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  • Georgia Murphy

Walls Students Immerse Themselves in Rome’s History and Culture


Students visit the Colosseum in Rome / Credits: Jeffrey Clarke


In November 2023, a group of seniors went on the annual School Without Walls trip to Rome for a ten-day exploration of the Eternal City’s history and culture. 


Walls’ Latin teacher Jane Brinley, and Walls world history teacher Carlton Ackerman have been taking students to Rome since 2013. The trip was another classic example of Walls’ field trip culture. At first, the teachers used a travel agency to plan their trip. Mr. Ackerman was dissatisfied with this system because it stifled the flexibility and creativity he hoped to have with the trip. 


“Our principal at the time, Mr. Trogisch, heard my complaint [and said], ‘Stop whining about it and do something,’” he said. In response, Mr. Ackerman decided to design his own itinerary modeled after a Christian Archeology course he took in college. Ever since, the trip has been a staple of Walls’ Latin program. 


Jan McGlennon, an English teacher at Walls, joined Ms. Brinley and Mr. Ackerman as a teacher chaperone. This was her fourth year attending the Rome Trip and she loves it. 


“I taught Latin for thirty years and I speak Italian, so … those are the two reasons that I [went] on the trip.” All three teacher chaperones found that their knowledge in language and history enhanced their ability to carry out the trip. 


The group flew 8 hours overnight from Dulles International Airport in Virginia to Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in Italy. When the group arrived in Fiumicino around 8:30 in the morning, they immediately began a full day of touring, getting to their hotel in the late afternoon. 


Throughout the trip, the group visited the Pantheon, Catacombs of San Sebastiano, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the city of Pompeii, among other places. Prior to the trip, each student was assigned a historical site to research and create an informative presentation on. Once the group arrived at the location in Rome, the student would present their speech to their fellow peers. Mr. Ackerman said the speeches “[give] the students a sense of ownership over a piece of the trip.” 


Jeffrey Clarke (‘24) gave his speech on Largo di Torre Argentina. “It was a slip handed out randomly but I was excited to get that one,” he said.“[It is] most notably…the place where Caesar was killed” during the Ides of March, The site contains the remains of four ancient Roman temples and the Curia of Pompey, where the Senate of Rome held its sessions. 


Olivia Waymer (‘24) gave her speech on the Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna. Though named for the nearby Spanish embassy, the steps were commissioned by the French in an effort to modernize the city. Waymer said the steps sort of show “the syncretism of France and Spain and Italy.”


These speeches offered passage into the myriad of activities the group did together. A favorite among many were the Catacombs of San Sebastiano. Waymer (‘24) said, “I love history, so it really was so cool.” The catacombs that run in and around Rome are ancient burial sites of pagan, Jewish and Christian citizens. These particular catacombs were named for the Christian martyr San Sebastiano who was killed for conversion. 


Van Harlee (‘24) and Clarke both favored St. Peter’s Basilica. “The art was incredible and we did a scavenger hunt…which helped me fully experience it,” Harlee said. St. Peter the Apostle was one of Jesus’s disciples and was the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church. His tomb is located at the center of the Basilica and is surrounded by exceptional architecture and art. For Clarke, this was particularly moving. “I’ve never seen anything that comes close to the size and majesty of the building. Looking up at the central dome instilled an incredible feeling that I’ve never felt before.”


The group also went on excursions unrelated to academics, providing fun experiences to all kinds, including biking on the Appian Way. The Appian Way was a crucial economic and military asset for Ancient Rome. It connected Roman troops to their military pursuits and linked merchants to lucrative business exploits. Today, it is a gorgeous way to experience the Roman countryside, especially by bike. Mr. Ackerman said, “These kids got on their bikes and flew. They're gone. And then like two hours later, just in time they had…they all flew back…That level of athleticism is impressive.”


Another favorite location was an olive grove in the town of Sacrofano just outside of the city. “[The] olive orchard [is owned by] a gentleman we know well and he has a tree house there. And of course, the kids are gonna get in the tree house” Mr. Ackerman said. 


He described how the students climbed the rope attached to the tree house. “I've never seen anyone climb that rope…I was most impressed at that moment.” All three of the teacher chaperones have relationships with people in Rome, giving them access to unique experiences like these. 


Others found their favorite experience in Rome to be more spiritual. Ms. McGlennon said, “I found out that a friend of mine who lived in Rome…had died last year… His friend's daughter had left his ashes near the church, so I was kind of happy to be there and feel his spirit.” 


Ms. Brinley shared a fond memory, recalling a heartwarming discussion she had with a student about a piece of artwork. “It was really wonderful to be able to talk about that… [and] have that student feel comfortable talking about it with me,” she said “[It was] really touching to be able to share about that.” 


Penguins listen to a student presentation in Ostia, near Rome / Credits: Jan McGlennon


All of the teachers expressed immense gratitude for the grace the group displayed on the trip. Mr. Ackerman said, “My biggest point of favor would be how well the kids got along with each other, worked with each other, and took care of each other. No one was left out…they came together as a community.”


He described how each student’s curiosity made the trip more enjoyable for himself and enlightening for them. “If they didn't understand it, they asked and they cared to ask. [They didn’t] just go and look at the art and leave….They really did seem to care about what we were trying to show them…that was unusual.”

Ms. McGlennon and Ms. Brinley reported similar impressions. 


Multiple students also expressed gratitude for the connections they made during the trip. Waymer (‘24) said, “[When] you're with the same 16 people literally every single day that you're not usually with… [it’s a] really a good experience to just get to know new people.” Luca Shrohl (‘24) agreed. “You learn a ton and you also get to be with people that you will get much closer with.” 


The trip transpired with minimal complications until the final flight. On the group’s way back to the States, a passenger on the flight separate from the group had a medical emergency. The plane temporarily landed in Dublin, Ireland to get the passenger aid. Waymer (‘24) said, “We technically went to three countries:...Italy, Vatican City, and Ireland.”


If students are interested in applying for the Rome Trip, the selection process is fairly straight-forward; junior and senior Penguins attend an interest meeting where they sign up to be considered. Interested students are given a random number, and a waiting-list is formed. 


The three teachers running the trip recommend applying.“It's a great opportunity and it's a very well organized trip, thanks to Ms. Brinley and Mr. Ackerman … it's a really good trip,” said Ms. McGlennon.

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