As an elementary school teacher in New York City, I LOVED field trips. In my final year of teaching, I was lucky enough to find a school that not only encouraged them but purposely made “experiential learning” part of the curriculum. My students benefited enormously. Throughout the year, they recited their poems on the stage of the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe, studied the concept of character through a gallery walk at the MOMA, and l learned about the history of slavery in New York through a trip to the African Burial Ground.
My colleagues and I have dozens of cultural institutions at our disposal, but our students find themselves returning to the same places fairly often. Why?
Each field trip we plan requires time, resources and local expertise. To make a field trip happen, we have to know about it or find it online. Then, we have to navigate the complex maze of that organization’s unique website to find out the cost (and corresponding scholarships), scheduling protocol and the basic logistical details.
Once we’ve figured out the routine specific to that organization, we have to reach out to the organization to schedule the trip which usually takes an additional few days to weeks of back and forth. Instead of finding new and unique experience, the field trips we take end up being the ones that feel “easy”.
The chorus of voices that see cultural institutions as a vital piece of the 21st-century learning landscape is growing steadily. To take full advantage of the opportunity, organizations need to make a few key changes to meet teachers where they are and position themselves as partners in the future of school.
Easing the pain of planning is one big way to help facilitate partnerships with schools. Over the years, I have encountered a number of practices at different institutions that make the whole field trip experience so much easier. A few of my favorites are below.
On Your Website:
Highlight the alignment of each learning experience clearly. Talk explicitly about what children will learn and what grades the activity is appropriate for. If a teacher can quickly and easily explain exactly what objective they can achieve through the field trip to their administrators, they will have an easier time getting approval (a necessary but frustrating point).
Be Clear About Logistics
List logistical info right on your website. When planning our trip, we need to figure out where our students can eat lunch, where the bathrooms are and how many kids can use them at once, and the best/cheapest way to get there. The more of this information you can provide up front, the less intimidating planning the trip becomes. Even if you do not have a lunchroom or a public bathroom on site, it helps to hear where offsite you recommend. Is there an indoor public arcade or park with tables where kids eat lunch? Is there a public bathroom nearby? Mention it!
Offer a Pre-trip Preview
While it can be difficult for teachers to take additional time to visit, many teachers find a pre-trip visit to be really helpful for planning. Give teachers the ability to visit your site for free before their trip, that way they can plan the logistics and the objects they want to highlight in advance. Philip Panaritis in the New York City Department of Education has worked with a large group of the New York City museum education departments to provide teachers with a card to visit the museums in the city for free for planning services, it has been hugely helpful to those teachers. Hundreds of Bronx teachers signed up for the program last year!
In Your Communication:
Shorten the feedback loop.
Respond to requests in 24-48 hours, if your field trip staff is part-time, make sure there is an away message that explains clearly when and how teachers should expect to hear back. For example, if you have part-time staff doing scheduling on Thursdays and Fridays, have an away message that says: “Thank you for your interest! We do our field trip scheduling on Thursdays, you will hear back from us then.” This way, teachers know to expect a delay and can communicate with their teams accordingly.
90% of teachers have very limited time during the day to answer a call, make sure that teachers can plan via email, or encourage them to schedule a call with you. Having to organize a field trip via phone is stressful. If the phone call comes when I’m teaching I end up stuck in what felt like an endless phone tag loop. I often have to choose between answering the phone during a lesson or missing the opportunity, neither of which is a good option for my students.
Many organizations use a standard registration form. Add an extra question: when is the best time to reach you? Teachers usually have fairly predictable schedules and they will be grateful to know you will be reaching out at those times.
Classroom life, at many schools, is dictated by routines. Students know exactly what to do when they enter the classroom, get out supplies or go to lunch. If you have specific routines that teachers and students can follow when they arrive or move through your space, it makes the inherently hectic nature of shepherding 30 students through a new place feel calmer. The Museum of Natural History does a great job of this—we arrive at the Museum of Natural History, we are greeted at the bus drop off and our class is assigned a set of bins where students could place their coats, lunch boxes, and bags.
Most organizations support teachers and students by providing pre/post trip materials. There are a number of ways to extend these materials and make them more engaging and impactful. Perhaps give students a chance to ‘publish’ their reflections on a wall or book at your institution. If there are specific pieces of background knowledge that would help kids engage better, provide that info in your prework. Additionally, students can really benefit from doing a field trip ‘preview’. If you have a virtual tour or photo tour, share that with teachers and encourage them to share it with students so they have time to generate questions before they arrive.
In the current educational climate, school-cultural partnerships are only set to grow. With a few tweaks, your wonderful programs can be even more accessible to the teachers that you serve.
Meg Davis is the founder of Explorable Places (www.explorableplaces.com), an online platform that helps museums connect to teachers around curriculum aligned experiential learning and streamline their scheduling processes. Before starting Explorable Places, Meg worked as an elementary educator in both formal and informal settings. Meg has her BA in American Cultural Studies from Bates College and an MS in Childhood Education from Hunter College.