Last spring, I gave binoculars to a group of third-graders, walked them toward a pond at the nature center where I teach, and let them take over. They stood at the water’s edge and watched a mallard, waiting and shushing each other until it paddled into the morning sun and revealed its shimmering emerald head. The duck was a boy, the students decided. They watched him as we continued to walk slowly around the pond and took note of turtles sunning themselves on a fallen log and a muskrat skimming along the surface with a wad of grass in its mouth.
As field trips go, this one was pretty much perfect. The students had good equipment that worked, time to use it and the expectation that they would be given space to discover what was out there, rather than being forced to look only for birds, which was the topic of the trip. For classroom teachers
who sign up for field trips, and the non-formal educators who teach the trips, this is how they hope all excursions will unfold. However, as both types of educators know, great trips aren’t guaranteed.
Two weeks later, I did the same activity with another group of third-graders and elicited an entirely different outcome. Students poked and pushed each other and made so much noise that any living thing that didn’t have roots was long gone from the pond by the time we arrived. Several ran ahead of me on the trail, binoculars bumping and swinging from the neck straps in a manner I’d specifically prohibited.
As I sat down to record that day’s trip in my journal, I wondered what had been different about the two experiences. Students on both trips were from the same grade and from similar schools, and both times we had the same field trip topic and good weather. Many teachers might chalk the difference
up to the fact that some classes are simply well-behaved, while others seem bent on recreating a World Cup soccer fan riot. In examining the journal entries about these two trips, however, I noted that although I had stated the rules for trail behavior to the second group, I had not given them clear expectations for the field trip. Nor had I attempted to create a relationship with them of any sort—I hadn’t even told them my name. No wonder they treated me like some stranger who blurted out
directions and lists of facts. That’s who I was that day.
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