Returning to school after February vacation was hard! My flight was cancelled on Saturday (because of fog – who knew?), so I didn’t get home until Sunday night. It was a rush to do laundry and get ready for school, and what made it even harder was that it was one of those weeks when I had a million things to do. All in all, it was a recipe for extreme fatigue. I write this nine days after arriving home, and I’m only now feeling a bit settled in. I spent most of last weekend grading student work, and I just finished report card grades this afternoon, so I should be feeling better any minute now.
February vacation has always been a milestone for me; when we reach this point in the year I know it’s only about seven or eight weeks until our spring vacation – and then it’s another seven or eight weeks until we’re done for the summer. The generally uninterrupted weeks between now and our next break are good ones; the weather is still cold, so there’s no spring fever yet and even though baseball is on the horizon there are minimal distractions in school. Students are able to settle down and focus on learning and they begin to show strong growth. This is my favorite time of the year for teaching; students and teachers have some good momentum going and things generally fall nicely into place. It’s smooth.
That will all change the third week of April when our eighth graders will descend upon Washington, DC; this trip is a rite of passage and a tradition in our school that now serves the second generation of students attending. I was the trip coordinator for many years, and gave it up only two years ago when I realized that I no longer had the mental and physical stamina to deal with the difficulties of planning the trip (and there were many challenges every year); it was time to hand it off to the next person. As I look back now, I think that was the first sign that I was getting ready to retire, but at the time that was not part of my conscious thinking. Organizing and facilitating the trip has been a true passion for me and I worked very hard each year to make it an outstanding experience for our eighth grade students.
The chaperone list for this year’s trip was announced today, and my name is not on it. The logical part of my brain knew it would happen that way; I didn’t get to go last year, either. The other part of my brain is crying in disappointment; even though there was no reason to think it would happen, I was really hoping that this year, my last year, I would get to go on the trip — one more time. Our class sizes have diminished to around forty students, so we don’t need as many chaperones as we used to.
The first year I taught at this school I was asked to be a chaperone on the four day trip; it was April 1993, the fourth year of the program, and I was so excited to go I could hardly contain myself. I lived right outside of DC when I was a little girl, and I have many fond memories of my mom taking me into the city to experience the wonders there; those memories have been part of my reasoning in providing a memorable experience for my students. But as I soon learned on that first trip, there was nothing in place to prepare students for the experience, and nothing in the curriculum to help them process it upon our return to school, so I immediately began to work on that. Over the next years I mapped out a week or longer of preparation, and established follow-up project work to provide important curriculum connections. At the time I was teaching social studies, and the eighth grade curriculum was U.S. history with special emphasis on the Cold War and Vietnam, so the trip to DC was the ultimate learning experience as far as I was concerned. It was pure bliss.
In 1999 our computer teacher and I began a seven-year collaboration as a follow-up project in which students created web pages about their Washington DC experience. At the time we began the project, it was “cutting edge” and we even presented the work at a regional technology conference. Many educators believed that eighth grade students were not capable of learning to use raw HTML; we proved otherwise. It was good.
At one point we expanded the trip – with full support of the parents — to include an extra day to visit Gettysburg National Park, since the Civil War was an important part of the social studies curriculum. A few years later we changed the plan again to spend the whole five days in the DC area; it was about the same time that the National Air and Space Museum opened the Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport, and we used the extra time – again with enthusiastic support from parents – to go there and spend time locally in the DC area. The support of parents has been an important part of the success of the trip. On a couple of occasions (including right after September 11, 2001, when we were all nervous about traveling anywhere) we sent surveys out to ascertain what parents wanted us to do; the response was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the five day experience intact.
My own personal joy — and the source of my energy in continuing to coordinate the trip for so many years — was watching the students as their world opened up to something larger than our small town of 4,500 people. When the bus approached the city, I knew ahead of time where the kids should look in order to glimpse their first view of the Capitol Dome and the Washington Monument, and I’d grab the bus microphone and point out those landmarks, and then I’d sit back and watch their faces: such amazement at the wonder of it all. And throughout the week, I’d watch those faces, and I could just see memories building that I knew would last a lifetime. It was so exciting to take students to places newly opened; in addition to the Udvar-Hazy Center, we saw the “new” Korean War Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Spy Museum, the Newseum — and we saw some of our favorite destinations expanded and remodeled: the American History Museum, the National Zoo, and Ford’s Theater. Every year the itinerary would be a little bit different, a little bit better. It was always new.
Upon our return to school I asked students to write about the trip: “things you learned, things you loved, things you didn’t love so much, and ways that we could make the trip better.” And sometimes kids made amazing suggestions that we actually implemented. But one consistent response that I read every year in their essays was that each thing we did was someone’s favorite thing. Sure, there were things that everyone disliked. But each thing that someone didn’t like was always someone else’s favorite. I made sure to tell the kids about that every year as I prepared them for the week’s adventures.
I need to be thankful that I was able — and honored — to make that happen for a long time. I have many wonderful memories and photographs of those experiences.
But for a little while, I need to let myself be really sad that it’s over for me. It’s hard to give up the things we love.