#44 – Field Trip: The Art of Making It Back in One Piece

Scenes from the Renaissance Faire, 2019

Yesterday morning, as I checked Facebook, I found a post one of my former teammates had put up on the day of our end-of-year field trip in 2015: “The only two words better to a teacher than ‘snow day’ are ‘field trip.'”

I strongly agree – most of the time. The rest of the time, someone – or more than one – barely made it out alive.

Every year, I explained the same thing to my students as I handed out the permission forms, and then again as students signed, in blood, a form agreeing to abide by school rules: I was responsible for bringing back the same exact group that I had left with. No exceptions. And, preferably, those students would be in the same health in which they started out. So there were the permission slips. And the final class lists, with chaperones for certain visits, and the counting – endless, endless counting as you got a group back from wherever they had landed. And the medical bag filled with needed items that we dragged from one location to the other, just in case.

Before testing really began to dominate our lives, and field trips became something we had to push for, there were the holiday movie-and-mall trips – my very favorite. What could be bad?

As a grade, we would book our local movie theater for some PG- or G-rated uplifting film – Radio, which became a favorite, was one of them – early in the morning, before any of the public was allowed in. So it was popcorn and Twizzlers and soda at 9 in the morning, and, for the teachers who were interested, delightful fresh-brewed coffee, which made us feel like human beings for a little while. There was nowhere for our students to go, nothing to get them in trouble. And, oddly enough, those kids who went to the bathroom in every class had no problem staying seated for the entire movie.

After the credits rolled, it was a trip to the food court in our local mall. Yep – we were allowed to take students to a place they’d choose to go on their own. While teachers were posted around the various exits, and students were not allowed to shop (though of course they asked), it was still early enough that we could keep a good eye on them and allow ourselves a lovely lunch at the same time. And while this did have the potential for problems, I can only remember one time where some students plotted an exit, but it all resolved without a big problem. In the end, it was a crazy kind of bonding, students and their teachers all together without the stress of the classroom. And it was – dare I say it? – fun.

Okay, yes: Trips were supposed to be educational, and they needed to fit with the curriculum. But for a long time we could make that work. Radio, for example, was about the dangers of racism, of being different, and the importance of kindness, all of which was what we tried to teach the students every day. When they came back from the trip, they’d write a reflection in their writer’s notebooks and we’d share, talking about the movie. And for the rest of the year, we had a common thread, which wasn’t only about a movie.

Ultimately, the movie-and-mall trip was banned for being “not curriculum-based,” and once money got tighter and testing prep more and more of an end goal, we ended up with one trip a year at best. Our curriculums were bursting – no rest for the weary.

But we still clung to that trip – to the fun that still attached itself to the words “field trip!” – doing all we could to keep it going from year to year. I mean, for no other reason, it was a day away from the classroom: Students didn’t need to finish last night’s homework, teachers didn’t need to create lesson plans, and the daily repetition of school got a bit of a reprieve.

It began with students streaming in, louder than usual, often with string backpacks, carrying brown bag lunches (for some trips), and not carrying books of any sort. It continued, for most, in the bus, though this wasn’t exactly my favorite place, due to a mix of noise volume and gasoline fumes and a constant bumping, but we planted ourselves in the front of the bus and hoped we’d only occasionally have to turn around; our bus drivers were usually quick to alert us to problems in the very back of the bus. On hot days, the windows were partially open, and the sounds and smells of the highway drifted in.

One of our most exhausting trips happened with all good intentions. The students studied ancient Egypt in both social studies and language arts, and we learned that a major King Tut exhibit would be coming to Philadelphia at just about the time we’d be in the unit. It was a longer trip than we usually attempted from south-central New Jersey, and it was also a more public and hard-to-control space in a major city, with specific, regimented times for small groups to go through the exhibit and the cafeteria. However, we knew that many of our students had not been to a museum with their families, ever, even those that were seasons pass holders to our local Six Flags or visited Disney World annually so we felt it was up to us to give them this experience.

Really, that was a big reason for field trips in the first place. During my school years in Brooklyn, as in the rest of the city, we went on at least two or three field trips a year; in fourth grade, we went on at least a dozen, including to the World’s Fair (fall and spring), the Circle Line boat around Manhattan, along with several museums, and these experiences are what I remember most.

As I remember, trouble with King Tut began to brew before we even left school for Philadelphia, with one child who didn’t feel well holding things up until the decision was made to allow him to stay back. As it turned out, this was a very good decision. For by the time the buses rolled up in front of the museum, students were falling fast. It must have been a stomach virus: Suffice it to say that some student spent the entire time between the cafeteria and the long corridor to the bathrooms, which were in constant use – and some didn’t quite make it. Staff had to work out who would stay with these kids and who would take the others around. But we couldn’t always find our colleagues, as it was bedlam from the moment we got there; it seemed like every school district in and around Philly had chosen that particular day to visit. I can’t quite remember, but I’m thinking texting and cell phones weren’t in heavy use then either, which added to the confusion.

