Take a moment to reflect on one of your most memorable learning experiences from your own high school history classes. Were you poring over a text at a desk, watching a teacher flip through a slide show or listening to a lecture? If you are like me, the most memorable educational touch points happened outside of the classroom. Not only that, when done right, field trips helped me to internalize what I had read in class and absorbed from instruction. As a teacher, this is what I seek to create for my students.
With this goal in mind, I was delighted by our class visit to Ford’s Theatre with 27 of my International Baccalaureate History juniors and seniors. The guided tour by the theatre’s extremely knowledgeable Associate Director of Museum Education, Jake Flack, was relevant and dynamic. Afterward, one of my seniors, Diamond, turned to me and said, “Ms. Leswing, I was nervous to speak up during his presentation but I knew so much from class. It’s so cool to see it all here.”
As a teacher, I could have retired happy right there. Diamond’s point speaks to the value of these learning spaces in the Washington community. I can theatrically narrate Lincoln’s stealthy voyage into D.C. for his 1861 inauguration, but it is so much more exciting–and memorable–to see, in person, a mannequin dressed in a way that resembles how Lincoln may have disguised himself.
Why, then, aren’t more school groups in the D.C. area flooding these historical learning sites?
For many teachers, organizing and planning field trips presents logistical and pedagogical issues. Ford’s Theatre alleviated many of the headaches that teachers experience when taking students out of the school building. Transportation, which costs a D.C. Public School hundreds of dollars per local trip, was provided. Pick up and drop off were timely and easy, and the location of the museum downtown gave our class many options for a quick bite to eat before heading back to school. Logistically speaking, this was one of the easier field trip experiences I have had.
Which brings me to the second hurdle teachers face when planning a field trip experience: How can the trip be of maximum educational value to students, especially in an era when teachers are often pressured to capitalize on instructional time to prepare students for standardized tests?
Here again, Ford’s Theatre did not disappoint. First, we had the offer of having a National Park Ranger come and teach a pre-visit lesson at our school. I opted out of this second benefit since my students had been delving into the causes, course and effects of the Civil War in an eight-week IB unit. So, while it was hard to turn down a NPS Ranger visit, I felt students were going into the experience well prepared.
Even with a good deal of prior knowledge heading into the tour, students were fascinated by the insider information and more obscure facts that our guide, Mr. Flack, provided. From how the war changed the landscape of Washington to the timeline of events on the day of Lincoln’s assassination, students were captivated from start to finish with such content that is impossible to convey in the confines of a classroom.
Ten years from now, Diamond may or may not recall the time we did a close reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in class. I am certain, however, that she will remember seeing where and how the 16th President of the United States spent his last hours on earth.
Katherine Leswing has been teaching U.S. History and IB History at Eastern Senior High School in D.C. Public Schools since 2015. She has a B.A. in Peace Studies and French from Goucher College. In 2015, she received an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution and an M.A.T. in Secondary Education from American University.