Trips in Deep Water

Those of us who remember particular school trips fondly and who have subsequently become teachers now realize that there was much more to them than met our young eyes, and more than often meets parents’ eyes. The amount of planning most of them need would surprise someone not familiar with the work, but there is more: Even the most innocuous-seeming ones can turn difficult or perilous in an instant. Difficulty and peril can’t be entirely eliminated except by avoiding life or by shuffling through it in wrappings and shin-guards. Somewhere between this stance and a blithe disregard of caution lies the right way to take a school trip. Exactly where needs some teasing out.

So does the possibility that school trips are less than meets the eye; that they do not amount to much more than an excuse for a cut-up. In an earlier posting I said that school-wide play days, honestly so called, could serve this purpose. I think that trips should generally have more important goals. Some questions follow, which examine trips’ usefulness balanced against their potential for poor learning and for trouble.

Since no trip is risk-free, the first question must be What about this parti­cular trip makes it worth at least a minimum of risk? It must yield a modicum of value, to be assessed with a clear eye and no baloney. The Activity Director’s “Default Setting” should not be “yes;” it should be “tell me more.” His or her judgment should not be compromised by having to sidle up to a “core value” claiming that “our school values field trips for their own sake” or its equivalent in Edspeak such as “our school seeks out the intrinsic benefits of mobile experiential learning.” Though the trip might have many kinds of value, the most important kind would be curricular value: students will learn something the curriculum requires them to learn. Other values, such as “bonding” or “team-building,” might better find their cultivation in work and activity on the school grounds.

The next question is How does it fit in with other plans and activities, both curricular and extracurricular? An administrator must be ready, like Solomon, to decide at need between competing activities, or, like P. T. Barnum, he will end up with all of them in the tumultuous tent. Something is educational—or “miseducative” (John Dewey’s word)—partly intrinsically and partly as a result of its juxtaposition with students’ other opportunities—demands—distractions. Dewey thought that a whirligig of weakly connected or disconnected activities would be miseducative:  If the kids are in a whirl of things to do, the learning will be faulty, or they will learn the wrong thing.

Will the trip include too many attractive nuisances or too much opportunity for idle mischief—I mean inappropriate behaviors? Nuisances can become more attractive to students who are not absorbed by the main event. How sure are we that they will be? Long stretches of vacant or repulsive time are an invitation to the boredom whose ensuing choice is often subversion or trouble.  Rather have too much to do than too little.

What is the state of relations in general between parents and the school, in particular between parents and the teachers acting as chaperons? A school with healthy, trusting relations will have more leeway for trips than one whose relationships are mistrustful, adversarial, or litigious. This relationship should be the object of a clear-headed examination notwithstanding any claims to the contrary, such as a “core value” stating that, say, “Parent – school cooperation is foundational to our mission.”

If special understanding or expertise is advisable, does a chaperon have it? If not, will there be someone readily available who has it? A class going to a beach will want to know that a chaperon can read the surf, spot rip tides, and use a lifesaver’s can. If not, there had better be a lifeguard. How will availability of the needed expertise be ascertained?

Do all adults understand that they are not to play for popularity among students by disregarding rules, especially those that other chaperons are visibly enforcing? It’s surprising how many “grown-ups” will say to themselves and even to students, “Well, Mrs. Dust may think that’s a good rule, but I am a hero, so I will disregard it.”

Do the students understand procedures for gathering, for quieting down, and for receiving urgent instructions? Have these been reviewed and, if necessary, drilled? As an example, a group of students, no matter the size, should be able, when signaled, to become silent and attentive within seconds.

Some comments to follow the questions:

No first-year teacher should ever lead a school trip except under the direction of another teacher experienced in leading trips.

Chaperons other than teachers should be known to and approved by the school’s administration; otherwise, they should not “count” in determining the student – teacher ratio of the trip or be allowed in charge of small groups when the large one breaks up.

Students should not consider attending a trip their right irrespective of prior behavior and reliability. If deciding what this means ends up being a sticking-point among warring factions, it might be better to give up the trip than to have a stinker-student win a battle to go and then destroy a trip’s chance for peace or safety.

Though of course a student’s coming to harm is the salient disaster of any trip in which it occurs, a word might be spared for the teachers in charge, irrespective of blame. Having been assigned duty on a trip, maybe because no one else was available, an inexperienced chaperon on a trip that goes bad is like Pip during his first time in the whaleboat in Moby-Dick. One moment, things are going as planned; three minutes later, Pip is a castaway, feeling “an immense concentration of self in the middle of…a heartless immensity,” whose “ringed horizon [begins] to expand around him miserably.” That horizon, seemingly with only menace, guilt, and sorrow in the offing, must feel like the most distant in the universe.

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