Monday, March 11, 2013

Field Trip: A Report from the Bright Side of Fourth-Grade History Education

Chris Beneke

Guided tour at Lowell National Park. 
Photo courtesy of
If the experiences of my kids are at all representative, the glum accounts you’ve heard or read about elementary and secondary education in the U.S. have some basis in fact. Public school students move in virtual lock-step with their classmates, get a meager fifteen minutes for recess, and take tests with unsettling regularity. Meanwhile, their hardworking teachers and principals must manage both rigid curriculum standards and large classes.

In light of these oft-repeated concerns, my perspective brightened last week while chaperoning my son’s fourth-grade class trip to the Lowell National Park, the splendid and well-preserved site of the famous textile mills where America’s industrial revolution took off in the 1830s and 1840s. I didn’t come away feeling like a Finnish parent probably feels after accompanying his or her child on a field trip. Still, the experience left me much more optimistic about the trajectory of early history education: the kids arrived well-prepared and the museum’s activities were engaging, hands-on, well-paced, and occasionally revelatory.

After a brief introduction to the tour’s theme—“Yankees and Immigrants”—the fourth-graders had to locate cultural objects, e.g. ethnic musical instruments, notices for historical leisure time activities etc. (I was of little use as “chaperone” here, partly because I came across Jack Kerouac’s typewriter and backpack.)

Then it was on to the recreated boardinghouse where these little historians got an up-close view of the cramped quarters—four young women to a room, and two to a double-sized bed—that female mill workers occupied at Lowell during the 1830s, the busy kitchen where their meals were cooked, and the elegantly simple dining room tables on which they would have taken them.

Boot Mill Weave Room. Photo courtesy of
From there, our elementary battalion marched across the canal to the brick building where young mill girls toiled the better part of each day. My son and I agreed that this was the coolest part of the trip. Inside we discovered the clamorous concourse of eighty-eight power looms that hummed, clunked, and churned below a forest of shafts and belts. Unfortunately we didn’t get much time here. The museum features other tours dedicated to the work and the machinery, but this one tied into the fourth grade curricular standards.

At our next stop, a comfortable terraced theater, the students put on period garb, read lines from index cards, and participated in a mock town hall debate on funding a public school for Irish children. The remarkably brief and unnervingly civil town hall meeting concluded with an affirmative vote on behalf of the poor Irish kids. Emerging unscathed from this lackluster enactment of local democracy, we proceeded to a thirty-minute lunch that was fifteen minutes longer than either teachers and students typically received.

After a morning spent as New England mill girls, parish priests, and local businessmen, our intrepid band spent the early afternoon as immigrants who were interrogated and processed, before seeking the company of their fellow countrymen and women. Formed into ethnic neighborhoods, these newly minted immigrants then rummaged through their bags and trunks for the kinds of personal possessions that would have made the journey from Ireland, Greece, Cambodia or Columbia, located their place of origin on a world map, and succinctly described the artifacts they’d encountered. It was a well-conceived historical exercise.

In short, my day including some promising signs for the state of elementary history education: the kids aren’t just memorizing abstract facts, their learning is active, their activities generally engaging, and museums and schools have developed fruitful partnerships that actually deepen the students’ understanding of the past. From what I could gather, these fourth graders had read and talked a good deal about textile manufacturing and the life of the young women and immigrants who worked in Lowell’s mills, while their indefatigable teacher had already given them a hands-on introduction to the beguiling mechanisms of the power loom. I’m talking about a Massachusetts public school here and the trip was booked and co-chaperoned by two smart and able suburban moms who help organize enrichment activities for the kids. So my experience could hardly be considered universal. But I suspect that it’s more common than not.

One final note: Partisans of social history should be especially heartened. If any mention was made of Francis Cabot Lowell, it escaped my notice. Neither the school nor the museum went out of their way to praise the titans of industry. This was history from the ground-up: material history, women’s history, immigrant history, spiced with paeans to cultural diversity and labor activism and salted with swipes at supercilious male abolitionists and bigoted Protestant assimilationists. Anyone who doubts that history education has taken a progressive social turn over the last few decades needs to spend more time with fourth graders.


Eric B. Schultz said...

Great post and really, truly interesting place, Chris. Hard to think that kids not much older than the ones you accompanied were working 11 hour days there. What you might have mentioned, and maybe were thinking, is that if you bring your kids (or go yourself) in the summer, you can walk down the street after and catch a Lowell Spinners game!

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks Eric. You always make connections that I fail to. Yes, the sad proximity in age between these kids and the mill workers can't be forgotten. (It's also a potentially a good motivator to get the kids to do chores: I cite the example of their grandfather who got up at 4am in the morning to milk cows, but this is more immediate). And of course the Lowell Spinners are not to miss, especially for the younger demographic. It was a fun trip. The 4th graders boisterously sang "An Infinite Number of Soda Bottles on the Wall" there and back.

hcr said...

I confess I have yet to do the Lowell tour... or to see the quilt museum, which I understand is world class.

One of the things I find shocking about education is that we have never done a study to see the relative learning values of field trips vs. in-class time. In a nutshell, there was a move toward experiential learning in the 1970s because educators assumed it would work better than rote learning. But no one ever studied the benefits of one versus the other. Seems to me high time we did so. I think most of us would agree that field trips can be extraordinary experiences... but WHY? Can we translate some of that into a classroom? Or figure out how to make classroom experiences enhance field trips?

Sounds to me like a doctoral dissertation waiting to happen!

Chris Beneke said...

I hadn't either myself Heather. This was my excuse to do it. It's well worth seeing.

What impressed me about the museum's program was how well integrated it was into the students curriculum (which, of course, is easier to do with a standardized state curriculum) and how carefully the museum had tailored their program to a group of easily distracted 9-year-olds. I simply don't recall anything like this experience from when I was the same age.

I have no idea if there's any data on the relative benefits of this type of learning. Personally, I'd love to see my kids do this sort of thing once every week or two.

Museum Partners Consulting, LLC said...

There are actually studies done on this type of learning, you should explore the field of Museum Education. Evaluation studies done at museums and historic sites across the country like Lowell that offer these types of programs are working on showing how this type of experience makes an impact on visitors.