Five Reasons to Use Field Trips in High Poverty Schools

Bayview Students Explore the Intertidal Zone

For several years, our school has been intentionally increasing the number of field trips for students. During this time, teachers have been gathering data to determine whether these excursions are worth the time and expense. Our conclusion? Field trips are invaluable for Bayview students, for the following reasons:

  1. They serve as common comparative experiences. One cannot assume that all students have been on a holiday somewhere, travelled to some other place. Throughout the year, we use our group-background-knowledge-experiences to make connections and comparisons to texts.
  2. They can serve as catalysts for writing. Before going on a field trip, teachers may prime students to use their senses to gather information. Technology helps students with memory issues (they make videos, take pictures, voice record). We clearly see that field trips enhance written output.
  3. Field trips serve as team-building adventures. Invariably, something unusual/funny/unexpected will happen. These stories, told and retold, build our community and our sense of belonging.
  4. They serve, I discovered from open-ended written feedback, to “relax” students.  I had assumed students would find field trips “invigorating.” They had a hard time articulating why exactly this is so. I am intrigued. Am I wrong in assuming that for many students, being in school is stressful?
  5. “Repeat” field trips appeared to connect students with a sense of place.  “I wonder if that old eagle’s nest will still be there?” one student excitedly asked another on the bus. “And remember that tree with the hole in it? We should totally try to find it again!” This was another surprise for me—I thought students would find returning to the same spot boring.

Field trips are now embedded into the culture at Bayview. We know they work for our students on many levels. And although we often use field trips in conjunction with writing activities, we want to ensure we don’t send the subconscious message, “You, on your own, have nothing to share.” Field trips enhance, but certainly don’t replace, student voice.

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Observations: What Contributes to Poor Academic Performance?

In the months I’ve been working at my new school, I have tried to determine what factors contribute to poor academic performance. Here, for what it’s worth, are my observations thus far:

  1. High absenteeism: This shocked me. I added up how many days students have missed since kindergarten. Some have missed over a year, some two. There’s a strong correlation between attendance and achievement, and over time, gaps become chasms.
  2. Transience: Students move from rental to rental, school to school. Schools need considerable time to get supports in place for vulnerable students—difficult when students are frequently uprooted.
  3. Biological conditions: Some students have neurological issues that affect learning (Fetal Alcohol (or Drug) Syndrome, malnutrition, lack of medical care). Often, memory and language appear to be most impacted. You can teach—they may not remember.
  4. Unstable home environments: Highly stressed students have a harder time learning and engaging.
  5. Lack of home support: When survival is top priority, homework is not.
  6. Cultural differences: Not all cultures value what “western culture” values.

All the while, I keep thinking about Einstein’s famous quote: “Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts.” My students teach me every day about what cannot be measured: resilience and laughter, the importance of the now, of belonging, connection, and  beating the odds.

Teaching the Real Basics: Addressing Personal Hygiene

Several months ago, I had a student who couldn’t run properly. Her shoes appeared to be too small, so we went down to the clothing room to find some “new” runners. These new shoes didn’t improve her gait, so I assumed she had an injury.

A month later, this student arrived at school in obvious need of a good scrub. So one of the educational assistants helped her take a shower and clean up. In doing so, the EA discovered why the child was having such a hard time running: her toenails were over an inch long and starting to curl down under her toes.

This experience led our team to examine the topic of personal hygiene. We understood that our intermediate students required several straightforward lessons.

But then we realized that some students didn’t have access to basic amenities—deodorant, nail clippers, toothpaste, lice combs. So our principal came up with a great idea: Why not put together hygiene kits? We could bring in some “health experts” (nurses), have them address a variety of topics, and then hand out the kits.

Thanks to several generous donors, this idea became reality. Diane McGonigle, principal, and I went out on a Friday night, found the best deals, and purchased the necessary supplies. School EA’s put everything together.

Here’s what was in the girls’ kit:

Here is the guys’ kit:

To ensure students were clear on how to use these items, we enlisted the help of nurses from the Tillicum Lelum Health Centre. Vancouver Island University  nursing practicum students presented two fantastic hour-long presentations on personal cleanliness.

I was nervous that students might find the information “babyish,” but they loved it. Of particular interest to them was how to remove head lice and how to use feminine hygiene products (although a few boys had their hoodies pulled over their heads at this point!).

