Grand Teton National Park is a place of natural beauty. The mountainous terrain has harsh, snow-filled winters. Its mild summers are offer visitors great views of wildflower and wildlife. Skiing, snowshoeing, biking, hiking, fishing, and rafting are all popular activities in the park. Grizzly bears, bison, moose, mountain lions and elk are a common sight. Elk migrate through the area to feed each year.
I was fortunate to teach in a small community just over an hour from Grand Teton National Park for four-years. I taught kindergarten, first, and second grade, during that time. I often led my students in explorations of their natural surroundings through interdisciplinary place-based education opportunities. During my search for field trips in the winter of 2019-2020, I came across the programs at the national park.
Grand Teton National Park offers free field trips for school groups. Booking a program is extremely easy. I emailed the education department at the park and they sent me additional information on their programs and date options. They also informed me they had resources that helped cover transportation costs for schools. I signed my class up for the “Winter Challenge” program for a morning in late January. The description for this program from Grand Teton National Park’s website is below:
I chose this program for my students because it was most geared for their age group. Also, it aligned with our science standards. My students completed a large interdisciplinary project on habitat and ecosystems in the area in the 2019-2020 school year. This winter adventure took place, in the middle of facilitating learning experiences for the students to complete their project. It helped them gain knowledge necessary to complete their projects in the spring. The other programs offered at Grand Teton National Park can be found through this link.
Our class went to Grand Teton National Park in the heart of winter. When we arrived at the park we were greeted by a park naturalist, on the bus. She introduced herself and instructed us on where to put our gear and find bathrooms when we got into the visitor center, where our program would begin. Once everyone got settled in the classroom the program began. Our teacher talked about the needs of animals in the area such as owls, bobcats, elk, and bears for survival. Then she discussed hibernation, migration, and adaptation with the students. These are all topics we had previously discussed. I was pleased that these concepts were reinforced in Grand Teton National Park’s programming.
After the indoor introduction, the naturalist gave us instructions to prepare us for snowshoeing. She reminded the students to get on the ‘Big 5.’ If you are not from an area with a snowy and cold winter, the ‘Big 5’ stands for gloves, hat, boots, snow pants, and a warm coat. Once everyone was dressed, we all went outside and got on snowshoes. Most of my students had previously snowshoed on field trips or at home, so this was an easy process.
Our snowshoe trek was magical. We wandered through the cottonwoods and pines to the Snake River. The dry, powdery flakes drifted from the sky. Moose and hare tracks frequently crossed our trail. My students squealed when the caught sight of these familiar footprints. We stopped along the way and talked about snow temperatures and animals under the snow. Is the snow warmer beneath the surface or in the top layer?
We moved further down the trail to a clearing where we learned a tag game. Some students were wolves and others were elk. The wolves had to hunt the elk. The elk got a headstart to dash across the opening, but the deep snow tripped them and the wolves often caught up and tagged them. This helped show how difficult it is for animals to run in snow. It demonstrated predator and prey relationships and how species populations can change.
Our hike wrapped up back at the visitor center. After students shed their winter gear, the leader reviewed animal adaptations one more time. As an educator, I appreciated the constant reinforcement of core topics of the program regularly. The students’ final task of the day was imagining and drawing a new animal with special adaptations that help them survive. Students spread out around the room with paper and crayons and focused on their assignment. After about fifteen minutes, we regrouped to share our creations. Some students drew animals with larger eyes to see better to hunt. Others added wide feet that helped their creature traverse over snow with ease. Some had furry animals. Others had scaley critters. I enjoyed how the students got to use their imagination and the knowledge gained from earlier parts of the program together. Sharing also promoted a sense of community and support among the students.
The program wrapped up with good bye’s and we boarded our bus to head back to school. The students chattered about what they had learned and observed snowshoeing. They giggled about the adaptations their imaginary animals had. I felt they had greatly benefited and enjoyed this class trip to Grand Teton National Park.
As an educator, I was able to create and facilitate follow-up activities to reinforce and connect concepts from the trip to other activities in class and other field experiences. My class had explored a local trailhead and ski resort, during the same winter. We compared and contrasted each of our exploration areas from these trips.
I really liked the imaginary animal adaptation drawing exercise we did at Grand Teton National Park. As a follow-up to this, we built models of imaginary critters with adaptations. We then wrote descriptions of our models. This allowed me to integrate concepts from writing, art, and science into one lesson. There are countless ways educators can use trips, such as the one my class went on to Grand Teton National Park, to support lessons back at school.
If you teach near a national park or monument, I highly recommend seeking out a class trip to visit it. In eastern Idaho, where I taught, I was close to a few incredible places. Craters of the Moon National Monument and Yellowstone National Park were all within a couple of hours from our school. They all offered unique and fascinating field trips for schools. I recently relocated to northern California. I am already looking for a class trip to take my students on in Redwood National Park next year!
Permission slips are standard and required for high school field trips in the United States. Yet, what about high schools in other countries? As a teacher who has taught in Europe many years and in China for one year, I went on many field trips outside of the U.S. What do they do different and why?
The educator’s task to arrange a field trip, get all the parent permission slips, then deal with students outside of the classroom and school environment never crossed my mind doing my graduate work.
One thing that is rarely ever covered in new teacher training is how to do what many of us in the profession consider to be “the easy stuff”. Things like how to use the copier, how to set up a classroom, and how to create and send out a movie permission slip.