Thoughtful teachers know how to prepare for a field trip so kids get the most out of a day outside of the classroom. When students know where they're going, why they're going, and how to behave when they get there, they have a much more enjoyable time—and so do their teachers. My team teachers and I learned that lesson when we took 125 eighth graders to a symphony presentation of Peter and the Wolf.
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Hundreds of students from area schools attended, and it was immediately clear that many kids had no idea why they were there. They talked incessantly, yelled at buddies a few rows away, and checked their cell phones. They threw things, and some kids in the balcony dropped coins (or spit) on those below until ushers moved in. Teachers stood in groups along the walls trying to get their students under control. It was chaos.
At first, our students engaged in some of the general behavior, but we teachers had chosen to sit among our students, so we had a little more leverage. It was only when the conductor threatened to stop playing and some of the worst offenders were removed that things settled down. To me and my team, the lesson was clear: This debacle was not totally the kids' fault. It was ours too. We hadn't done a good job of setting expectations.
Preparing Students for the Day
In my experience, kids will rise to the occasion if they know what they're supposed to do. Kids who aren't properly prepared for field trips will view them as just a day off. What if we had told kids the story of Peter and the Wolf beforehand or even played the music for them? What if we had told them to dress up a little? What if we had talked to them about behavior at concerts? We knew we could do a better job next time by thinking about how to prepare for a field trip.
The following year, we skipped Peter and the Wolf and went to see A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. We read the play beforehand, much of it aloud in class. We talked about it and even did a few skits. Then we talked about appropriate behavior in the theater and suggested that students could dress up if they wanted. Most of our students had never been to a live play, and they were glad to know what to expect. Students loved seeing the book come to life and felt comfortable in the theater. It was a great experience for everyone involved.
Field trips can certainly enhance learning, but kids need to be prepared. For example, when younger students visit the zoo, teachers can prepare a scavenger hunt for various animals they've already studied. In high school, if students learn about different kinds of architecture, they can then point out examples while walking around a local historic neighborhood. If a French teacher takes a class for lunch at a French restaurant, they can give students copies of the menu ahead of time so they can practice ordering. They may even want to talk to them about how to use the table service. If you're taking kids to places they've never been with their families, they won't know what to expect unless you teach them.
Weighing the Value
Because field trips take time away from class and cost money, teachers need to identify the goals of the trip and determine how to tell if the goals were met. One year, a federal medium-security prison in our area offered a program for eighth graders. The idea was that if students saw what prison was like, they would never want to end up there. Our principal thought it was a great idea and scheduled a field trip. With some trepidation, we teachers did as much as we could to prepare our students, especially regarding behavior.
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We entered the prison through a series of clanging doors and filed into a classroom. First, prison guards explained to the kids why the prisoners were there, what their day was like, etc. They displayed handmade weapons that were confiscated from prisoners. The guards were very tough and serious, even a little scary, and the kids were on the edge of their seats. Next, they brought in a group of soon-to-be-released model prisoners to talk about what they'd done, their regrets, and how they missed their families. They advised the students to avoid ending up like them. The prisoners were soft-spoken, gentle, polite, and—compared to the guards—almost charming.
Back at school, teachers asked students to write about their experience. When a number of students asked if they could instead write letters to the prisoners, who were so "nice," it was pretty clear that the goals of this field trip hadn't been met! In the following years, we stuck with plays, museums, and historical sites.
At the end of the year, when we survey our students regarding the high and low points of the year, a class field trip is always among the top three high points. It's clear that knowing how to prepare for a field trip, including getting students properly invested in these opportunities for extended learning, made all the difference.