In urban, low-income schools, the field trip has gone the way of the Tecopa Pupfish (yup, check it out). School focus is firmly centered on state testing, and there is not much time or money for field trips.
But recent conversations with my former students revealed the importance of learning outside the school walls, especially outings that focus on the arts. The graduates told me that these experiences were extremely valuable to them in college. The fact that they had attended plays, operas, and ballets in high school leveled the playing field for my low-income, urban school students and gave them new cultural competencies.
Experiencing the arts is powerful for school children. A study by the National Endowment of the Arts found that students who experienced the arts did better academically, had higher aspirations, and were more civically engaged. These gains were most noticeable in low-income schools.
I’ve always believed in the power of field trips. About eight years ago, I secured a grant that supplied my school with money to launch our school’s Culture Club. My school received $5,000 ($1,800 for a teacher stipend, and $3,200 for club expenses). I became quite adept at securing free tickets to plays, ballets, operas, dance performances, as well as free passes for museums and other cultural events because most of the money needed to be spent on transportation. Buses cost about $280 per outing. Scheduling the field trips outside of school time made it much easier for me to get permission from administrators to attend trips.
My students were intensely affected by their arts experiences. When Pippin won four Tony Awards last year, my students, who loved that performance, asked me, “Ms. Barile, is that the SAME Pippin we saw in the front row at the American Repertory Theater?” Indeed, it was. To say they felt special is an understatement.
Attending plays and musicals also helped my students in the classroom. In 2011, the Long Composition Writing Prompt on our state test asked students to “select a character who stands up for something s/he believes in and explain how the character’s actions relate to the work as a whole.” My students, who had read Prometheus in class and then witnessed a spectacular modern-day production of it, said answering this question was “like shooting fish in a barrel.”
The effects of attending arts events are far-reaching and long-lasting. Tatiana, now a sophomore at Northeastern University, said, “The field trips we took with Culture Club opened me up to all new experiences! The people I met and the variety of places we visited allowed me to go into college with an open mind – and that enabled me to join clubs and groups and to experience things in college that many would never even try.”
Mladen, now at Worchester Polytechnic Institute said, “I was always so focused on the STEM programs in high school. The plays and field trips have given me an unbelievable appreciation of the humanities and arts. They opened my eyes to all the different areas of study in college.”
Lindsay, now a student at Salem State University, described the bus ride home after attending the opera: “We couldn’t help but talk about it. I described each scene with a persisting sense of amazement, and I could still do so now. Going to the opera gave me a chance to open the doors of a life much more grand than my own and a chance to step inside of it from the city streets. It gave me a cultural experience that I will keep with me for the rest of my life.”
So what’s the best way to secure tickets for events for your students?
1. Most large theaters have free or reduced-priced tickets that they specifically set aside for low-income students. If that doesn’t work, the trick is to wait until an out-of-town production company comes to your city. Then email the Production Manager detailing your school’s plight (contact info can be found on the web page). I would explain that 80 percent of my students receive free or reduced lunch, meaning they live at or below the poverty level. I’d articulate the benefits of viewing the show, and then add that the current ticket price would be cost-prohibitive for my students. I almost always got an email back and free or reduced priced tickets.
2. Contact museums in your area and ask if there are special programs for students. In many cases, there are designated grants, which allow (especially low-income) students to visit for free.
3. Email professors at local colleges. I once emailed Northeastern University’s Sociology and Criminology professor, Jack Levin, to ask if he would speak to the students in my Mysteries class. Much to my surprise, Professor Levin invited my entire class to Northeastern. Not only did my students get to hear an outstanding lecture by a renowned professor, they got to visit a world-class college campus.
4. Use your social media and sites like DonorsChoose.org. You might have friends willing to donate money or tickets. A colleague once posted that she needed money for a bus to take her elementary students to the Aquarium. Within minutes, one of her Facebook friends agreed to cover the cost.
Learning outside the walls of school can augment and support the teaching we do in the classroom. It can offer students unique experiences, build new cultural competencies, and expand horizons. Let’s work to keep field trips alive!