Museum Fieldtrips, from the other side!

Tara YoungAlliance Labs, Featured, P-12 Education17 Comments

Group of children surrounding a statue framed with mat signed by all of the kids

Tara Young is Deputy Director at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, MA

Group of children surrounding a statue framed with mat signed by all of the kids

Fieldtrip participants

On a 95-degree day in mid-June, I accompanied my daughter Alice’s 3rd-grade class on a “field study” to Lexington and Concord (her twin sister Ruth went the next day). There was fierce competition for chaperone slots, and after having not made the cut for other trips, I was happy to have been selected. The third grade had been studying the American Revolution as part of their local history curriculum; as Bay Staters we’re lucky that our local history includes such significant sites as the Old North Bridge and Lexington.

One of the reasons I wanted to go on the field trip was to see how a school visit unfolds from the chaperone’s perspective. As a museum educator and instructor of Museum Education for K-12 Audiences in the Tufts Museum Studies program, I am well acquainted with best practices for school visits to museums and historic sites. At the Museum of Russian Icons, I often work with teachers to design curriculum-connected visits to my museum. But as a chaperone, I had had no role in planning the trip, limited information about pre-visit preparation, and no administrative responsibility other than keeping track of my small group of four kids. So I tried to step out of my museum framework and approach the trip with fresh eyes.

In no particular order, here are my takeaways from the day—all things I knew, but that I hadn’t fully experienced on a personal level until that day.

  1. Maslow was right. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs posits that basic physiological needs (food, water, rest) must be satisfied before a person can progress through stages of safety, belonging, and ultimately self-actualization, where creativity and problem-solving take place. This particular day was unusually challenging in terms of meeting students’ (and parents’ and teachers’!) basic needs. It was 95 degrees and extremely humid. The heat and the motion of the un-air-conditioned bus resulted in many complaints of bus sickness. The teachers were rightly focused on making sure kids stayed hydrated and that they snacked/lunched at appropriate intervals. The circumstances of the day were a clear reminder that students (or any of us) can’t focus on content if we are not comfortable on a basic level. As museum educators, we need to allow time and space for teachers and parents to address those needs, which ideally then leads to the whole group being better able to focus on the trip’s curricular goals.
  2. Kids need guidance in making connections. These third graders were well-prepared, and they knew quite a bit about the revolution. The goal of the trip was not to learn the content, but rather to see where these historical events had taken place. Indeed, the Old North Bridge and the Battle Road Trail are tourist destinations for people who want to step on the soil where the events of the Revolution unfolded. But for the kids, the reaction consisted of brief acknowledgment (“That’s the bridge? Cool. What’s next?”) followed by questions about how the bridge could be old when it looks new and how the blood was cleaned off (a particular fascination). This led to an impromptu and therefore incomplete discussion about replicas, which could have been addressed in a more proactive way. I was reminded that what adults often understand and appreciate intuitively—an important event took place on this site, so, therefore, the site itself is important—needs to be made explicit for kids. We rounded everyone up and took a class picture at the Concord Minuteman statue, but perhaps that experience could have been enhanced by a park staffer (or a teacher) leading the kids in a visualization exercise – what do you think it was like to be here on April 19, 1775? Simply seeing a site doesn’t make it compelling.
  3. The experience is about so much more than the content. There was much discussion about who sat with whom on the bus, how long the ride was, and what everyone had packed for lunch. The biggest hit of the trip was the Road to Revolution, a “multimedia theater program” in the Visitor Center which used sound, light, and video projection to tell some of the key stories about the battles. It was semi-immersive, with real furniture set against a painted and projected background. There was a video screen and a projected figure, along with a map that was lit up in sections to correspond with the narrative. Students were enchanted by the whole experience (especially, for some reason, the crickets in surround sound at the beginning and end of the show). Some thought it was scary because the room was dark. Others enjoyed being indoors; the students later wrote thank you notes to their chaperones, and Alice’s cheeky note to me said “Dear Mom…My favorite part of the field trip was sitting in an AIR CONDITIONED room [emphasis hers] watching the movie and taking a short nap.” This multimedia experience reminded me how important it is to have a “sticky” element to a field trip. While this certainly doesn’t have to involve technology, in this case, the show made a real impact, and I suspect that students will remember this aspect of the trip clearly.
  4. A schedule is just a suggestion. This field study was designed to maximize the school day – we left before the first bell and returned just before dismissal. Still, there were road blocks—literally—to using the time efficiently. We hit traffic (driving into greater Boston at rush hour is not for the faint of heart). There was a miscommunication with the bus driver about which of the two visitor centers we wanted to go to. The entrance to the visitor center parking lot wasn’t clearly marked, resulting in missed turns and an unscheduled stop in another parking lot to let the quickly-fading kids eat their snacks. These snafus affected the rest of our schedule—the sequence of activities had to be rearranged, and an interpreter truncated her presentation to fit in a shorter time slot–underscoring the importance of flexibility. Also, a reminder: while the adults were scrambling to make up time, the kids weren’t anticipating a specific schedule. To minimize everyone’s stress level, focus on what is happening, not on what should be happening or what students missed.
  5. Though it’s a lot of pressure for us educators, the skill of the interpreter(s) makes or breaks the whole experience. We had a costumed third-person interpreter give a presentation about the colonists’ response to British taxes and restrictions. Though likely approaching heat exhaustion in four layers of clothing, the educator engaged the kids effectively. For example, she invited kids to guess which of a variety of reproduction objects (a china teapot, a pewter mug, fabric) would have been imported and which would have been made locally. Answer: All of them would have been imported, therefore illustrating the impracticality of the colonists boycotting British goods. Another sticky moment was the firing of a musket. A non-costumed park interpreter talked us through the steps (and told us when to block our ears) while the costumed interpreter loaded and shot her musket twice. Though rushed (see #4) this presentation was excellent, though point #1 absolutely applied (Hartwell Tavern’s barn in which the first part of the presentation took place was sweltering, and attention faded fast).

