By Lori L. Ferguson
While some may see field trips as simply a day off from school, this is far from the case at Harker. Talk to a teacher or student from any grade and it quickly becomes apparent: This is an institution where education and real-world experiences are indelibly linked. From preschool through grade 12, teachers work hard to ensure that students are afforded opportunities to enhance their classroom learning through field trips around the area.
The impact is profound. Students of every age evince delight in seeing classroom learning come alive and indicate time and again that interactive learning bolsters their understanding of the subject matter.
“Children learn best using a variety of modalities – kinesthetic, visual, auditory – and field trips allow students to experience the many ways in which concepts they’ve encountered in the classroom integrate into real life; that is very powerful,” observed Jennifer Gargano, assistant head of school for academic affairs.
Kindergarten teacher Michelle Anderson has repeatedly witnessed the magic of off-campus learning. Each year she takes her young charges on a series of excursions designed to reinforce classroom learning and teach life lessons such as how to be a welcome guest and behave responsibly in public.
Anderson begins the year with the Teddy Bear Picnic in a nearby park, then continues with trips to a Gilroy pumpkin patch and the De Anza College Fujitsu Planetarium. In late April most years, she completes her science unit with a visit to the Oakland Zoo. “The trip allows the children to get close to the animals they’ve studied in class. They view their habitats and seek out their favorites.
“The kids love our field trips – we all do,” she continued. “They learn how to be good stewards for Harker and enjoy public outings while respecting rules and boundaries. It’s fun for everyone.”
For visual arts teacher Gerry-louise Robinson, the joy of field trips rests in teaching children to live in the moment. For her grade 2 students, Robinson organizes a trip to the San Jose Museum of Art to view art and then make their own works. The outing stimulates the children’s curiosity and encourages them to embrace new concepts without fear. “They discuss what the artists have done and why,” she explained. “They look at art and decide whether they like it – there are no wrong answers – and then explore their own creative impulses.”
The children respond with enthusiasm. “My favorite part was when we got to see all the paintings,” said Kristian Warmdahl. “I liked when we made the art project of the mobile; it’s now hanging in my room,” said Kyra Varro. Natasha Chatterjee is similarly enthusiastic. “I really liked the hanging mobile craft because it shows who I really am,” she said.
For grade 4 and 5 students, the art experience is a children’s musical theater production at San Jose’s historic Montgomery Theater. This year’s offering was “Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim’s fanciful take on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. “It was especially exciting for the children to see this show because there was a Harker middle school student in the production,” said Robinson.
Attending a live theater performance imparts many lessons, Robinson explained. “The most interesting thing I learned was that the show took one to two months [to create],” marveled Nicki Yazdi, grade 5, who also welcomed the chance to learn in a new setting. “What makes trips off campus so fun is that we get to be with friends while learning something new.”
Watching a live performance also compels students to engage with the experience in real time, Robinson asserted. “They can’t press the pause button like they can when watching a video at home, so they learn to be present.” For many students, this appreciation of the moment holds true for the entire outing. “My favorite part of the trip was probably the bus ride,” said Ivanya Sadana, grade 5. “I got to hang out with my friends, and I got to spend time with my mom,” she observed.
Whatever students’ takeaway, offering them opportunities to embrace the arts is critical, Robinson contended. “We have some incredibly talented students at Harker; I want to be sure they know that their path in life can encompass their passion for the arts.”
Middle school visual arts teacher Sofie Siegmann also believes deeply in the power of art and views field trips as an essential part of her curriculum. “Arts education not only involves creating art but also looking at art,” she asserted. “It’s a very direct experience and I want my students to be aware of the resources around them.”
Since joining the Harker faculty three years ago, Siegmann has explored a variety of options for exposing her students to the area’s rich visual culture. “We’ve been to Stanford to see the Anderson Collection of modern and contemporary art and the Cantor Arts Center and we’ve done Downtown Art-Walk San Jose,” she said.
Although Siegmann’s courses are electives for students, she maintains they’re no less important to their overall education. “I press my students to think critically about what they’re seeing and ask themselves ‘What is art? How does an artist think?’ and ‘How do artists choose their materials?’ I also encourage them to experience the works emotionally by appreciating their shapes, colors and sounds. I think everyone can have a connection with art, and I want to foster that connection.”
Siegmann’s students see the value in these excursions. “Unlike traditional classes, the skills you learn in art can be interpreted in many different ways outside the classroom and are more of a tool for artists to express their thoughts,” observed Anika Mantripragada, grade 8. “I truly believe that class trips are an integral part of the learning experience. They have broadened my views on how the skills we learn in class can be applied outside.”
“Harker students are very good at analyzing and studying, but I also think it’s important for them to have experiences that are more impulsive, organic and in the moment,” Siegmann observed. “My students see slides and videos of art all the time, but I want them to understand there’s great joy in experiencing art face-to-face as well.”
Face-to-face learning is also favored by middle school history and social science teacher Cyrus Merrill. Each year following the completion of his class unit on the 1920s, Merrill hosts a Roaring ’20s dinner for all grade 8 students. “I put a big emphasis on social history in my teaching process. My lessons on the period center on FAME: fashion, art, music and entertainment.”
