One of the major challenges that many teachers face when broaching a new topic with students is that some students have a foundational gap in prior knowledge. This is especially true for underprivileged students. When mom and dad have to worry about how to keep food on the table, or a roof over the family’s head, then life experiences tend to get pushed to the wayside.
I teach at an extremely rural school in South Mississippi. It is not uncommon for my eighth graders to have never left the bubble of the thirty-mile radius around our small town. Students who have had little-to-no experience outside of such a small radius are going to struggle with unfamiliar concepts for no other reason than their limited experiences. If teachers can help students close the gap in life experience, then we can make a real difference in our students’ lives.
Field trips are an excellent opportunity to provide all students with experiences beyond the four walls of the classroom or the confines of their hometown. In my experience, the experiences that students gain on various field trips follow them into further educational experiences as well. In fact, one of the most transformational moments for one of my least travelled students happened while he looked out of the window of the school bus on the way to a museum.
One year, we planned a field trip to New Orleans, Louisiana which is around 115 miles from our small town. This field trip was not expensive, it was not fancy, but it was rich in so many experiences even beyond the trip’s intention. Students toured a battlefield, ate lunch on the Mississippi River, and visited a museum, but these were not the experiences where the true learning happened. When our students stepped off the school bus and out into Jackson Square, they learned that street artists make a respectable living from tourists in the big city. They saw that the homeless sleep in broad daylight amongst sight-seers. They found that people exist and thrive outside the confines of rural Mississippi.
Of course, these students were also able to connect the educational experiences of the trip back to what was happening in the classroom. The point is that field trips serve a purpose that is so much bigger than simply getting away from the classroom for a day. Field trips can give students life experiences that can help them become more productive citizens in their adult lives.
Extra learning experiences aside, we educators have a tendency to plan fun and engaging field trips that get the students out of the classroom but have no real educational value as it relates to what we are teaching. I am guilty of this. Middle School and High School teachers struggle to find field trip opportunities that relate to what is going on inside of their classroom more than elementary teachers. Regardless, it can be done.
Think about the content that is being covered in your classes at any time, and consider what may be beneficial for students to experience in relation to this topic. Begin to do some research about museums, places, events, nature trails, etc… that are within driving distance of your school. You may have to think a little outside of the box, but I do think that it is possible to find relevant experiences for just about any topic you are covering in class.
For example, my students are about to begin reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare lived and worked in a very different time period than our students are currently living in. His experiences are so far removed from our own, that it sometimes seems like he is writing in a whole different language. My major concerns for their comprehension are that they can make connections to the type of society in which Shakespeare lived, that they understand how Shakespeare meant for his plays to be performed, and that they can relate to the major themes of the play.
I began my research for this field trip by looking for both Shakespeare performances and museums related to acting and/or Shakespeare himself. I found nothing notable within driving distance, so I started to think a little outside of the box. It was then that I realized that our local zoo had produced a renaissance festival the year before. During that festival, they had actors performing Shakespeare’s most famous scenes, animal experiences specific to the works of Shakespeare, and food and drink for sale that correlated to the time. It was perfect!
A field trip to the local zoo would not normally be beneficial for a unit on Romeo and Juliet, but because my students were able to experience a simulation of the time period, they were able to make connections to the text that otherwise would not have been possible. Further, my students were able to make meaningful connections to a time period that they may have never experienced otherwise. Real-life connections, like the ones made during field trip experiences, enrich a students’ worldly understanding in ways that classroom teaching simply cannot achieve.
Field trips that make connections to classroom content do not always have to be elaborate or expensive. One year, when working with students on writing arguments to improve their community, I realized that some of my students had never thought very much about the issues in their very backyard. They had lived here their whole lives, but had never looked at their community through the lens of improvement. That year we took a walking tour field trip of our town. The field trip was entirely free, but it created a sense of citizenship and community concern that I simply could not achieve inside the four walls of our classroom.
A very good friend of mine, and science teacher at our school, took her students on a similar walking field trip to discuss physics. Students walked to the local park, using the merry-go-round to discuss and experiment with inertia. Experiences like these transform classroom content into real world understanding that students are more likely to take with them throughout their lives.
The point is that field trips do not have to be complicated. They do not have to cost a fortune, or send the field trip organizer home with a daily migraine. Field trips should, however, make a difference in the lives of our students. They should provide our students with opportunities to see the world in a new way. Plan a field trip today that will make a difference in the lives of your students tomorrow.
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