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Tom | October 21, 2012

The Field Trips


FerryBy Tom White

It was a beautiful spring day in the great Pacific Northwest; my third graders had just spent the morning meeting their pen pals for the first time. After corresponding with them for eight months, we were at Edmonds Beach during a really low tide, looking at all sorts of marine creatures and getting pleasantly muddy. Now we were on the ferry, having lunch on the sun deck with our new friends as the boat sailed across Puget Sound. We got to the other side, disembarked and milled around on the dock, planning to catch the same boat back so we could enjoy some more time at the beach before returning to school.

That’s where the ferry worker found me. “Are you in charge of this field trip?” He looked concerned.

“Theoretically,” I said. “Why, is there a problem?”

“Yes. It seems the Edmonds dock has been damaged. They need a new part to fix it. It’ll take about five hours before we can send another boat back across. I just thought you should know.”

No conversation about the invisible realities that affect teachers’ lives would be complete without bringing up field trips. There’s nothing I hate – and love – more than taking my students out into the world for some hands-on learning.

They take an incredible amount of time.

First there’s the planning. I start by looking carefully at what I plan to teach to figure out what, if anything, a field trip would add to the learning. I try to do three or so trips a year; coordinated with what we’re doing at school, scheduled around holidays, testing and assemblies. I have to contact the location, pick a date well in advance, and then make sure my teaching actually dovetails with the planned outing. I also have to figure out the total cost of the trip, including transportation, minus whatever discounts we get for being a Title One school. Then I have to work with my office manager to schedule the bus and get the event onto the master calendar. All of that takes a lot of time.

Once the field trip is a few weeks away, I introduce the event to my students and send home the announcement, as well as the permission slips. I then become an accountant. Money comes in every morning, sometimes in the form of checks, sometimes currency and sometimes coins. I enter all of it into a spreadsheet, gather the loot and drop it into the school safe, along with a form which itemizes and disaggregates each check, bill and coin. This has to happen every day. As you can imagine, this effectively consumes my planning time for two or three weeks prior to each field trip. More important than the money, of course, is the collection of the permission slips. No slip, no trip. Amazingly, despite my daily haranguing, there’re always three or four families that like to live on the edge, waiting until the night before to sign a simple piece of paper and send it back to school.

Then there are the chaperones. We usually need five or six; sometimes ten parents volunteer and sometimes one or two. Of course each of them needs to turn in a “volunteer packet” ahead of time so they can get screened by the State Patrol and approved to work with children. I get to manage that, of course, along with assigning each chaperone to a balanced group of students. I also need to write out directions for the volunteers, complete with my cell phone number, a map of wherever we’re going and strict orders to not, under any circumstances, take their students into the gift shop.

Finally, the day arrives. After a mass-stop at the restroom (because you never know) we get on the bus, and we’re off.

And that’s when I realize that it’s all worth it. All those hours of planning, counting money and organizing volunteers pay off when we’re out in the real world learning real stuff. I hate the work, but I love the reward. I love the plays at the Seattle Center, the trips up the Space Needle and the tour boats to Blake Island. I love the trips to the Sewer Treatment Plant, the museums and the zoo. I love the aquarium, the visits to the radio station and the Ballard Locks. 

Despite all the invisible hours each field trip entails, it’s always worth it.

Except for that trip across Puget Sound with our pen pals. That one was a disaster. 



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Janette MacKay

Reading that post made my stomach turn a little as I am in the middle of planning a field trip right now myself. You're right about the reward. Those are days the kids remember with such delight. It gives context to the learning, particularly for kids who don't get a lot of those experiences within their families. They are worth doing, but it does seem like there should be a way to make the paperwork part a little easier...

Are field trips rare in high school? I used to think so, until a colleague said, "Our sports teams go on field trips every week to their away games." I think sport are incredibly valuable, and I got a lot out of participating in sports myself in high school, but my colleague's comment definitely made me think about the resources spent on travel to athletic events as opposed to travel to theater/arts/science events!

As a parent, I'm actually kind of glad that field trips are so rare in high school. As it is, whenever my sons miss a class here and there because of music or sports, we have to go through the whole process of getting the absences excused and making up the missing work.

For those of us in the elementary schools, field trip are a wonderful, yet time-consuming, fact of life.

For English, you could have your kids watch you grade papers for ten hours one weekend.

Ha ha ha.

Mark Gardner

Kristin--I haven't either. I think field trips have their place... and it needs to be authentic. If my high school English classes could take in a good performance by some great dramatist, for cheap, then I'd consider it more heavily. Our science department seems to have some really good field experiences for kids. For English, I suppose we could go watch some people in cubicles craft interoffice memoranda... (kidding...sort of).

Hilarious and terrifying. I have to admit I have never, even once, organized a field trip. My first year teaching a good friend of mine - also a first year teacher - took his junior high students on a field trip to Pike Place. Widespread looting, students who decided to catch Metro home without telling anyone and drunken vomiting encouraged me to do my teaching at school. And my students are probably missing out because of it.

I happily sign permission slips for my daughters (as soon as I get them) and my students, and I've happily chaperoned a field trip another teacher organized and a few of my students were invited to join, but I am not the maestro people like you and my husband are, juggling forms, money, and sacrificing hours so that your students can have a lasting memory. Well done.

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