Thursday, May 1, 2008

Field Trips

I took my students to Boston last week for an overnight whirlwind of a field trip. We were in Beantown for less than twenty-seven hours. In that time, we walked some of the Freedom Trail, participated in a re-enactment of the meeting that led directly to the Boston Tea Party, had free reign at the Boston Museum of Science after-hours, toured Paul Revere’s house and neighborhood, and shopped and hung out in Quincy Market on two beautifully sunny 70-degree afternoons.
When I tell other adults who are not teachers about this trip they adopt a look of equal parts horror and pity. The part about sleeping on the floor of an exhibit room at the Museum of Science with 18 fifth- and sixth-grade students and no shower or electronics allowed often elicits actual gasps. I often play along with their idea of how burdensome the trip must be for me, but I do so with a secret in my heart.
The secret is that I actually LIKE the trip to Boston. In fact, I look forward to it. Truth be told, I look forward to ALL of the field trips I take with my kids. There is the obvious reason that I am the one who chooses the field trips and I am careful to select only trips that are interesting and exciting to me as well as to my students. But there is also the less obvious, (though more important), reason that field trips get us out of our classroom and into the wider world.
The students at my school have, in many cases, known each other for seven years—more than half their lives. As a result, they are close. As a group they have grown up together. In many ways they are like a family. By the time they get to me they have a fairly well-defined group personality, with each student having identified his or her niche. In fact, many of them have staked out their particular niche so thoroughly that they have laid down carpet, painted the walls, and moved in some pretty heavy furniture.
This can make for a huge level of ease with each other. My students feel very comfortable talking about some pretty tough issues together. They also develop a level of confidence about speaking in front of large groups that I rarely see in ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year olds. They know each other WELL and there can be a real comfort in that. But, as with any family, this level of comfort can sometimes translate into an unwillingness to allow each other to change. When my kids get to be sixth-graders, some fairly drastic changes start happening shockingly fast. It amazes me each year when I look at the class photo taken in September and then compare it to the graduation picture taken in May. The sixth-graders have become their own older brothers and sisters by the time they graduate in June. Along with the drastic physical changes, there can be some substantial changes in personality, interests, and self-identity.
But their peers don’t always acknowledge these changes. As a result, there can be some dramatic conflicts during the year as people “try on” new ways of being with people are used to the old ways.
The reason I enjoy our field trips so much is that being outside of the environment in which these students have grown up and forged their personalities allows for a reshuffling of the deck, as it were. Something as simple as a change of scenery allows for changes in the dynamics of the group. Different people emerge as leaders, new connections are made between students who have known each other for years, little-known facets of some students get to take center stage and then those students are recast in the eyes of everyone. Something as simple as a long bus ride can create a new bond where for years there was none.
I feel like a big part of my job is to help prepare my students for life beyond our safe little world. One of the ways I can do this is by making it safe for them to change—to experiment with who they are and what they believe. And, as is often the case with the lessons I apply to
my students, the same can be applied to me. This is one of the things about my job that makes it so fulfilling even after so many years in the game. By thinking about my kids and what they need, I often gain insight into what I may need, too. I have not stopped changing just because I have hit forty. And neither have the adults around me who are important in my life. My daughter has really just started on her many changes to come.
This 27-hour jaunt to Boston helped remind me of how important it is to give the people around me room to change and grow and to ask them to do the same for me.

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