I spent the afternoon at Mt. Vernon yesterday. I was looking for something fun to do on my birthday, and it occurred to me that it's been several years since I've been there without having to supervise a group of students. One of the candidates that we interviewed on Monday asked about field trips. The other sixth grade teacher on the committee and I looked at each other and frowned. Neither team had taken many field trips last year. There were a couple of main reasons why: cross-teaming and cross-grading for math made the logistics of any trip challenging; it was also the first year that sixth graders took the state standardized test in social studies, and there was general hesitancy on the part of teachers to trade class time for field trips.
The teacher we were interviewing looked surprised. "But, this area has so much!" she exclaimed. We nodded, and then my colleague explained that because that's true, by the time they get to sixth grade, many kids have already taken a lot of the trips we might plan for them. I shrugged in agreement, because I've heard that excuse a lot over the years when we talk about taking field trips. The truth is that, as with any other learning opportunity, field trips are only as valuable as the meaning that students take from them, but they have much more potential than most classroom experiences.
My nephew went with me to Mt. Vernon yesterday. As it turned out, the last time that he had been there was when he was in sixth grade, and the adult in charge of his group was... me. "Did we see the sixteen-sided barn?" I asked him. He didn't think so. "Whaaat!?" I said. "Are you sure?" He was pretty sure. "Well," I said, "you can't miss it this time." And off we headed in a light drizzle to the lower fields of the estate. Past the cow pasture, and right before the trail entered the woods, we found a patch of wild raspberries. The fruit was dark red and fell from the vine with no more than a nudge. Birds had already gotten some of the warm, sweet berries, but we picked what we could reach and ate them out of hand.
He liked the barn well enough, but much more interesting to me this time were the tiny pear tomatoes and red-skinned new potatoes almost ready in the kitchen garden at the slave cabin, and the mother duck with her three hatchlings on the bank of the Potomac. Back up the hill, we saw a little boy petting a young goat through the split rail fence, and I remembered a visit a few years back when a small group of students and I saw a lamb born here. We were just passing by the barnyard on our way to the mansion when out it dropped, wet and sticky, from the sheep to the frozen February ground. Astonished we stood rapt as the mother turned calmly around and nudged her newborn to a stand.
Next year, I want to take more field trips.