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
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
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
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
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.