The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

Special Commemorative Issue, November 2002
The Lessons of Vietnam
Educators Develop Opportunities To Learn About the War
 
   
 

A Defining Experience:
Millbrook High's Trip To The Wall

 By Lindy G. Poling


For three days each spring semester, my students and I are not at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, North Carolina. Our cadre of 30 high school seniors, chaperones, and teachers leave behind the classroom and travel to our nation's capital. It is here in Washington, D.C., crouched close to The Wall, that students in my Lessons of Vietnam class are touched in ways they have not experienced in the classroom. Many veterans visit our classroom and share their personal stories and experiences. But at The Wall emotions are stirred within my students that they will never forget. It is a defining experience.

There is no better way to help students comprehend the sacrifices of war than to expose them to the 58,226 names engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It is an experience that causes many of them to question our government's commitment of nearly 2.8 million American men and women to that long war in Southeast Asia. High school seniors also are shocked to learn that the average age of those who served was 19.

As one student remarked, "You learn that it was people my age who were killed, and you realize death is forever."

Another student commented, "I understand now more than ever how this war affected everyone who was involved. Many of the parents, not to mention the veterans, and even our bus driver, all experienced this war in different ways. So, if it affected these people so traumatically, it is easier to imagine how it changed an entire country only 25 years ago."

Although a field trip can promote creative thinking and even greater student achievement, I feel that it is also important for me to make explicit the hoops we have to jump through to pull this off. The most serious problems we face in organizing and conducting the class field trip are related to time and funding. With more students, new accountability standards, fewer classroom teacher aides, and budget cuts for extracurricular activities, teachers must be committed to the trip to The Wall. So why do my colleague Vickie Christos and I go up against all of this to take 30-40 high school seniors on a three-day, two-night field trip to Washington? We do it because we believe that a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the most powerful ways we have for helping students connect the past with their future. At The Wall, our students cannot hear the mortar fire or see the anguished faces of the dying, but they can better understand the enduring cost of the Vietnam War by helping a veteran-chaperone rub the name of a lost buddy.

"I got a deeper understanding of the reality," one student said. "You can hear '58,000 people died' all day long, but it really makes an impact when you see it. It hits hard."

As interpreted by Bob Isenberg, the senior administrator for staff development at Wake County Public Schools, "The whole experience enriches students' academic knowledge and inquiry skills. Yet the real lessons are lifelong lessons in character, in understanding, and in building bridges to the community."

A field trip is an out-of-the-classroom experience that can be associated with many special learning opportunities and important outcomes, but preparation is the key. It is prudent not to oversell the idea of a field trip. Before students even sign up for the Lessons of Vietnam elective, they learn that it is a very demanding course. They are told that there is much reading, writing, independent research, classroom debate, veteran interviews, group and solo projects-all critiqued and graded. The field trip costs about $200 per student. Participation is encouraged, but not required.

What I teach my students about the Vietnam era will not count for much if they do not know how to act respectfully toward our congressional delegation, special tour guides, parent and veteran chaperones, teacher coordinators, and each other. Before loading a group of high school seniors on a charter bus for a trip to our nation's capital, it is important to spend time with them to make sure they understand appropriate behavior.

Finally, I devote time in the classroom and in after-school meetings, assisted by my co-coordinator and chaperones, to discuss the importance of being polite, courteous, and inclusive of others.

This careful preparation, or trust-building, as Ms. Christos and I call it, enables our students to get the most out of our special itinerary which also includes dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant; a candlelight ceremony at The Wall honoring fallen soldiers from Wake County, N.C.; visits to the Korean War, Lincoln, and FDR Memorials; a guided tour of Arlington National Cemetery; and a free afternoon where students choose their own destinations.

Advance preparation for our field trip also includes student development of questions for a foreign policy briefing with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Part of our mission is to expose students to different perspectives on complicated world issues, such as current U.S. policy in the Balkans or trade relations with China. For our 2001 field trip, students will raise questions such as, "What are our goals?" and "Could this be another Vietnam?"

The organization and planning of a one-day class field trip is challenging enough for a time-starved teacher. But a three-day field trip for 30-plus students and about 10 adults is only made manageable by having additional support from another teacher, or a highly dedicated parent-volunteer or veteran who can help oversee the logistics. My job is to provide the logistical coordinator with a clear trip itinerary, as well as to identify our approximate spending limits for transportation, lodging, and special meals. It's also important to get the support of the administration right from the start. They often provide budget support for substitute teachers and can advise you on policies that govern school field trips.

As classroom educators, we can help students master essential curricula, but let us not forget our other responsibility of providing a well-balanced education-education that considers students' potential in the broader sense of nurturing the intellectual curiosity, civic responsibility, and character. I have learned that a field trip to The Wall can be a defining life experience for high school seniors. It is here that they see and touch history, and many of them start the process of connecting our nation's past with their future.

   

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