Overall, the trip was meaningful and successful. The students loved it (another one of my adorable thank you notes read “The best part of the field trip was the whole field trip.”) I found the experience very useful professionally, plus as a parent with a full-time job and little time to volunteer at school, it was a rare and precious opportunity to see my daughter’s teacher, friends, and classroom dynamics in action. The visit raised several points for me too. For one, I predict that the impact of this field trip may not be immediate, but that students will come back to the sticky parts—and even the seemingly less sticky ones—later, when they recount it to a family member or learn more about the Revolution. I know Alice will remember it not only because her museum geek mom will likely quiz her at regular intervals about what she recalls, but also because her class’s thoughtful room parent gave each child a framed copy of the group photo taken at the Minuteman statue. The kids signed each other’s wooden frames, yearbook style; Alice’s now has a place of honor in her room. One last takeaway: after a blistering day riding on a school bus with 60+ sweaty and exhausted 8 and 9-year-olds, it is absolutely mandatory to stop for ice cream on the way home from school.

About the Author

Tara is also a member of the faculty in the Tufts University Museum Study Program. She has been in the museum field since 1998 and lives in Central Massachusetts.

Brought to you by Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard, the American Alliance of Museums’ Ford W. Bell Fellow for Museums and P-12 Education. 

17 Comments on “Museum Fieldtrips, from the other side!”

  1. Thanks for sharing, useful info for anyone thinking of the value of an external field trip, what to expect, anticipate, and how to organize. Kent

  2. The stickiest part of this post, for me, is the perspective on the role of content. We need to recognize and become comfortable with the reality that fact transmission is often not the most memorable or important element of a visit.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Michelle. I agree! I think that the expectations of a visit (teachers/chaperones as well as museum staff) are largely still related to fact transmission. So for me one of the big questions is how we align expectations with what actually takes place. And how do we evaluate the important elements if they’re not fact-based?

  3. Thanks for a very thoughtful analysis. I must say, as someone who for 20 years took groups of university students to Europe, where my wife and I often functioned as both instructors and chaperones, that your observations on your experience with these youngsters seemed eerily similar to our own with college students!

    1. Thanks for your comment Dennis! Yes, some of these observations are universal truths about all of us as learners and are not necessarily age-based.

  4. Very practical. I will be sharing this with some coworkers at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site (where the heat and humidity are also big factors). Thanks!

