Tag Archives: Field trips

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.

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History Field Trips in New York City – Or how to lose a student in an interesting way

1461115532_730c78e1d6As a teacher, the best way to drive me crazy is to plan a field trip.

Field trips are frightening things, even for veterans.  If your class manages to behave somewhat in the building, imagine how your darlings will react exposed to the outside world.  Also note the myriad logistics involved: the planning with the site, the permission from the administration, the buses (or lack of buses), the permission slips, the money collection, the cajoling of parents to come along, the forcing of parents of problem children to come, etc.  All of this, and things still go wrong.  The buses come late, the museum/zoo/farm loses our confirmation, no lunches, children hurt themselves, and teachers and parents lose their minds.

In the realm of history, there are many opportunities for field trips.  The problem is that in most places, the teachers enjoy it more than the students.  Kids just can’t get into huge paintings of massed troops and funny uniforms–not when they can make huge bubbles and work a robot at the science museum.  Let’s face it, there is a real dearth of “hands-on” sites about history.  What fun it would be to sample real smallpox blankets, or to bury a tomahawk in your classmate’s skull.  Even in places that have more interaction, like Colonial Williamsburg, for example, the connection is more passive: you’re watching people in funny clothes churning butter rather than really churning it yourself. 

This becomes even more of a problem in New York City, where I work.  In a capitalist paradise, nothing “old” is ever around for long.  With constant building and demolition, most of our city’s past is the stuff of museums–museums housed in buildings that barely survived the wrecking ball themselves.  In such an environment, it can be difficult finding places to visit that both teach and entertain students.  Not everything can be “ol’ reliable”, my pet names for both the Bronx Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History, both gigantic places that offer lots of opportunities for kids to learn and enjoy.  Yet for once, maybe your class can try a place where you learn a little something different–and a place where Johnny won’t get lost so easily.

To that end, I’ve compiled a list of places in New York City worth a visit.  They are small enough to do as a class, have knowledgeable staff to assist, and are incredibly accomodating to students–big requirements for Mr. D.  As usual, the list isn’t exhaustive, so any suggestions from the Neighborhood are more than welcome. 

NOTE: Unfortunately, because of administrative restrictions, I can only provide sites in the New York City area.  It would be unfair of me to comment on places I have not visited or cannot visit with my class.  Those in the Neighborhood from other areas are free to comment with good sites from your locales.  It’d be much appreciated.


Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029
(212) 534-1672

If there was a history museum in New York that was the most kid-friendly, this would be my pick.  Their programs are created in conjunction with teachers to provide the most relevant and stimulating experiences possible.  Unlike its more noted neighbor across the Park, the NY Historical Society, MCNY is solely focused on New York City’s history, culture and people.  For a kick, definitely take the kids to see the toy collection…they’ll love it, but they may drive you nuts trying to get on the bus home.


New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400

Yes, it has a hyphen–New York used to be spelled like that!  This is, hands down, my favorite museum in New York.  That does NOT mean it’s always the best place for students.  N-YHS has an extensive offering of programs for students of all grade levels, and each new exhibition also comes with a teaching program.  I strongly advise teachers to NOT go to N-YHS without registering for one of their programs.  It is not a place conducive to wandering.  One really fun place–the Luce Center of American Culture, an attic for the Society’s permanent collections.  Real fun place for random stuff, like chairs, toys, buttons and weapons…even death masks.  Plus, you can register for a program right from their website using Ed-Net.


Lower East Side Tenement Museum
108 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 982-8420

If you teach English language learners, or simply have lots of immigrant children (or kids of immigrants) this place is great.  Although tours start at 108 Orchard, the real gem is 97 Orchard, a tenement built in 1863 and now restored to show life among immigrant New Yorkers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Programs at the Museum also make connections to today’s immigrants, especially since most kids couldn’t conceive of a coal stove or waiting in line to use the one toilet on the floor.  You can also reserve spots here online, a nice touch.


Van Cortlandt House Museum
Broadway & West 246th Street
Bronx, NY 10471
(718) 543-3344

This is NOT Van Cortlandt Manor in Westchester, but the house of Frederick Van Cortlandt, built in the Georgian style in 1748.  It is the oldest building in the Bronx, and like its newer cousin, Bartow-Pell, underwent renovations of both the house and its programming.  Bronx classrooms would get a kick out of Revolutionary War reenactments here, especially since Washington, Lafayette and Rochambeau all used the house during the war.  Website is moving, so be patient.


Bartow-Pell Mansion
895 Shore Road
Pelham Bay Park
The Bronx, NY 10464
(718) 885-1461

The Pells were among the original landowners of colonial New York–as well as among its largest slaveholders.  This mansion underwent a huge renovation, and is now open for school programs about life in New York in the 19th Century.  Try to go on a nice day, the grounds are absolutely beautiful.  Just make sure to bring lunches as there isn’t much around the area, unless you want to schlep the kids to City Island (please don’t do that).


Brooklyn Historical Society
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 222-4111

How could I forget the borough of my birth?  Most people forget that before 1898, Brooklyn was its own city, at one point the fourth largest in all the United States.  Thanks to a revival of the borough starting in the late 1990s, the Historical Society has also beefed up its collections, while not only adding programs for students, but also materials on its website that help teacher align their standards to Brooklyn themes.  Go Dodgers! (Not the LA kind, either).


South Street Seaport Museum
12 Fulton Street
New York, NY 10038
(212) 748-8786

Exhibitions and artifacts are one thing–and this museum has a lot of them, for sure.  In fact, the museum is dedicated to the preservation of the historic harbor district.  But what really sets this place apart are its ships:  the 1911 barQue Peking and the 1885 schooner Pioneer.  The museum offers programs that integrate marine themes and science into history.  I highly suggest a cruise aboard the Pioneer: you’ll see New York harbor the same way Henry Hudson saw it in 1609.  Simply breathtaking.

Not much time on the calendar to plan, but definitely take the time to go on at least on trip.  At the very least, it’ll get the kids banned from yet another public building.

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