At the end of the American Revolution in the Hudson Valley Teacherhostel / Historyhostel participants enjoy a cruise on the Hudson River leaving from the Landing in Newburgh and sailing south to West Point. One year after taking the class, a 6th grade teacher from a school in Newburgh in walking distance of the dock, decided to take the students on the same cruise. The trip was permitted and aided by the fact that no bus money was required since they could walk there.
The point of the story, of course, is that many of the students had never seen their own community from the river. Indeed, they rarely even saw the river. Life tended to be confined to the route from home to school and back. As for the history of Newburgh including the nearby New York State George Washington’s Headquarters Historic Site, the very first historic site in the State as it turns out and about to celebrate the birthday of its namesake, it had no meaning to the students. It might just as well have been the history of Mars for its relevance to the students.
I was reminded of this event when reading a recent article in the New York Times, “A Field Trip to a Strange New Place: Second Grade Visits the Parking Garage.” The article recounts the tale of students who had never been in a car…and wondered if a bus counted as one. Let’s hope there are no mandated tests requiring knowledge about a car! The students visited an auto-repair shop and a garage and learned reading and math from the real world….like how a Muni-Meter works. According to the reporter, the teacher drew the line on decoding NYC alternate-side-of-the-street parking signs. Some things are best left to those skilled in the reading of hieroglyphics and cuneiform! The point of the trips is “after four years of academic lessons built around sidewalk trips to the Essex Street market, the subway, several bridges and a hospital emergency room [aka “the doctor’s office”], Ms. [Dao] Krings [the second grade teacher at P.S. 142] is moved by how much learning goes on.” As expected other principals were fearful of allowing such a program in their school. After all, everyone knows field trips are disruptive frills that waste time.
The sad fact is that the experiences of field trips are essential not peripheral to the growth of a child. Sad because they are treated so poorly. It is all too easy for someone to think that life is limited to back-and-forth to school with sidetrips to some government or medical institution. For some people TV and the internet are the only contacts with the outside world. By contrast, by the time middle and upper class students enter school they have been on and continue to go on field trips, be they educational to museums and historic sites, social to family gatherings in other locations, and recreational/vacations even to other countries. And this is long before going to college. Exposing children to other experiences needs to start young.
For example, in wealthy Bedford, the Bedford Historical Society offered a photo session with Santa last Christmas. It was a “way to introduce a new generation of Bedford residents to the history that surrounds them” by having in the 1787 Courthouse. Executive Director Lynn Ryan said, “We want them to see the beauty of the village and appreciate its history.” For these youngsters, this field trip was just one of many they would take outside of school.
This May 19-20, 2012, is New York State Heritage Weekend. What can your town do to foster a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community among the residents? Don’t just ignore its potential or think that a random listing of scattered events on a website constitute a well-thought out plan for promoting your town. Here is an opportunity to create your own field trip and to induct the fourth-graders, the grade of teaching local history, in to your town. Use the weekend the promote something good for your town. Here is a suggested program:
Welcome – by Mayor or Town Supervisor in the library, school, or historic site
The Story of Our Community – by the municipal historian or an invited speaker who can bring the history of the community to life,
Our Community in the Civil War in honor of the Sesquicentennial or the War of 1812 for the Bicentennial – speaker
Teaching Our Community – examples from elementary, middle, and high school teachers
Walking tour of the Main Street in your community [before the box stores and malls destroyed it]
Bus tour of the community with multiple stops at the historic sites, the famous blue state history markers, the different churches and religious organizations that reflect demographic change, and even the box stores and malls that changed the fabric of life in the community
Somewhere during this day, every fourth-grader should receive a municipal certificate with the municipal seal and one designed by the fourth grade certifying their membership in the community. Cake and marching band optional.
And if you are really ambitious, have a dinner and discussion about your community in the 21st century later that night.
Let’s make Heritage Weekend, Community Heritage Weekend with a community field trip.
Photo: Student field trip to High Line Park in Manhattan (Courtesy Urban Environmental Education).
Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences and the more effective use of New York State Heritage Weekend and the Ramble.