What happens when two teachers and 13 high school students go on an epic adventure in the form of a field trip? Read on!
I attended a workshop recently that asked teachers the question: “How will you create opportunity for your students?” A few weeks later, I took a course entitled “Rethinking Equity in the Teaching of English Language Learners” (RETELL), which emphasized the importance of prior knowledge and background knowledge in helping students become better readers and writers. That got me thinking. I needed to provide my students with the opportunity to learn more about the world. I needed to offer them experiences that would increase their background knowledge.
Meanwhile, during the cold and snowy month of February, my sophomores and I often spent lunch together. The students talked about their desire to see and experience the world. Gabby told me how much she wanted to visit New York City. And so, the idea of a field trip – a day trip to New York City – was born. I made a deal with the students: if they read The Catcher in the Rye on their own and passed a series of tests, and if every student in the small class of 13 students had an A or a high B, I’d take them to New York City.
I knew it would be expensive and certainly cost-prohibitive to my low-income, urban school students, 80% who live at or below the poverty level, but I thought I could somehow raise the funds to go. I began first with transportation. New York City is about four hours from Boston, and I felt the safest and fastest way to get there would be an Amtrak train. I priced the trip: about $2700! Undeterred, I created a project on DonorsChoose.org. I didn’t really think I’d get funded, but after I posted the project on Facebook, my friends and former students rapidly began donating. The project was funded in five days! I couldn’t believe it.
A huge factor in the trip was choosing another adult chaperone. Since this was an English Language Arts field trip, I chose fellow ELA teacher, Erin Giesser. I knew Erin’s relentlessly upbeat attitude and positivity would come in handy on the trip (and, as things turned out, that was a VERY good call on my part).
Former RHS student, Jason Barletta, now a world-renown tattoo artist at Rising Dragon Tattoo in New York City, designed an amazing one-of-a-kind, commemorative tee-shirt for the trip. I had the t-shirt made in red, so I’d easily be able to spot my students in a crowd.
I structured the trip to trace part of Holden’s experiences in New York City that fateful weekend in the 1950’s, and to also include important artistic, cultural, historical, and architectural landmarks. A grant paid for VIP tickets to the Empire State Building and a private, guided tour of MOMA. Our breakfast, lunch, and dinner was covered by dear friends who wanted to ensure that my students were fully taken care of. One friend even provided each student with $20 spending money!
Of course, the forecast for our scheduled field trip was rainy and cold, with a chance of thunderstorms. No worries: Kathy Walsh from Scholastic saw my post whining about the weather on Facebook and over-nighted 15 Scholastic umbrellas for the class!
The trip began at 5 a.m.; a bus took us from our high school to South Station. I had arranged with Amtrak for special boarding, so the students could sit together on the train. At the station in Boston, students ran to Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts to purchase breakfast. Everyone was so excited for the adventure to begin.
None of the students had been on a train before, and after we left South Station, many of them headed to the café car. I purchased a deck of cards, and Brian regaled his peers (and some amused businesspeople) with card tricks. I checked on the students frequently during the four hour ride, and each time they told me they were having so much fun “talking about life.”
It was pouring rain when we arrived at Penn Station at 10:20 a.m. In order to keep 13 students together, I told Erin that I would take the lead since I know New York City fairly well. She would bring up the rear. That plan helped us keep the students together. Each student also had a “buddy” s/he would be responsible for. As a result, we managed not to lose anyone on the trip.
Our first stop was the Empire State Building. Visibility was terrible, and our VIP passes to cut the lines were totally unnecessary. It didn’t matter. We still went up to the top, and students enjoyed looking over the edge of the walls and down into the vast city.
After exiting the Empire State Building, a miracle occurred: it stopped raining! I was so happy. Our next stops were the New York Public Library and then Times Square, where the students took photo after photo. Then we were off to lunch at Ellen’s Stardust Diner.
Ellen’s Stardust Diner is a great spot for teens. We were separated into tables of 9 and 6, with Erin and I each chaperoning a table. The food was surprising good – thick deli sandwiches and burgers and pasta. One girl even ordered a turkey dinner. Again, all expenses were covered by my generous friends. While the students ate, waiters and waitresses put on an spectacular show singing tunes from Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Annie, and other pop hits. We couldn’t afford a Broadway show, but this was definitely the next best thing – students LOVED it!
Our next stop was Central Park. Students wanted to see where Phoebe and Holden roller-skated, and the literary connection was brought to life. Then we were off to the Museum of Modern Art. The museum was PACKED, but we had scheduled a private tour, and our knowledgeable and friendly docent, Megan, was so engaging. We sat down in front of Picassos, Van Goghs and Warhols, while Megan asked the teenagers their opinions on the artwork. At one exhibit, students debated whether the bicycle wheel and snow shovel on display were truly “art.” I was so proud and impressed with my students’ articulate responses, and I was also pleased that so many students said this was their favorite stop on the trip!
After MOMA, we walked down Fifth Avenue and then over to Rockefeller Center, so students could see where Holden took Sally Hayes ice skating, and then it was the long 30+ block walk to Pizzeria Suprema – which my research showed had high marks online for its delicious pizza. When we arrived, the place was packed. I told students it was up to them to get seats while I placed the order. Miraculously, they were able to secure 4 booths together, and we indulged on some of the finest pizza I’ve ever eaten! Of course, we over-ordered, but it wasn’t a problem because we just packaged up two boxes of pizza to take with us on the train – and, as it turned out, it was a good thing we did.
We arrived at packed and bustling Penn Station at 6:10 p.m.; our Acela train was scheduled to leave at 7:00 p.m. While students ran off to spend their $20 on souvenirs in the little shops in Penn Station, I checked in with our Amtrak usher, who told us our train was about ten minutes late. No problem. I knew we’d make up that time on the ride. But then I started hearing strange announcements about power outages and a stoppage of service. I prayed to the train gods, but it was true: a power outage in Stamford, Connecticut brought all trains to and from Boston to a halt. At one point we were loaded onto a train, only to be told to “de-train.” Our train was taken out of service and sent back to Washington, DC.
I could feel the panic rise up inside me, but thankfully Erin kept a cool head. She laughed and joked about our set of circumstances. And, amazingly, the students never whined or complained. I told them to call their parents and tell them we would be late, and I offered to speak to any parent who wanted more information. I was terrified that I would be spending the night in Penn Station with 13 teenagers, and Amtrak could give me little information about when service would resume. Finally, after almost 3 hours, we boarded a train; power had been restored. There was no café car on this Acela, so we were lucky to have our pizza. Amtrak conductors distributed emergency water. I was exhausted and ready to collapse. The students, however, were still filled with energy, and they headed to the closed café to continue their discussion on “life.” We finally arrived back in Boston at 1:00 a.m.
On the way home on the train, I swore I’d never do another field trip, but by the next morning, my heart was swelling with the memory of this one. I knew my students experienced a trip that would truly be life-altering. Their grateful letters and emails proved that to be true. The students had an opportunity to experience some wonderful attractions in New York City. They saw beautiful architecture and the artwork of the masters, but they also learned how to cope with adversity in the form of a travel disruption. The learning that took place outside the classroom walls was valuable and meaningful, and I knew that their background knowledge was increased exponentially. Erin and I formed a bond with these students that will last a lifetime. I’m probably crazy, but I told that sophomore class that if things go well, we’ll head back to New York City to recreate this trip their senior year. Field trips can be tough, and they can be costly, but in the end, I truly believe the educational experience the students reap is well worth it.