  5. Great points! Each one of them is so good for us to keep in mind as informal educators who see a lot of field trip groups. After joining my daughter on a handful of field trips now, I would also add that even adult chaperones sometimes need guidance in making connections, as well. As parents, we don’t always have our finger on the pulse of what or how a topic is being discussed in class. On a field trip to a local grocery store (for kindergarten) the teacher communicated extremely well with parents via e-mail and in the classroom so that we understood how we could help, how the trip fit into the big picture, and how we could help students make connections. On a field trip to a history museum the previous year, I felt like I was just there to herd kids (a big enough task for preschoolers, anyway!) and didn’t really have a good idea of how I could help guide students in sense-making outside of my own museum education knowledge. The trip was fine, but I felt much more engaged as a chaperone (and I think the kids were, too) when I was clear on what my own role was and how I could help support them in making connections.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Tiffany. You make some excellent points! I agree that (at least in my experience) chaperones are viewed as assistants on the logistical side but not on the curriculum/content side. It’s hard for teachers to spend a lot of time prepping chaperones, especially not knowing the chaperones’ background/skill sets, but there are ways to do it even on a basic level. For example, on the trip I describe, all the chaperones got information sheets about the details of the day (schedule, teachers’ cell numbers, etc.), but the information sheets included nothing about objectives or learning goals. It’s interesting to think about whether parents perceive that as their role, or want it to be (I do as an occupational hazard, but there are other perfectly legitimate motivations for chaperoning).

      I also realize now that I could have been more proactive about asking for this type of information and/or volunteering to assist teachers in preparing us as a group.

  6. I give you a lot of credit for being able to step out of your role as a Museum Educator to be a chaperone! Would love to know more about your observations (if any) of the other chaperones during the field trip; it’s an issue that comes up often when I consult on Education programs. Were they engaged? Were they on their phones more than they should have been? How can museum educators/museum staff-volunteers better prepare and inform chaperones for their roles during field trips?

    1. Lindsey,
      Thanks for your comment. In this particular case, there wasn’t an issue with unengaged parents, though as an educator I have certainly dealt with that problem. Partly I think it was due to the fact that there was competition for the slots (that is, all the parents wanted to be there). Also, our school had just posted a new social media policy (which I support wholeheartedly) that banned kids from bringing any devices. While of course this didn’t apply to parents, it did seem to take the focus off of technology for all of us.

      As for preparation, I think there’s no such thing as too much information, both from the museum and from the teacher. I also think that we as chaperones (as I say in the comment above) could be better about asking how we can best help, instead of assuming the teachers will tell us what they need. I would guess that teachers may feel like they’re imposing on parents who have already volunteered their time, so open communication is always best.

  7. Pingback: Day at the Museum: Field Trips for Kids and Museum Educators – Lindsey Steward

  8. As a grad student working on her masters in museum studies and future museum educators I found this very enlightening and possible all museum educators need to chaperone a school field trip with young students to gain the perspective of the students as well as the chaperones and all those who are involved in school field trips.

    1. Mary, yes, it would be great experience for all future (and current) educators. I don’t know what the process would be for people who aren’t parents or guardians, but it’s possible that aunts/uncles/cousins could be considered if they had parental permission and a background check on file. It might be more straightforward with a non-school group (church group, scout group).

  9. I agree that more educators should try serving as a chaperone. Reading this coincided with a report from my teen now volunteering at the museum she toured often as a young camper and later as a counselor with her own charges. The teacher was so delighted to see her in uniform this year that he stopped to introduce her to the children and had them take a group photo. I wonder if this will prove to be a sticky moment for one of those kids.

  10. I’m curious to know what material you were given as a chaperone. On my own child’s field trips, when I go as a chaperone I always ask what the teacher would like us to do, which is usually simply something along the lines of keep the group you’re given together, and return to spot x at y time. Knowing many of the museums we have visited have educators who put a lot of work into preparing materials so every adult is aware of the museum’s layout, exhibitions, etc. I’m often miffed not to be given some orientation material at the very least. On the flip side, my child often asks me to just be a chaperone and not an educator on such trips, but all I really want is to have more info. from the teacher before heading out as a chaperone.

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