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Field Trips Leave Indelible Memories

One of the first cuts to be made when budgets are tight are field trips, which are seen largely as non-essential ("Fewer field trips mean some students miss more than a day at the museum," Brookings, Jun. 8).  According to the American Association of School Administrators, nine percent of school administrators have eliminated them.  That may not seem like a lot, but it's being penny wise and pound foolish. 

Rather than focus on the connection between field trips and test scores, I maintain they leave lifelong impressions long after subject matter is forgotten.  During the 1970s when teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District were urged to be innovative, a colleague who taught Contemporary American Problems for seniors approached me with an interesting proposal.  Why not align her class with my Senior Composition class?  Specifically, we would identify certain themes in common that could be approached from a social-historical (hers) as well as a literary perspective (mine). 

I was initially reluctant but finally agreed.  One of the themes was poverty.  I chose The Grapes of Wrath for my students, while she used timely news in her class.  We then arranged a field trip to a grape farm located about 100 miles from our school.  Students first observed workers picking the grapes before joining them in the back-breaking routine.  I still have photos of our students with their faces soaked in sweat and smudged with earth. The bus trip back to school after two hours in the field was remarkably silent. I think that was more than mere exhaustion.  They had immersed themselves in what had previously been an abstraction.

When I attended their 20-year class reunion, they reminded me of that field trip, and how it helped them to understand on a visceral level what poverished workers endure on a daily basis.  I don't think any lecturer or any textbook could ever have competed with that experience.  That's why eliminating field trips shortchanges students. But I doubt my plea will make any difference because of our total obsession with test scores.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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