It was quiet when I arrived, the coffee maker was percolating, the snake stretching up to explore its glassed-in space, and the empty exhibits waiting to be filled with the curiosity of children. There’s something magical about an empty museum…an experience I have come to love through our Intersections work, a partnership between the San Diego Area Writing Project, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and the San Diego Natural History Museum (the NAT). We, classroom teachers and museums educators, have been learning and working together throughout this school year to improve the field trip experience for students, and to explore the relationships between science and writing. And yesterday was our second field trip pilot, an opportunity to observe students, their teacher, and chaperones in action as they implemented the tools we developed to support the experience. These tools: a chaperone orientation video, exhibit guides, and questions to invite student inquiry; a hands-free field kit, question card, and exhibit booklet for students; and all the experiences the teacher–one of our participants–had through our year together, were meant to support student inquiry and encourage exploration. They were meant to support the parent volunteers/chaperones, helping them to facilitate student-driven conversations about their observations. And in many ways, these tools did help to support these goals.
My favorite part of the field trip happened at the very beginning when students were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Nature to You loan library at the NAT, a room filled with taxidermy animals, insect specimens, and a geologic collection that are available for teachers to check out and take to their classrooms. As we piled into the small space lined with glass cases of bobcats, birds, bats, possums, insects, and more, you could feel the energy. Students spontaneously began asking questions, “Are they real?” “Are they alive?” “How did they die?” After a brief explanation that in fact, all these animals are real, but no longer alive…and that they either died of natural causes or were found dead and then preserved through taxidermy, students were invited to explore the collection and to consider which animals they might like to have visit their classroom. The children and their chaperones spread throughout the room, eager to uncover the treasures within. Student knelt down and bent in close to the glass, carefully observing the animals of interest. They told stories of animals they recognized…and their adult chaperones also told stories and pointed out animals of interest. Everyone seemed to find favorites and called their friends over to see their finds. This little girl was fascinated by the butterflies and desperately wanted this specimen to come to her classroom. She asked if she could make a list of animals she wanted to bring back to school…and of course, she was encouraged to do so. Students spontaneously took paper out of the field bags and used all available surfaces: shelfs, carts, the floor… to write lists and other information they wanted to remember about these animals. As they exited from the loan library, students gathered into their small groups and headed off to the museum exhibits. They were free to explore in whatever order they decided, and our team of educator-researchers followed along, taking notes, listening in on conversations, documenting the museum experience. We noted the places where students lingered, where they seemed eager to spend more time and explore, and captured their questions and conversations where we could. I found myself interested in the structures and spaces of the museum, thinking about the strategic placement of benches and stools and the height of information boards. I loved watching students at this chalkboard that invited students to draw skulls that they had observed throughout the exhibit. And I noticed students sketching and writing in their booklets–a space intended to invite student observations and deepen their thinking. Unfortunately, in many cases students and chaperones seemed to view the booklet as a duty, often filling in spaces as quickly as possible with little thought and attention. I did notice a student or two take some time…this little guy made himself quite comfortable in the middle of the floor, as he sketched and completed a page in his booklet. Before lunch, students had the opportunity to get close to a couple of snakes…and even touch them. They moved in close, asking questions of the the docent as they reached toward the snakes. After lunch, students headed off to the Fleet with the researchers in tow. We continued our documentation and observations. As the field trip wound to an end, the educator-researchers gathered in a conference room to debrief the process. Reviewing our notes, we thought about the positives of the field trip experience and the places we still felt a need for change and improvement. And then we gathered in groups and discussed our observations. The conversations were rich and dynamic, noting the places where we observed students engaged and inspired and still finding missed opportunities for students to be self-directed and to delve more deeply into the questions the exhibits provoked. This process of designing field trip tools, testing them in an authentic field trip experience, and then reflecting on the implications of our observations in order to iterate and innovate has been a powerful one. And while there has been frustration in our group that we haven’t yet produced a product that captures the depth and intensity of our work together, we have learned a tremendous amount and come to some startling ahas about the intersections of informal and formal learning opportunities. As much as we’ve tried to support chaperones to facilitate inquiry, the reality is many of our well-intended parent volunteers are not prepared for that role…and our “crash course” in juicy and probing questions isn’t enough to make them feel comfortable and confident in that capacity. Mostly, they do just what we asked them to do, they keep track of students, redirect them when needed, and deal with the safety and personal well-being needs that come with groups of children. So, we are rethinking our tools…again. And maybe we will never have the perfect product we wish for…and then again, maybe this process is the product we are searching for, an occasion to really see students in action and consider the roles we might play in supporting their curiosity, deepening their learning opportunities, and opening up time and place for playful exploration and inspiration both inside the classroom and in those wonderful spaces beyond the classroom walls.