Tuesday, April 12, 2011

It Was the Field Trip from Hell

"If the drink not going, I not going!" Her eyes refused to make contact with mine as she leaned back in the broken piece of wood that passes for a chair in the first row of our auditorium.

Is this really happening?

We were supposed to take the kids to Marist college last Tuesday. At the last minute, we realized nobody had told them they weren't allowed to bring bottles on the trip (more than a few of our students are alcoholics). This was, unfortunately, after they'd all shown up with their black plastic bags they get at the corner stores full of potato chips, chocolate bars, and soda - and possibly alcohol.

As the 11th-grade team leader, I scrambled to figure out what to do. If anyone managed to get alcohol on the bus, we'd have to turn everyone around.

"Okay - listen up! You can't take your bottles. Leave them here. You can get your drinks when we come back."

Fifty teenagers in unison: ¡¿QuĂ©?!

We talked with them as a group, and then individually. We reasoned, we raised our voices, we played the guilt card. It was no use. Three quarters of the grade was no longer interested in seeing Marist college without their drinks.

The teachers huddled.

"I don't feel comfortable taking these kids on a field trip."

"But they have to go on the field trip. We don't get the grant money if we don't prove we took every student on all the required college trips."

"Look at the way they treat us. They don't want to go on a college trip."

"But don't you think giving them the opportunity to see what college is like might be a motivator."

The kids complaining behind our backs the entire time. What a miserable moment.

"Okay - listen up! You can bring your bottles, but you have to let us search your bags before you get on the bus, and any bottles you bring must be sealed."

We make it on the bus.

"Mister - Alessandra is locked in the bathroom."

"¡Ay Dios!"

"Put on the movie!"

"In Spanish - no English."

"We can put on Spanish subtitles."

"That's French."

"I don't speak French."

Two hours of complaining about the snacks they got in the morning.

We arrive in the auditorium. The admissions staff is visibly upset by our tardiness, and is rude to our staff later when we ask about a space to debrief the day. It's clear to them none of our kids will actually be applying to Marist.

The behavior improves as the students have to interact with white middle-class college students, but they're clearly out of their element.

Class, culture, and language differences create a number of uncomfortable interactions. When asked, most of the kids say they don't like the college. They want to go to a Dominican college, like the one we visited in Washington Heights back in November. It's too strict at Marist, they say.

We huddle in a large room to debrief the day. The kids CANNOT be quiet enough to have a conversation. We decide to cut the conversation short out of respect for the college class going on on the other side of the partitioned wall.

Back on the bus - another movie with French subtitles and loud kids. My stress level is through the roof. I make sure nobody is sitting on anyone else's lap before I sit down and close my eyes.

I love teaching I love teaching I love teaching.


  1. Truly amazing. Thanks for continuing to keep the blogger world updated about how things REALLY are in inner-city education. This isn't about teachers 'caring' about thekids, or the specific curriculum used in the schools -- it's the much bigger problem of how to deal with social, cultural and language barriers to education that are often present in our nation's low-income, minority student populations.

  2. this made my blood pressure rise just to read it.

  3. I agree with Christy. I was getting anxious while I was reading. I'm glad that you made it out alive and it seems like you and your colleagues tried to make the best of the situation :) I fear the idea of taking my kids anywhere.

    I hope you have a better end to the week!

  4. Forgive me if every comment I write from here on out is simply: Thank you. Thank you for giving your time and energy to these students and for caring about them. You have opened my very white middle class eyes and I thank you.

  5. Excellent post. To me, it goes to show that we need a completely different paradigm for teaching children with so many unmet basic needs. To place them all together and expect great things to happen is just plain unrealistic. In the example of the field trip, a huge amount of time, money, and effort were spent, but for what?

    Of course I don't know the solution either, but one idea that keeps popping into my head would be to have small groups of students with two or three teachers housed in many public buildings (or large private homes) throughout the city. For example, Reflective Educator and two other teachers might be responsible for thirty students that would meet each day in a room at the museum or public library. Or maybe "Miss Jones and Miss Smith" could educate 20 students each day in Miss Smith's large home. Yes, these ideas are probably impractical for legal and safety reasons, but placing hundreds of low-achieving and poorly behaved kids in one building doesn't make sense either.

  6. So, I don't get this. You recognized that someone had not been clear with the students about the expectations for the field trip. This set the tone for the whole trip. You are taking them on a trip that they are not either interested in or even prepared to attend. The grant money goes away if you don't go, so go you must. While it is clear that the student behavior isn't appropriate for the setting, I have to question how well thought out all of this is. Because the edge between good and poor behavior is so close in this case, it is imperative that each facet be considered in the planning. Don't the students deserve that careful attention? Does this become just another example of how difficult this kind of trip is to arrange, finance, manage, reflect on? You knew this going in - so why let it roll on to that conclusion? Where is the deflection from the norm that makes this a successful example rather than what it became - a mess?

  7. Anon at 605: The trip wasn't the teachers to manage. It was handled by a CBO that works in the school. The principal "sub-contracted" the work out to them so that teachers would not be overburdened planning a ton of field trips while at the same time attempting to teach.

    I could offer a number of reasons why this trip ended up the way it did, most of which find their root causes in our underfunding and youth as a small school that is still figuring out the best systems for students. However, that was not really the goal of this post.

    Thanks for commenting.

  8. This post was a poignant reminder of what we and the students have to struggle with on a daily basis in order to teach, in order to do the simplest of things that at other high achieving schools would be taken for granted and that people on the outside looking in don't even think about. Thus a simple visit to a college, which could/should have been a positive experience for these students becomes anything but. It's like Nancee Regan's "Just say no to drugs" program", if it were only that easy....