This inner-city elementary school doesn’t waste time with field trips. Instead, it uses them to accelerate language development and push students to analyze and synthesize their experiences in the real world.
During a visit to the state capitol in Montgomery, fourth graders from George Hall Elementary spotted Governor Bob Riley coming down the Capitol steps. Thanks to their pre-field trip studies on the Internet, they immediately recognized (and mobbed) him!
“There’s not a minute to be lost.”
That’s the mantra in many high-needs schools today, where the pressures of high-stakes accountability have reduced the time spent on “untested” subjects and activities like art, music, drama and physical education. Sadly, these are also among the subjects and activities most likely to excite young students and expend some of their youthful energy.
Perhaps no other brand of school fun has taken the drubbing given to the venerable Field Trip in recent years. Trips away from school often take most or all of the day, and a day lost from intensive instruction (and test preparation) is no small matter to the principals of high-needs schools, where children often have a lot of catching up to do.
First graders from George Hall Elementary try out the witness box and the judge's chair during a visit to the federal courts in Mobile. After interviewing Judge William Steele, they talked with federal marshals about their work. Back at school, they prepared a photostory about their fieldtrip!
So it may be somewhat surprising to learn that teachers and administrators at George Hall Elementary School, located along a narrow street in one of Mobile’s most hard-pressed neighborhoods, stage dozens of field trips each year for their PK-5 students.
How dare they? Well, for one thing, they’re very smart about it. What’s more, as media specialist Patti Westbrook reasonably asks, “Who decided we have to educate children inside four walls?”
Many of the school’s 2006-07 field trips are described on George Hall’s WetPaint website, where a visitor will find podcasts, blogs, and photo stories created by students to document their journeys (and advance their higher order thinking skills).
“We go into so much detail and present the field trips in so many ways on our website that it may look like more than it is,” says Terri Tomlinson, principal of the Title I school – one of five struggling schools designated by the Mobile school system for “transformation” in 2004 and reconstituted with new leadership and mostly new faculties.
Whatever the exact number of field trips, Tomlinson makes no apologies for the time invested in exposing her students to the larger world. These are carefully constructed adventures that tie directly into the curriculum, she says, and provide the children – many of whom have rarely traveled beyond the confines of their own neighborhood – important contexts for learning.
Making the Most of
|Done right, field trips can be a powerful component of a well-rounded instructional program, says this article in the Summer 2007 online issue of Educational Leadership magazine. While trips often get tacked onto the back end of the school year, with the assumption that they are unlikely to directly support the reading and math skills that show up on high-stakes tests, they can bring important balance to the curriculum.
From fire trucks to the federal court
Kindergarten and pre-K students go on about one field trip a month. “These are kids who have very little prior experience and the trips are aligned to what they are doing in the classroom,” says Tomlinson. When the children study “community helpers,” for example, they travel to a nearby fire station and the city’s fire rescue school. When the subject is “health and fitness,” they visit a gymnastics school.
Students in first, second and third grades go on three to four field trips a year, and teachers align those outings “strictly to our Open Court reading units,” Tomlinson says. When the primary kids visited the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, they took along vocabulary lists created by their teachers in advance of the trip. In March, first graders appeared before the federal court in Mobile where they interviewed a judge, talked with a federal marshal and staged their own mock trial. Third graders were on hand for the Alabama Frontier Days festival, held each November in Wetumpka, where they learned more about the words “blacksmith,” “artifact,” “encampment,” and “amputation.”
This past school year, the fourth graders had two major field trips – one to Old Alabama Town and the other to the State Capitol in Montgomery, where they had a chance meeting with Governor Bob Riley. The fifth grade attended a production of James and the Giant Peach at the Alabama Shakespeare Theatre “which was awesome,” Tomlinson says, with a side trip to the Rosa Parks Museum. Fifth graders also visited the Oakleigh Historic Complex and the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center (where they saw the Pompeii exhibit) in downtown Mobile.
“We’re just too busy in this school to take field trips just to have a day away from school,” says Patti Westbrook. “Everything we do is tied to some deliberate learning that has a lasting effect. The learning carries over from year to year and makes the field trips meaningful not just for the students but for us as we design curriculum and instruction.”
