Field trips used to be a major part of school excitement, and they can be wonderful learning opportunities. At many schools, though, the cost of fuel and NCLB have made field trips a rarity, and they have to be defended with strong, clear ties to standards and benchmarks. One teacher told me that her class greets the news of an upcoming field trip with sullen questions about what tests or assignments will go with it. “Will we have to write about it?” they say suspiciously, instead of getting excited.
It’s sad. I remember when my son went on a kindergarten field trip to a farm and was sneezed on by a pig; so does he, now that he’s a college junior. It was a source of wonder and amazement to him, and a wonderful learning experience.
Join us on a virtual field tip to the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City.
So how can you get writing assignments out of your field trips that don’t make students wish they didn’t have to go?
Start with a research question
Instead of having a great open-ended visit to the museum, followed by “Now write about the thing you liked best,” start with a suitably open-ended question. That way, you can have a great open-ended visit followed by students who are excited to share what they discovered.
In our example field trip, we visited the sculpture garden and the Ancient Egyptian art exhibit of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, walking out through the Asian Art wing. We saw a lot of sculptures in all of those areas. Here are some questions that would suit this field trip:
- We’re going to see a lot of sculptures; see if you can tell what they’re made of. (observation)
- Look for simple shapes in the artworks and make a list; we’ll graph the results. (observation)
- What characteristics make Ancient Egyptian art so recognizable? (observation and analysis)
- Some of the things we see we will be allowed to touch, but others can’t be touched — see if you can figure out why. (synthesis and analysis)
- You can learn a lot about the lives of Ancient Egyptians from the artifacts we’re going to see — what surprise you? (observation, analysis, and synthesis)
Look for details
People’s reactions to a field trip will vary enormously. During our field trip to the Nelson-Atkins, we heard someone say, “I’d hate to have to dust that,” something that has never entered our minds in a museum. You can let students experience your destination in any way they want, and also give them a focus, by having them write a story using details they’ll find at that destination. Our students could write an adventure taking place in Ancient Egypt, a love story set in the sculpture garden in modern day Kansas City, or a mystery taking place during an archaeological expedition.
Have students sketch some objects and take notes about anything they think will fit well into their story. After the field trip, they can write up their stories, making sure to include those details. They’ll notice how their careful observation enriches the story.