Carolina Curious: How Field Trips Level the Playing Field
It’s been nearly forty years since WFDD listener Amanda Sattler was in elementary school in Winston-Salem. A field trip that would be taboo today was a highlight of their year.
“When I was a kid, we always went—it seemed like every year—on field trips to R.J. Reynolds tobacco factory to see the cigarettes being made. And for whatever reason, I started thinking—I wonder where kids nowadays go on field trips, because I somehow doubt that’s what they’re doing.”
To find out where kids are going these days, WFDD intern Mankaprr Conteh dropped in on a few field trips in the Camel City, and found that they can help bridge the distant worlds students in the same town can occupy.
Where Kids Go
The first was Meadowlark Elementary School’s first-grade trip to Kaleideum North, a hands-on science museum in Winston-Salem. There, first-grader Emory DuPont pulled a thick colored cord off of a cubby and beckoned to her classmates to join her. It’s made to look like a large intestine. “Stretch it out, stretch it out!” she encourages. The cord seems never ending, practically doubling the size of her little body.
Unlike Amanda Sattler’s tobacco factory trip, field trips at Meadowlark are almost always designed by teachers to complement their curriculum. This year, Emory went to a cookie factory to study basic economics. Next year, she’ll learn about slavery, discuss race, and see a play about Harriet Tubman.
Across town, field trip standards for Cook Literacy Model School mirror Meadowlark’s. Cook fifth-graders have gone to the North Carolina Zoo to conduct a field study of animals and ecosystems. They’ve visited a forensic science lab to study genetics. Both schools send their oldest students on a science based, multi-day camping trip, too. These trips help students that live starkly different lives share similar experiences.
What it Means
Schools in Winston-Salem are notably segregated in terms of wealth and race, just like the city itself. About twenty percent of Meadowlark Elementary students have enough financial need that they receive free or reduced lunch, but most Meadowlark parents can afford to spend up to 100 dollars for a field trip. Meadowlark students are mostly white.
Nearly every student at Cook Model Literacy School is black, and all of them receive free lunch. While Angie Bell, a first-grade teacher at Meadowlark, explains that many of her students visit cultural and community institutions with their families, Nkenga Reich, a fifth-grade teacher at Cook says that without field trips, home and school is all many of her students would know.
“A lot of time they don’t leave their neighborhoods. Their experience is very limited in terms of having background knowledge and things a lot of people take for granted, they don’t have a clue about,” says Reich.
“Students from advantaged families typically get to have a lot of experiences that students from disadvantaged families don’t get,” says Brian Kisida, a University of Missouri professor who has studied field trips.
Research shows that Cook’s field trips could help their students make gains in skills like critical thinking and tolerance that their more advantaged peers develop outside of school.
“This might be because the parents don’t have the resources to provide those types of opportunities. So, when schools fill that gap, then everybody can realize the same benefits.”
How Cook Does It
Cook faculty work creatively to fill that gap without burdening families. They encourage local businesses to act as sponsors. They’ve gotten the local transit authority to donate buses and their drivers. Community support means everything to them.
“A lot of what we also do is look out to see who we can bring in to help support what we’re trying to do to build children’s capacity,” says Cook’s principal Paula Wilkins.
“And I think that’s also important because field trips don’t have to go out, sometimes field trips can come in.”
They’ve hosted authors and performers who teaching anything from African storytelling to empathy at Cook. But on this sunny April afternoon, their fifth-graders were out of the building. At Wake Forest University, college students led science, math, engineering and technology activities for the students. Fifth-grader Omarion Davis says he keeps his community in mind while he’s on these field trips.
“[Field trips] help you learn new stuff, and when you learn new stuff, you can come back and you can teach other people how to do the stuff,” he explained before returning to the fiercely competitive physics olympic games taking place. Down the hall, his classmates were racing vehicles they’ve made with lifesavers and straws, becoming better scientists, and better citizens.