After the second presentation, students received their kits. “Excited” really doesn’t capture the mood. Students carefully examined their new treasures and tucked them into backpacks. The next day, many brought their kits to school, afraid someone at home would use “their stuff.” Some girls started using the bags as “purses.”

Our next step, apart from the occasional review, is to teach students how to access community services if they cannot afford to refill their kits. We will be taking a “field trip” down to the exceptional Tillicum Lelum Health Centre to discover what resources are available.

Thanks to everyone–Tillicum, VIU, donors. It does take a community.

Reality Check

Last Monday morning, Vancouver Island University (VIU) students facilitated science centers in our gym. They had prepared hands-on presentations as part of their coursework. For almost an hour, my students experimented with unknown liquids, rolled toy cars down slopes, drummed drums, guessed smells, created circuits.

As staff, we saw an opportunity to play with one of our “Project Success” questions: will having students write about field trip experiences increase written output?

So, the day after the centers, we organized a school-wide write. Most students grabbed pencils and started writing. Two, however, did not–for a very specific reason.

At lunch, I sought out my colleague Sooz.

“How’d your write go?” I asked.

“Pretty well,” she said. “But here’s the disturbing part: three students could NOT remember what they had done yesterday. They were pretty sure they had gone to the centers, but they couldn’t remember what activities they did. I tried jogging their memories by asking who they were with, but they just couldn’t remember. I know these kids–they aren’t faking.”

“You’re not going to believe this,” I said, “Two of my students had the exact same thing.”

We looked at each other, the implications sinking in.

These students could not recall–after one day–a learning situation that was, in many respects, “perfect”: a low adult-student ratio (one adult to three students); hands-on activities; novel material; presented in the morning (just after having breakfast at school).

We compared notes and realized all students came from “traumatic” situations (in foster care, just out of care, history of violence).

As an educator, I suppose I knew that stress affects memory. But I had grossly underestimated the degree to which children’s learning is impacted.

I feel a bit sick. I can only imagine how much they’ve remembered from last month’s lessons.

Maslow’s Hierarchy

 I am learning what it means to be a teacher in a low-income area.

Last month a student was crying. She had a severe toothache, so I suggested she call home.

She was back in five minutes. “I’ve got to suck it up, we don’t have money to go to the dentist right now,” she said through a wad of Kleenex, and trudged to her desk. Speechless, I immediately went to my teaching buddy Sooz who knows everything when it comes to this stuff.

 “Go down to the office and tell the principal and secretary. They’ll take care of it,” she said. I must have looked shocked. “It’s okay, Twi. This happens at our school.  But we take care of it.”

Indeed. The school arranged an appointment, and a support worker drove the student there and back.

During lunch, as I supervised Lego Club, I thought back to Halloween and Christmas. I was beginning to understand the wisdom and compassion of my colleagues.

For Halloween, the student support teachers had organized a before-school “costume exchange” in their room. Students had one week to bring in old costumes and/or find new ones. On the day of Halloween, they arranged for volunteer face painters to decorate excited students. During the costume parade, every student was decked out. Every student.

With Christmas came “The Christmas Store.” Loaded with donations from teachers and community members, the newly-transformed music room contained “gifts” for students to purchase for family and friends (prices: from $0.10 to $2.00). The grade seven students then wrapped and labelled the presents for the purchasers and delivered them to the appropriate classrooms. On the day before Christmas holidays, all students had gifts to take home and hide. Brilliant.

After Christmas, the first snow led to a flurry of student concerns. Many did not have boots, hats, mittens, or warm winter coats. Fortunately, the school has a collection of donated/purchased clothing and boots. Students that require winter clothing are snugly outfitted.  

When I mentioned to a neighbour that we give clothing to kids that need it, she said, “Do you feel right giving hand-outs? Shouldn’t kids have to, you know–work for it?”

Work for it?  For clothes? Winter boots? Mittens?

No.  Children do not have to earn warm clothing.

They do not have to earn breakfast or lunch or fillings in their teeth or even Halloween costumes.

Children, all children, deserve to have basic needs met, without judgement and without shame.

Yes, the issue of poverty is complex, and it’s easy to point fingers. But while you debate the issue, children still have toothaches. And they are still hungry.

And watching my colleagues, I am finally seeing the subtext: that dignity, not judgement, comes first.