In the current economic and political climate, public education is under intense scrutiny. As budgets tighten, funding for field trips is consistently one of the first cuts. However, this doesn’t mean that learning has to be relegated to only classroom experiences.
There are resources within every community that can be used to provide students with novel experiences and authentic opportunities to engage with and participate in their community.
Rochester is no exception.
We recently spent a day observing fourth-graders from the Rochester City School District on a boat tour of the Genesee River and Erie Canal. For the vast majority of students, this was their first time on a boat. Prior to boarding, students put on lifejackets and said they felt "excited," "happy," "scared," and "sad, because I don’t know if I’ll fall off." By the end of the ride, almost all students reported having a great experience. One said, "I was scared before, but now I feel better," and another, "I want to do it again! I want to come back for the rest of the year!" Experiences like this simply cannot be replicated in a classroom.
This annual field trip is made possible through private-public cooperation. Eastman Kodak Co. and educational grants provide the necessary funding for the field trip, while Corn Hill Navigation, the non-profit organization that runs the Mary Jemison and Sam Patch tour boats, provides the services, which include professional development for all of the fourth-grade teachers before the trip. Piloted in 2006, the partnership now brings all of the RCSD fourth-grade classes aboard the Mary Jemison each year to learn firsthand about the Erie Canal and the Genesee River ecosystem.
Literacy is a social practice that goes far beyond one’s ability to read and write. Through access to novel and authentic learning experiences, students can gain new perspectives on the world. During their time aboard the Mary Jemison, the students not only learned new vocabulary (such as port, starboard, bow and stern) and used new tools (such as a compass to determine the direction of the river’s flow) but also had the opportunity to use these terms and tools in the context of an authentic, meaningful experience.
Many of the students saw a blue heron for the first time, and one student, during an interview, began drawing a heron when asked what new things he had observed. One of the most memorable aspects of the trip for many students was the experience of going under the "low bridges," because people on the top level of the boat had to sit down to avoid hitting their heads.
Through this experience, students learned about the competition between the railroads and the canal, and when asked what they would remember from their trip, many of them said, "Always duck when you see a low bridge!"
Such experiences take learning to the next level. One teacher commented, "We’ve studied this for a whole month, so this really brings it to life for them."
Local businesses are integral to providing students with access to novel, community-based experiences. This is especially true today. Furthermore, Rochester’s rich history has equipped it with a plethora of great learning opportunities for students-the Rochester Museum & Science Center, Susan B. Anthony House, Memorial Art Gallery, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester, to name a few.
Our students can learn so much from our community, and providing them with these opportunities will encourage them to invest in turn in the Rochester community someday. Following their trip aboard the Mary Jemison, the students were excited to share what they had learned and were eager to learn more about Rochester’s early history (and, of course, would have loved another boat ride). They grew in their understanding of the world around them, and they were better for it.
The increased dependence on high-stakes testing has narrowed society’s understanding of literacy, but students’ participation in novel and authentic learning experiences can demonstrate that literacy and learning are multifaceted. As summer break begins for the students in our public schools, we encourage you to consider what role you or your business can play in enriching students with experiences right here in Rochester.
Cassie Dobbins, Devon Davidson, Matthew Cohen and Courtney Legg are pre-service social studies teachers and master’s degree students at the University of Rochester’s Warner Graduate School of Education. For more information on Corn Hill Navigation, visit www.samandmary.org.
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