To get where my group, and the other groups from my homeroom led by my parent chaperones, needed to be, I channeled my inner Brooklyn – which is always, deeply, with me – to push through the hoards to get us where we needed to be at the appointed times. Suffice it to say that we were okay, but it was a stressful experience. The next day, we all discovered that upon reaching our homes, we had pretty much passed out for the rest of the night.

We had lots of parents for this one, too – which turned out not always to be a good thing. At the end of our day, drained and limp, one of my colleagues and I ran down the block in front of the museum to flag down our buses at the very end of the line, passing a few parents who had decided to do their own little sightseeing tour with their children and assorted friends. Hadn’t we told everyone to stay together? Didn’t they understand that they couldn’t wander through the streets of Philadelphia, Bruce Springsteen’s song notwithstanding? Clearly not. As we said in school many times, apple – tree.

The Philadelphia trip was an anomaly. For many years – at least a dozen – our annual trip was a visit to Medieval Times, about 40 minutes away without traffic, to support the study of the Middle Ages in social studies and language arts. It was a pricey trip (though, as always, students who were on free and reduced lunches were able to go for free), but it was an easy trip: The students went right off the buses and into the stadium, receiving colored tickets that told them the area they’d be sitting in, which matched up with the knight they’d be shouting for. (Yes, there was some trading of cards so that kids could sit together, but it all worked out.) Once we were all in and accounted for, there was nowhere to go but the bathrooms, which they visited in pairs.

There was a period of milling about to encourage the purchase of overpriced “medieval” merchandise, including giant sparkling goblets (just like in the olde days?), though our school didn’t allow the purchase of swords and other implements of battle. The food was included, there, and we slurped our soup and ate pretty decent chicken and ribs and fantastic cornbread with our hands – not to mention giant, warm (Nestle’s Toll House?) cookies and – for staff – some terrific hot coffee. (Clearly, this was a selling point for me.)

The only stressful part was at the end, when the teachers stood with their name banners in the stop we’d designated for our groups to join us; some were heading out the door on their own personal quests, others were getting more medieval kitsch, and there were always a few who would disappear into the bathroom after they were no longer supposed to. We lost a couple briefly a few different times, but yes, we did eventually return with the same number we had started with.

One time, we hit a combination of a traffic jam and two major accidents on the Turnpike on the way back from Rutherford, already a decent-sized trip. At this time, cell phones were just gaining in popularity; most teachers, and many, but not most, students had them, but students were not allowed to use them and were not even supposed to take them along. Ha! When it was clear that we wouldn’t be back in school on time – or anywhere near the usual time – we got clearance from our office to allow students who had phones with them (clearly admitting that we knew they did) to take them out and help us contact parents and guardians, and out they came – every last student was willing and able to help. How thoughtful of them!

After the 2008 recession, the food began to be fit more for peasants than kings and queens, with less aromatic and smaller portions, and there were fewer battles and feats of horsemanship, in order for the company to keep the prices down – still exorbitantly high, so it was time for a different end-of-year venue.

At about that point, one of our teammates discovered the Renaissance Faire held in late May or early June at a nearby campgrounds, which gave students the ability to disappear faster than the magicians on the stages around the campus. I started out giving very little leeway, as did many of us, but as we got more comfortable with the venue, and with only two or three additional schools at the venue at the same time, we allowed our students more and more freedom – which gave us a chance to relax. Yes, there was coffee there.

And yes, I lost a couple of students for a time more than once – each time, the ones I knew I couldn’t quite trust, adding a couple of write-ups at the end, for good measure. One time, as my group waited for the missing links, we spotted them all the way across the lake, getting another game in, not a care in the world, as the rest of the kids shouted their names. (I think they waved.) By the last couple of years, students and teachers could communicate through cell phones, and it was a lot easier that way.

The weather was a factor for this type of trip, but there was no rain date. Our first year, with temps easily approaching 90, we were completely spent. One year, it rained off and on, but it was cool and comfortable – much better, really. There was a big tent for lunch, and staff could always hunker down – many of the students really didn’t care. Here, too, were games of skill – some kind of fruit-throwing game in which the recipient shouted insults at the throwers was particularly popular, not to mention sword fighting in giant Sumo wrestler suits – and various performances, including an aerialist particularly enjoyed by the staff (I won’t go there) and fire eating. But the favorite was always eating, including “Ye Olde Rita’s” and other food of yore.

Lining up. Counting off. Running around. Back to center. Singing loudly on the bus. Getting lost and getting found.

Sure, you can do virtual field trips; there are museums of every stripe available on the internet. I introduced our museum unit over the last few years by having students “visit,” online, several different age-appropriate museums to see how they were laid out and what the exhibits looked like, so that they could get ideas about creating their own. And in the age of Covid, it’s another option for getting some general knowledge in an area of study. But like virtual teaching, it’s just not the same without shouting and touching and singing and, yes, doing some wandering out of our comfort zone. And yes, eating some medieval turkey legs.

I never actually lost a kid, after all. At least, not for long.

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