I recently interviewed Meghan Everette, a 1st grade teacher at Daphne Elementary School in Baldwin County, Alabama, in order to gather her thoughts on school visits to museums. This is the first in a series of interviews that I will be sharing as part of my series rethinking the field trip.
Why should schools visit museums?
ASCD talks about educating the whole child, and I believe whole-heartedly in this. If you restrict education to what’s in the classroom, you are not educating the whole child. Field trips give kids a broader view of the world.
Often kids are not aware of cultural resources in their area, so unless teachers take them, they will not visit cultural sites or events. And even if they do go with their families, that’s a different experience from being with their peer group.
What museums do you visit with your students?
Baldwin County is just outside Mobile, which has a number of museums: the History Museum of Mobile, the USS Alabama, the Mobile Museum of Art, and a new marine museum. We also have a contemporary art museum, Space 301, and a number of 18th century historic forts such as Fort Conde and Fort Morgan.
We take five or six field trips each year. Some of these are local walking field trips – in a couple of weeks we’ll go to the grocery store. We also make an annual visit to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL, which is a big attraction about an hour from here – they have fighter planes, some ships, and the Blue Angels – precision demonstration squadron jets that practice there.
In Mobile County, we had to align trips with our curriculum, and we could not repeat a field trip in K through 5th grade. In Baldwin County we try to align field trips with the curriculum when possible.
What are the costs of field trips?
The biggest financial cost is the buses. For the Naval Aviation Museum we need to take charter buses, which cost thousands of dollars. Any field trip here requires a bus, so even if the museum is free, it costs us a lot to visit.
For any trip, you’re going to lose a day in your classroom. Not only are you going to lose a day, you’re going to lose a little more, because you’re going to do a little prep work beforehand, and then the next day, getting settled takes time – kids like to talk about where they went. So if you are charged with teaching a specific curriculum each day that makes trips tricky. If you really value that trip – if you think kids are really getting something out of it – then you don’t mind that you lost that day.
What do you see as some of the inefficiencies of field trips to museums?
The timing is off. A lot of our trips seem to be set up for half a day. At lunch time, we have to wait for the buses or go find them to get the kids’ lunches. Museums need to streamline the whole eating thing, or be more accommodating of getting lunches off the bus when we arrive at the museum.
After the museum visit, we have the bus and we’re already out and about, so we go to a local park and play before we go back to school, which is kind of silly. The bus drivers need to be back at the school in time to run their afternoon routes, so once you’re back at school you have this weird hour or so before dismissal. That kind of stinks.
Renting charter buses solves some of the timing problem, but that’s expensive. If museums planned something from 9-2 (or whatever that school’s schedule is) that would be great.
What’s an example of a great experience you have had with a museum visit?
Space 301. They had a special grant-funded program, and we took three visits to the Art Center. Before each visit they came to us. We saw the same teachers you see again and again – the kids build relationships; they know what’s expected.
The educators were knowledgeable about what they were going to teach, and in my classroom they led an activity that got kids really excited. Kids then had an expectation in their minds of what they were going to see, and even if it didn’t match up, that’s still a good experience for them. Any time you are forced to change your thinking about something is a powerful learning moment. Science is a really good example of that – when I put out materials, the kids think the materials will behave one way, but then they behave a different way: that completely engages them, they want to know why the material did what it did. (For more on cognitive dissonance as a teaching tool see this and this.)
So one time they came to the class and taught about radial symmetry. They when we visited Space 301 and saw the artists’ version, it was so radically different. The kids thought, “Oh my gosh, I never thought about it like that,” and then they would remember it better.
What if Space 301 gave you the pre-visit lessons to lead?
Many teachers would look at their day and not give the time it really warranted, or forget, or not be confident. I can imagine a teacher saying, I’m not going to see it right, I’m not going to do it right. I could see it working, though, especially if teachers were trained in some way: if they got to see the teacher teach the first time, or see a mini-lesson, even a video.
If we’re going to take a trip to see something I don’t know a lot about, and I have to learn about it on line and feel my way through, that’s probably not as good as someone who knows a lot about it. We take kids to see these field trips because it’s something we are not specialized in.
We do take the same field trips year after year – I could lead pre-visit lesson after seeing it once. There is an initial scariness. Having materials and lessons would make a big difference.
Museums often do provide lessons for teachers to use in their classroom, for before or after a visit.
Sometimes people don’t know this. It’s a lot different if someone actually puts this in your hands. And teachers stick to what they know – someone might be comfortable with art, but not science.
What are some of the barriers to great museum visits?
There has been a big crackdown from the district, discouraging teachers from taking kids on field trips because it’s time out of the classroom. They want field trips to be really purposeful. If kids have a great time but don’t remember anything, the district administration frowns on that.
When kids come back and they say, “That trip was fun, I played with my friends,” and can’t really tell you what was amazing, that’s a problem. Concepts tied to classroom learning help schools see purpose.
Field trips got a bad rap because they were just a fun outings – just time go to the park and play, there wasn’t any purpose in it. I think a field trip can be both, help children learn about the world, broaden their horizons, and learn something meaningful. For me, it’s important that they learn SOMETHING – it doesn’t matter so much what it is.
A lot of times the higher powers want to see that curriculum link. They want to know that the eight or more hours you lost in a classroom is going to better students’ understanding of some curriculum goal. This might be content, or skills – in my old school field trips had to teach vocabulary. Or it could even be career based.
What does a school visit to a museum look like in an ideal world? What are some options we might explore – distance learning? Full days at the museum?
I love the idea of a full day spent learning at the museum idea. I’m sure there’s a lot of logistics to work out, but if kids could show up at 8 and leave at 3, then they gain an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, and they’re settled. Kids get so hyped up getting on the bus and stuff.
I’m not in love with distance learning. There are always technology issues. It’s one thing when it’s a one-on-one interview, like with an author – that’s personal, and they’re talking to you. But when they’re trying to show you animals, something gets lost in translation – I want to see the animals in real life.
What else should museum educators know?
If a visit is guided, the museum educators should be trained to work with children. We’ve had some docents – I’m sure they’re lovely people and all – but they talk above children’s heads, and then the children get restless and rude. When kids are active and involved they tend to remember more.
We went on one trip last year, and I never want to go again, because it was completely unguided. The kids were let loose and just ran around.
A visit doesn’t have to be guided, but I appreciate when they’ve given us something to go by. So, for example, at the Museum of Mobile they give first graders a visual scavenger hunt, which helps them to focus. It’s better than sitting and listening to someone talk.
Meghan Everette teaches 1st grade l in Baldwin County, Alabama. Previously, she taught 3rd and 4th grades in Mobile County, Alabama. Meghan is a blogger for Scholastic’s Top Teaching Blog and ASCD Emerging Leader.