Field Trips Revisited: The Fine Art of Making People look Dumb

It’s spring, and the field trip season is in full swing at schools across America.  Field trips are often surprising–mostly in a bad way. 

Jose decides to wet himself in front of a Rembrandt.  Alicia loses her mom’s camera somewhere in the mummy exhibit.  Manuel gets his lunch eaten by a goat, then steps in the goat’s deposits.  Joey and his friends decide to decorate a statue’s member with a Sharpie.  The class gets banned from the hands-on science museum–which, believe me, takes some serious doing.

Yet for all the pitfalls, there are moments when the field trip showcases just how much your students understood of your instruction.  On the day before my spring break, I accompanied two classes on a field trip to a museum in New York (I’ll withhold the name for their sake.)  These were students that have been well-versed in many aspects of New York history, thanks to my work and the work of their other teachers.  In short, I was prepared to see my kids get a thoroughly enriching experience.

What resulted was a black eye for the museum docent–not a literal one, but a good metaphoric pop in the yap.

The tour started innocently enough.  The students were given objects from the colonial period to examine and observe.  Thankfully, the yoke and water buckets were demonstrated with no mishap.  No one bothered to swing the bed warmer like a club.  No one used the Delft tiles as frisbees.  No one tried to light any candles.  So far, we managed to not get banned.  The trip was a success.

Or was it?

As the docent asked questions about the early Dutch settlement of the region, the students answered her questions in rapid succession.  Thank God.  At least they learning something sleeping through my Powerpoint on Dutch trade and Native American wars.  Yet what happened next threw me for a loop.  The students started to pepper the docent with data, to the point that pockets of tourists were listening more to my students than the docent:

“The beavers in Russia were running out, so Europeans had to find new sources for furs.”

“The leader of New Netherland was not a governor.  He was called Director-General.”

“It was hard for the colony to attract new settlers.  It was quicker to get rich off of pepper, sugar, or selling slaves than beaver.”

Willem Kieft was a dummy.  He tried to tax the Lenape, causing a year-long war.”

“The Dutch traded with the Haudenosaunee for furs at Fort Orange, near Albany.  They then sent the furs down to New Amsterdam where they went into ships that sailed to the Netherlands.”

“New York became a bilingual society after the English take over in 1664.”

This went on all morning, as the docent nodded and smiled, all the while wondering whether or not these freakish children were forced to memorize Gotham.  Even my “special” children–the ones I especially want to see thrown out of a window–put in their two cents, putting a fine ending to a morning of making adults look ignorant. 

Where was I during all this?  I was sitting in the back, basking in the glow of my student’s selective memory.  It truly was a successful trip.

Making adults feel dumb is no easy feat.  Children, by their selective memory, tend to only recall what they want to recall.  Girls like to recall how everyone smelled bad and didn’t wash.  Boys like to remember Native wars, heads on pikes and scalps.  Both sides love when I read to them in Dutch.  This is itself a hazardous process.  Dutch, like many Germanic languages, is phlegm-intensive: the language’s tendency towards hacking and spitting requires a sneeze guard.

You, too can achieve similar results with your own classes.  If there was any advice to give when it regards to field trips, it may be this: prepare, then overprepare.  My students had so much information about New Netherland–much of it unnecessary, according to New York State–that many could re-create the path of the beaver trade from memory.  The timing of the trip was perfect: right at the end of the unit.  It excited them even more to have real objects to put side-by-side with pictures and notes taken in the classroom, especially since by then the general gist of the period was understood by just about everyone.

Believe me, no one wants to take a class on a trip where they look like morons.  No teacher wants their child to ask “Why does Henry Hudson have a tutu around his neck?”   Children should never have to stare at a map, listen to the dronings of a monotonous museum hack for twenty minutes and then ask, “What is it?”  No teacher should endure a docent pointing to a fortress, asking the class to identify the building and receiving an emphatic “Yankee Stadium” in response.

“For the last time, Fort Amsterdam was NOT YANKEE STADIUM!!  HOW MANY TIMES…!  AAARRRGGGHHH!!!”

The above quote was actually said by me.  The children seemed stunned.  One wondered aloud if I should go home.  It’s fitting in that preparation before a field trip avoids these kinds of reactions.  Even if students can’t recall everything (And they usually can’t) at least they have enough for them to get something meaningful out of the experience.  Field trips should not be torture for the students, but rather a way for them to explore concepts learned in the classroom in new ways.

I’ll leave you with this final scene from the trip.  As we were eating lunch in Central Park, I asked some of my kids about their thoughts on future trips.  We were also studying the French and Indian War, as the field trip was scheduled well ahead of our New Netherland unit.  So I got the following suggestion:

“Can we go to Fort William Henry?”

“Well, it’s kinda far.  Why do you want to go?”

“I want to see somebody getting stabbed in the stomach with a bayonet!”

Selective memory never fails.

1 Comment

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One response to “Field Trips Revisited: The Fine Art of Making People look Dumb

  1. “Fort Amsterdam was NOT YANKEE STADIUM!!”

    Sounds like somebody has completely bought into the dominant paradigm of differentiating comparable structures on the basis of functional, spacial and temporal relations…

    Free you mind Mr. D! Ere the intergalactic jester finds it necessary to close your conformity factory!

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