The Power of Field Trips to Transform Hearts and Minds

Yvonne Domings, Upper School Director

The Power of Field Trips to Transform Hearts and Minds

by Yvonne Domings, Upper School Director

Field trips provide rich, experiential opportunities that allow students to take in and engage with learning in multi-sensory ways. They have the power to expand the walls of the school and bring learning to life. Instead of only listening, discussing and/or reading, students experience the world. Students take an active role in their learning, doing so in their own way and at their own pace. As such, they experience the joy of exploration and the wonder of discovery. Sparhawk’s Winterim master class is an excellent example of the power of field trips to take learning to a higher level. It is also an excellent example of one of the things Sparhawk faculty do best: they create rich learning opportunities for students that push them to expand their hearts and minds.

In the interim between first and second semester (Winterim), Sparhawk students in grades 8-12 go on many of field trips! They travel locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Four years ago, we enhanced these trips by adding master class. Before this, students traveled for a week to ten days. The experience was wonderful, but the master class has added a rich new dimension by preparing them for what they will encounter and experience.

In a master class, teachers and students study topics of interest deeply all day, every day for the month of January. In contrast to a survey class, which is designed with a goal of achieving a broad but cursory understanding or skill, Winterim master classes are designed with the goal of deep learning in a specific area of focus.

To teach a master class well, teachers must dig in and develop their own deep understanding of the topic area first. Ideas for master classes often come from their past experiences or from their own curiosity, passions or interests. Teachers then guide students to develop a thorough understanding of the topic. The learning is then enriched with a field trip or trips that further expand their minds by exposing them to the world beyond the pages of a book and the walls of the classroom.

The experience of master class promotes growth in students not only intellectually and academically, but also socially and emotionally. And as faculty, we bear witness to this, which in turn impacts us as well. As one teacher describes “Winterim feeds my soul.”

Teachers remark that some of the best parts of Winterim are watching students discover something about themselves they didn’t know. For example, teachers in the fitness Winterim enjoyed working out alongside some of their self-proclaimed “non-athletic” students as the learned that practice and working hard allowed them to improve and excel beyond what they had imagined they could do. This shift in mindset can provide a powerful reminder of how perseverance can pay off in any challenging learning scenario.

Another example comes from teachers of the marine biology class, who were astounded by the power of field trips to teach when they saw how facile some students (who were never exposed to a snorkel before) became at differentiating between similar fish at the species level in a very short time. It is hard to imagine any pneumonic device, flash cards or drills that could achieve the same result.

The concentrated and extended time with a smaller group of our students also allows us to be present for many joyful and poignant “aha” moments (when we believe we see sparks jump and a student’s mind or heart is forever altered). Below I compile a few of these moments from Winterim 2019:

Sparhawk students who studied the history and culture of New Orleans landed and began their trip by helping rebuild houses in the Lower Ninth District of New Orleans. In the classroom, they had learned that homes in this district were largely wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (the year some of the students in the class were born). As a result of their work rebuilding houses, our students discovered and experienced injustice on a very personal level and in a way that is mind and life altering.

The teacher put down his hammer to text me about the “birth of a social justice warrior.” When one student, who lives a very privileged life, met the people of the Lower Ninth Ward and realized they were rebuilding their homes one nail and one board at a time, without any formal government assistance, he looked at his teacher and pleaded “No one is helping them. We have to do something.” As educators, this transformation and deep emotional connection with learning is something we cannot achieve without an experience. It provided students with personal moments with other humans who they come to know. It is our Credo in action: treating others with the kindliness they deserve. These connections impact our students for the rest of their lives.

Another student after exploring the ancient ruins of Rome, seeing Medieval “high rises” of San Gimignano, and many other wonders across Italy, sat staring at Michelangelo’s David in Florence and remarked to his teacher “Oh my God, this is so worth the hype. It is as amazing as they say it is.”

These goose-bump provoking moments are not limited only to students who travel the world. Walking by a math classroom turned woodshop, I marveled at the joy and total engagement of every student in the room. Inspired by local trips to see and learn about colonial architecture, they milled around busily cutting, sanding and shaping popsicle sticks into models, complete with features that they excitedly explained served both form and function.

The students in the mural arts master class, spent the month planning, proposing a mural and then creating, glazing and firing tiles and finally tiling a wall in the school. One day, I witnessed as a mural arts student stepped back from the mosaic work unfolding on the wall before her as she whispered “Wow, this is going to make our school really special.” Oh what a feeling to be, not only reading about their world, but also experiencing and transforming it with their hands before their very eyes! I hope these anecdotes provide another dimension to the picture that is emerging in your mind’s eye of how very transformative Winterim master classes and field trips are for our students.

After four years of master classes, this year I believe we have hit our stride. Winterim 2019 Master Classes were awe inspiring! Here are some facts and figures: master classes this year included “deep dives” into Renaissance art and history, New England colonial architecture, mural arts, marine biology, the history and culture of New Orleans and fitness. We did so much: we connected, created, competed, snorkeled, explored, marveled, bonded and got fit. We learned new skills and tried new foods; we mentored; we helped; we laughed, we made friends; we shed tears; we experienced new cultures and we pushed our boundaries. We traveled to local cities like Portland (Maine), Lynn, Lowell, Ipswich, Salem and New Bedford. We traveled nationally to New Orleans and internationally to Belize City, Dublin, Rome, Florence, Siena, San Gimignano and Venice. We collectively clocked around 35,000 miles in cars, buses, trains, planes and boats and walked hundreds more miles on foot.

On January 25th, faculty and staff of the Upper School gathered, as we always do on  professional days, to share breakfast before starting the day. Along with the smell of sausage and waffles, the kitchen was filled with excited voices relating stories, sharing their “aha” moments, joys, challenges and new insights into the hearts, minds and characters of our students. I am proud of the work we do and honored to be part of this community of lifelong learners. I can hardly wait to see what is in store for Winterim 2020. Our vision couldn’t be brighter.

To learn more about the power of field trips to provide access to learning and spur cognitive, socio-emotional, and academic growth read:

Behrendt, M. & Franklin, T. (Jul 2008). A Review of Research on School Field Trips and Their Value in Education. In International Journal of Environmental & Science Education. V3, 3 (9) pp. 235-245. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1031445.pdf

Berer, S. (Apr 15 2015). The Benefits Of Learning Through Field Trips. In TeachThought. Retrieved from https://www.teachthought.com/learning/the-benefits-of-learning-through-field-trip

Green, J. P., Kisida B, Bowen, D.H. (2014). The Educational Value of Field Trips. In (14)1. https://www.educationnext.org/the-educational-value-of-field-trips/

Kulas, M. (n.d.) What are the Benefits of Field Trips for Children? In Livestrong.com. Retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/127612-benefits-field-trips-children/

Meg. (2018) Benefits of Field Trips. In Explorable Places. Retrieved from https://www.explorableplaces.com/blog/the-benefits-of-field-trips