Heather Mosley Linhardt
Field trips in the time of a pandemic are most certainly not the FIRST thought on a teacher’s mind. However, life continues and students are growing and graduating no matter when the world becomes ‘safe’ again. So we must also continue to prepare our students for their futures, one where hopefully soon we won’t have to remember to grab our masks as we run out the door, along with the car keys.
With that in mind, we must help students look to their futures confident and prepared, even in a time when no one knows when that future will feel normal again. As a teacher of the gifted and talented in a small rural town, I found that often these decisions are made for them very early, if even subconsciously. For example, the town in which I taught was less than ten minutes away from the largest public University in the state, and a Big 12 school. So University sports, professors, homecoming celebrations, and more were part of day-to-day life for my students. Thus, when I was discussing future decisions with my 8th grade students one day I discovered that the vast majority of my students had firmly decided on attending this state University. Who wouldn’t? It’s right here. It’s always been a part of their life. They all knew at least one person who worked there. Go with what you know, right? Not so fast…
Now we’re all aware that middle schoolers change their minds many times as to their post-secondary education and career choices, but I am also keenly aware that towns near a large University are not as likely to ensure their students are firmly introduced to other post-secondary possibilities. I would not let my students simply settle for what they knew or were expected to do. If my students decided to attend the local University once they graduated from high school, then I would applaud them. However, students should not approach such a decision unarmed with the knowledge to make a quality choice. So, I decided a new normal for my eighth grade students would be an end of year unit on careers and colleges. It would correlate perfectly with their final class decisions for their freshman year in high school and would be a very weather-friendly time of year to visit some colleges!
Before the college investigations were made, however, I needed to open their eyes to all kinds of possible futures. That way, those students who had no idea where they wanted to be in ten years had a chance to find where their talents and possibilities lay. Meanwhile those students who had already decided precisely what they were doing and where they were going were forced to either form solid reasoning for their decisions or potentially find a different exciting possibility to pursue. To begin the unit, I had students assess their current level of forethought. They wrote down all they had currently decided about future careers, college choices, post-secondary goals, etc. They also made a list of what talents they possessed as well as what talents others felt they possessed.
We then began with the Careers section of the unit, as I needed my students to know what they actually wanted out of a college before they started evaluating them. (Much like going to the grocery store with a list as opposed to just roaming around for an hour picking up what looks yummy.) I prepared career and interest inventories for them, we analyzed the results, and then did some research to make a short list of their top career choices and/or areas of interest. I did require that students choose at least one career out of their “comfort zone” or area of interest they swore they will never stray from, just so they were not stubbornly sticking to one idea and potentially missing out on something else they would love.
The last half of the unit was easily everyone’s favorite and the most exciting. Actually interacting with colleges and Universities! Suddenly something that is more of an idea or even a pipe dream for some becomes real and interactive. I wanted students to feel like they were really investigating these colleges for their possible futures, so we did two things: 1) we interacted with school representatives and 2) we visited nearby schools.
If you are unaware, there are people at each post-secondary institution whose entire job revolves around recruiting students through college fairs, job fairs, college visit days, etc. It is quite simple to contact schools’ admissions department and ask if they have a representative who would be willing to come speak with your students. In fact, one email with a number of BCCs can start the ball rolling! I was also amazed at how willing colleges were to travel various distances for a mere fifty minutes of time with a dozen middle school students. Do not assume a school won’t bend over backwards for you and your students because it’s very possible they will do even more than you expect. The representatives are incredibly knowledgeable and personable. The visits were priceless and the highlight of my students’ day, because they got to actually converse with someone ‘official’ about their future goals and dreams. As a wonderful perk, the admissions representatives generally bring gifts, prizes, and/or viewbooks for each student. Now, if students are interested in a school farther away, you can simply request a number of viewbooks to be sent to you to examine with the students. Usually your viewbooks will arrive with gifts, financial packets, a virtual tour of campus, or some other type of marketing materials for students to enjoy.
However, and this was truly the crux of this unit, never underestimate the power of a field trip. I guarantee you will make it a yearly event when you see your students after just one post-secondary school visit. Some of them will suddenly act as though they have some semblance of control over their lives they didn’t have before. Others will look a bit dazed as though a surreal future just got real. Just remember to approve these visits with parents first, as there are some parents, though few, who are strictly opposed to their student visiting a certain type of school or not the one they HAVE to attend. One incredibly easy way to do this, and without having to deal too much with potential parental opinions on schools you should have visited, is to use a virtual parent permission form. An invaluable tool I unfortunately did not have access to when I was scheduling these trips for my students. The form can be custom made for your particular purpose, sent virtually to all parents, and even returned virtually with their signature. Goodness, what a hassle that would have saved when I had five school visits scheduled one year with five separate permission slips.
One wonderful aspect of a college field trip is that they are nearly free. The only cost we had was for the school bus we used as transportation. If you choose a college or University nearby then even that cost will be minimal. A wonderful benefit is often a free lunch. My students and I visited multiple schools and they never once failed in offering us a complimentary lunch in one of their cafeterias. That was nearly every student’s highlight of the day – acting like true college students for one blessed meal. Truly, you just have to smile and shrug your shoulders when parents report back that all their student could tell them about their college visit was how awesome it was to eat in one of the cafeterias with college kids! Oh yes, and speaking of parents, make sure to invite them to accompany you on the field trip. An extra pair of eyes on a group of students is always helpful, but the students also seemed entertained when a parent got excited about how something they saw reminded them of when they were in college. You can even add a request and signature option to the parent permission form regarding a desire to attend, which I did not do the first time I did this unit and trying to keep straight which parents were going on which trips became a mental juggle. Where, oh where, was that virtual parent permission form capability when I needed it?!
Finally, near the end of the school year as our unit came to a close, after research, representatives and campus visits, the students and I would reflect upon and analyze what they learned, take a couple of practice college entrance exams, and make goals for their future. I did have parents and colleagues wondering at my insistence that students attempt a couple of college entrance exams, but trust me, it’s absolutely worth it. Simply providing students with the look and ‘feel’ of something that will later be so potentially anxiety-producing will empower them. They will have seen something similar before and tackled it. AND, many of my students were pleasantly surprised at how well they did on sections of a test most of them would not even attempt for two or three more years. That can be quite a confidence booster.
After their 8th grade year, I no longer saw my gifted students, as I did not teach in the high school, so it was always a bittersweet year for me. However, knowing my students were going to enter high school having thoroughly examined their future goals and potential choices was very reassuring. I always had parents and colleagues who were surprised and dubious about how early I addressed this topic with students, but once the unit was complete, I never had anything but positive feedback and sincere appreciation.
Truly, truly, truly, students are never too young to dream about their future and be supported in making it as attainable as possible.
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