Bringing vocabulary words to life
“Probably the lowest area in our school academically is vocabulary,” Terri Tomlinson says. “Frankly, it’s the pits. And most (reading) programs are teaching vocabulary in isolation, perhaps with a short reading passage. You can teach it and teach it, but how do you make it real to students who often have little context for the words they are being asked to learn?”
On a field trip to Montgomery, students from George Hall Elementary visited the Rosa Parks Museum.
That question became a constant topic of conversation in faculty meetings during the first year of George Hall’s reconstitution. “When I first started talking to teachers about this, I strongly encouraged them to use the Internet. If you are talking about catastrophe, get on Google, look up Katrina, look up fires, make it real for kids, so they aren’t just trying to learn that a catastrophe is another word for disaster. Give them a visual.”
As they read, many of George Hall’s students have trouble closing their eyes and visualizing an image or a scene, says Tomlinson. “When readers have had a lot of exposure to the world, they are always thinking, ‘I know what the character looks like, I know what the furnishings in the room look like.’ But many of these children have seen very little beyond this neighborhood, except on television, perhaps, and even there, what they choose to watch or they are likely to see in their homes is very limited. They’re not often watching the History Channel.”
The children of George Hall also lack context for many words and expressions, she says. Children who regularly go places with their families “collect concepts and context and learn new vocabulary. But our children here in this school have many fewer opportunities to be exposed to the variety of activities and conversations that give us the stuff we need to create concepts.”
During a visit to Alabama Old Town in Montgomery, GHES students discovered “they had a old timey school and a schoolyard, with a mean teacher.”
While the Internet can provide many resources to help children experience some of what they’ve missed, Tomlinson says she and her faculty saw a need to expand beyond the Internet and include physical experiences.
“And we were in total agreement that field trips can’t be a day off from school, like they’re traditionally thought of,” she says. “They must be an extension of what we’re doing in the classroom to make the vocabulary come to life.”
The teachers began to help students document their field trips through digital photography, then return to school, write narratives of their experiences based on the photographic images, and publish their “photo stories” on the Web.
“I’ve been so impressed by their ability to use the vocabulary we had emphasized to explain the pictures,” says fourth grade teacher Amy Lowe. “They could identify each image, they remembered what they had learned about it, and that’s what they narrated. I think documenting what they learned really helped them own that learning, and they watch it over and over, and that helps too.”
“And now when we have discussions in class,” Lowe adds, “they can often connect something from their field trip experiences to whatever we are talking about. They’ve seen it in the textbooks, they’ve seen it on the Internet, they’ve really been there, and they’ve reported on it on our website. They have lots of ways to make connections.”
George Hall students record their discussion about a recent field trip for a podcast that will be posted on the World Wide Web. "The main reason we put information on the Internet," Lavunja told us, "is because some schools can’t go on field trips like we do. And this way they can learn more about our state from us.”
A focus for learning
Robin Ogburn, George Hall’s technology teacher, helps students translate their field trips into the digital media they share on their website. “By using this technology, I’m hoping our children will be just a little bit more observant each time they go on a field trip. That they will be thinking, ‘if I remember this, I can use it in my project’ in whatever form, whether it’s a blog or a videocast, or narrating a story about the trip or whatever. We’re really giving them a reason to focus more – a reason that matters to them.”
“Children are actually using 21st Century learning tools to talk about where they’ve been and what they’ve learned, using new vocabulary in authentic contexts,” Tomlinson adds. “And the fact that they are doing this for various audiences on the Web makes it even more meaningful and purposeful to them. They want to get it right because they understand that people they don’t even know are listening and learning from them.”
"They had a black and white dog," first-grader Kurtavia told us. "It was a fire school. We learned how the firemen keep safe when they’re putting out a fire."
On a trip to Montgomery, Lowe recalls, the bus was making its way across the great bridges that span the Mobile River. “A person from the Audubon Society had been in our school just two days before. He talked about the marsh and the animals and birds that lived there. When we were driving across the delta, several of the children wanted to know ‘if that’s the marsh.’ So we talked about what a delta was and how it had similarities to a marsh, and they were making connections between something they were actually seeing and something they’d heard about in a classroom not long before.”
Patti Westbrook says there is an important subtext running through all of George Hall’s field experiences. It’s a message being sent by every teacher to every student: “We want you to have the knowledge to help run the world we are older. There’s a lot going on outside your house and outside this school building. It’s out there waiting for you, and you need to go out there and get it.”