16 Catholic Central students and seven parents. The group departed Nov. 1, taking a fleet of five separate cars to travel to multiple historic sites throughout Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. By the time they returned to Burlington on Nov. 6, they had shared some life-changing experiences, visiting the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and even meeting former President Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia.
Other stops included Civil Rights museums in Memphis and Atlanta, Dr. King’s birth home and childhood church and Columbus State University, where they were in the audience for a panel discussion that included modern-day citizens sharing their thoughts and experiences on current events.
Marcus Robinson, a junior at Catholic Central, said he “jumped at the chance” to participate in the trip because he viewed it as a unique opportunity to really inhabit the history of the 1950s and 1960s.
“I’ve always been interested in the Civil Rights era, and being that I can’t really walk down the street and see many of those things with my own eyes in Wisconsin, I thought the best way was for me to go down and experience them,” he said. “There’s really no better way to learn something than to experience it, and this trip really offered me that chance.”
Meeting President Jimmy Carter was the highlight of the trip for senior Jessica Kempken.
“He was really nice and really sharp for a 93-year-old man. I almost didn’t process it right away.”
“It’s kind of surreal,” agreed Robinson. “You see him on TV or at all these events and then you’re sitting right behind him and shaking his hand.”
“It’s such a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Meddaugh. “It’s something I’m going to tell my grandchildren.”
Robinson’s favorite stop on the trip was the Masonic Lodge in Columbus, Georgia, a lesser-known site where Dr. King gave a speech on July 1958 vowing to “wear down (the white South) with our capacity for love and suffering.”
“Dr. Gardiner went up to the podium and said, ‘This is the podium where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke, and this is his microphone,’” said Robinson. “He turned on a radio and played the speech for all of us. You could just feel yourself in that room as he spoke — you felt the emotions of that night. I have goosebumps just thinking about it. Being there, witnessing and feeling everything that happened in that room was breathtaking.”
For Meddaugh, it was the visit to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the “Bloody Sunday” conflict of 1965 that really helped to highlight the role that ordinary American citizens played — and continue to play — in the course of history.
“It gave me the realization that, even though in history books we always study the major figures — the Martin Luther King, Jrs., the Emmett Tills — oftentimes we forget about the individual person who sacrificed their lives or possibly sacrificed their careers and reputations to stand up for what they believed in.”
Going forward, Meddaugh hopes to make the trip a biennial tradition for Catholic Central students. Because it is a further distance and lengthier time commitment, it can’t take place on an annual basis, although, thanks to the parent drivers who donated their time, each student only had to pay $400 for their hotels, food and site admission.
“I think you see all these things that happened in the past — but it’s not over yet, and sometimes people forget it,” said Kempken.