For years, Merrill ended the 1920s unit with a classroom party. “Then about five years ago, I decided to step it up and host a dinner party outside the school,” he said. The dinner takes place at a local restaurant owned by collectors who have decorated the place in period-specific style and greet students in costume. “You walk into the place and it feels like [the 1920s],” marveled Merrill. “It’s filled with player pianos and other mechanized instruments as well as artwork of the day. The kids eat food cooked from 1920s recipes, drink sodas and fizzes common to the period, and listen to music from the time. It’s a lot of fun.”
Merrill encourages students to come in costume and distributes talking points culled from class content in advance of the evening to encourage discussions on issues of the day. “I ask students to try to have at least 10 things they could talk about from that list and then during the course of the evening, I stop by each table group and say, ‘Tell me about a fashion trend or a song you like.’ I expect them to draw on things they’ve learned in class, for example by using slang from the period while conversing or distinguishing ragtime from blues or 1920s hot jazz.”
The goal, said Merrill, is for students to have a fun evening that’s content inspired. “I’m a big believer in experiential learning; I like to bring history alive by challenging the kids to step into the past,” he said. “My hope is that they come away from the experience with a curiosity about life in different time periods.”
Student reactions indicate Merrill’s dream is being realized. “The party felt extremely authentic. I felt as if I had been transported back to the 1920s and was living my life from that time,” said Samvita Gautham, grade 9, of last year’s adventure. Classmate Deeya Viradia agrees. “Although we learned much about the ’20s in the classroom, this dinner taught us about the ways that people lived and interacted with each other,” she said. “Experiencing that firsthand is nothing like reading about it in a textbook.” Grade 9 student Amruta Dharmapurikar delighted in seeing history lessons come to life. “We’ve seen photos of old telephones and pianos and toilets, but it’s a different experience to see it all up close – it’s not just an abstract idea – they actually used those things and there’s proof right in front of us.”
Fostering curiosity about life in other eras is also the impetus for upper school English teacher Charles Shuttleworth’s field trip to City Lights bookstore and The Beat Museum in San Francisco. After months of studying the works of Jack Kerouac and other Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Shuttleworth’s Beat Generation class, students hop a bus to San Francisco to experience the power of this formative generation for themselves. They spend an hour or so with famed Kerouac biographer Dennis McNally – author of “Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation and America” – and then tour the museum and bookstore.
“The Beat Generation was the beginning of gay rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression and the ecology movement, but my students have had little contact with the subject matter because the 1950s are so far in the past for them,” said Shuttleworth. “Exposing them to the period’s energy and passion beyond the walls of my classroom is a big thing. They meet people who were directly involved in the movement; it’s a very visceral way to connect them with the subject matter they’ve been studying.”
Students appreciate the chance to unite coursework with the real world. “The trip to San Francisco was a different way of learning apart from class notes, books and discussions,” said senior Sahil Gosain. “Meeting people who lived through this time period made the learning more personal.” Classmate Jatin Kohli concurred: “The trip added a whole new perspective to the course and made it feel like we were part of the history; physically standing in the same places and talking to the same people [as the Beat poets] was an unforgettable experience.”
Standing together and talking with others is what the trip to the 2019 Silicon Valley Youth Climate Strike was all about. And as the Harker Green Team’s faculty advisors, upper school teachers Kate Schafer and Diana Moss were eager to facilitate their students’ involvement. “Our students are concerned about climate change and want to do something meaningful here and now, but they don’t always realize they have the power to make a difference,” said Schafer, who teaches biology. “Many aren’t from cultures where it’s commonplace to attend rallies or city council meetings to promote a cause, so we’re always looking for opportunities for students to get involved in ways they might not otherwise consider.”
The youth-organized climate strike was the perfect vehicle. Prior to the strike, students discussed climate change and made posters, then traveled to San Jose City Hall to share their concerns with the mayor and council members. “We want the kids to realize that they have a voice, that activism matters and that public officials will respond,” said Moss, a Spanish teacher. “This is the world they will inherit, so it’s important that they engage now.”
Students found the rally energizing. “I sometimes feel isolated because it seems like a lot of kids at school don’t care that much about environmental issues,” confessed Green Team member Anvi Banga, grade 12. “But at the Climate Strike, I met many young people who care about the giant problem we have and who are willing to spend their time and energy to fight for something they believe in, which was super cool.”
“Sometimes I feel like kids are all talk and no action,” agreed senior Aditi Ghalsasi. “Going to the strike felt good because I was doing something about an issue that’s important to me.” Classmate Anthony Shing was also inspired. “Getting people together to share their beliefs instills the idea that we can make a change in our community and the wider world.”
The experience also offered students a valuable illustration of the difference between theory and practice. “You can talk a lot of theory in class, but when you get involved, you get an immediate check on your wild ideas,” said Ghalsasi. Fellow student Allison Jia agreed: “When you immerse yourself in an environment, it bolsters your understanding of the subject matter and gives you a fresh perspective on things you’ve learned in class.”
And this, said Gargano, is the whole point. “Learning about a subject by hearing or reading about it is one thing. Having a personal experience with that subject is another,” she observed. “In the classroom, knowledge is sometimes imparted in segments, so when we expose our students to concepts in the real world, they’re integrated into an even more comprehensive framework, and that can make all the difference.”
Lori L. Ferguson is a freelance writer based on the Florida Gulf Coast.