A Special Trip With Primary Students
All students in the school where I work go on many trips, day and extended, and for a variety of reasons. They work with different teachers on these trips, and sometimes with their core teachers also. From the five year olds to those about to move on to high school, thirteen or fourteen year olds, studies of the outdoors and the way the world works in other ways according to students’ individual interests occur. I taught the middle school group for numerous years until moving into a literacy coaching position last year, and we traveled numerous places through the years, changing themes, but most important, experiencing the world as it happened in order to add to the information they had already studied in print, whether online or in published books.
This past week, instead of an extended overnight trip, I had the pleasure of one extended day with a group of early primary students, mostly fives and a few fours. We spent much of the day at the farm of a teacher at the school. As I worked with the group and talked and helped students with different tasks, I was struck by the similarities between this Tuesday-until-almost-dinner trip and the ten-to-twelve-day trips I took with older students. They came to add information to that already studied, through print that was shared during the day, and by field journal writing and sketching that captured more information. Here are examples of just a few ways that reading and writing was used before and during the trip:
First, students were so prepared for the experience. They knew all the things they had in their packs, and were able to access them quickly, like snack, water bottle, lunch, second layer, rain layer. They showed they were ready for travel. Teachers this time carried the field journals during the set aside journal time, but the students were ready to capture learning as soon as one activity was completed, and journals were always accessible. For example, they watered the mulch around baby plants, learning how the mulch holds moisture for them, and then they wrote about the plants and chose a favorite one to sketch. With adults helping, they wrote one new fact learned about the plants.
All during the year, this particular class has studied food and how it comes to the table for their special class unit. In addition to other trips, they began the year at this same farm, learning about harvest time and picking cucumbers so they could make pickles. They have read books about plants and how they grow, and in the fall, were able to examine different stages of growth, including the plants’ flowers that then turned into the food. On one trip they took to a different farm, they got to dig potatoes. At lunchtime on this day, we all shared the pickles made from the cucumbers picked months ago.
Last week, so I could get to know the class a bit better, and they could get to know me, I read the book Tops and Bottoms, by Janet Stevens to the group. It was a good choice at this time, because the humor is subtle and yet the class knew so much after their yearlong study of how food grows that they immediately understood the trick played by the rabbit on the bear. During one conversation in the garden, they examined the parts of a rhubarb plant, and learned how the ‘tops and bottom’ were poisonous, and only the middle was eaten. Students remembered the book and referred to it in the discussion.
The current read-aloud of the class is Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, and one of the teachers read after lunch in the chicken house, among the chickens, ducks, and one gobbling turkey. It was another special moment, and more than one child pointed out the spider webs hanging on the walls, wondering if there was a relative of Charlotte living near.
Later in the afternoon, we traveled to a nearby lake and looked at some of the plants found at the edge of the water, like cattails, and discussed their uses, including food and nest-making materials. Students got to break off some of the dried cattails and pull the seed fluff, sending it into the wind. Another book studied was about seeds, so they knew just what the wind was going to do.
Finally, we had a late treat before boarding the buses for the return home: homemade ice cream that had been made earlier in the week at school. An earlier study of dairy cows and the food produced from them had also included cheese making, but now the sweet ice cream with strawberries proved to be a fine end to a special day.
The connection between hands-on activities and the use of what was learned previously was strong during the trip. Using information learned showed students the usefulness of research, how it helps inform the questioning when in the field, and how being in the field can confirm what was seen in the earlier research. It’s quite a satisfying circle that we at school hope continues with our students during whatever they read and then experience.