Teaching Inspo: Fieldwork and In-Person Testimonies

Hi all,

I recently came across this segment from PBS News Hour about Polaris Charter Academy, a largely low-income charter school committed to social justice. If you’re looking for examples of innovative social studies lesson plans, this video is definitely worth a watch. The way the school’s teachers tie together fieldwork, primary source document analysis, and first-person testimonies in a unit about the Civil Rights Movement is really inspiring. I loved that the project culminated with an actual trip to Birmingham for fieldwork, and I was also struck by how, before that trip, the teachers arranged for people who lived through Jim Crow segregation to come into the classroom and give their first-hand accounts. Inviting people who experienced the era first-hand to speak about their lives is not something I had ever really thought about doing, but listening to the students’ reactions, I can’t help but think this kind of an interaction would be an incredibly powerful teaching tool.

After watching the video, I also began to reflect on my own experience with field trips and guest speakers. To be honest, I couldn’t think of a single experience that left a lasting impression on me. We did make the requisite trip to Jamestown in 4th grade, but I don’t really remember much about it — it was certainly not an educational experience like the one described in the PBS News Hour segment. How about you? Did you take social studies field trips or do field work as a K-12 student? Did you hear a speaker that made a lasting impact? How do you feel about making use of fieldwork and/or classroom speakers in your social studies teaching today?

6 thoughts on “Teaching Inspo: Fieldwork and In-Person Testimonies

  1. Vivian,

    This is an incredible find! First-hand accounts are super valuable. They remind students about the reality of history and that many seemingly distant historical events did not happen long ago. Honestly, I do not recall learning about civil rights as an elementary schooler. I did not encounter any impactful speakers or take any Social Studies field trips.

    Immersive learning and primary sources are absolutely something I plan to incorporate in my classroom. Although I may not have the resources to take students on a 10-hour trip, I plan to incorporate photographs and primary source documents. Additionally, after watching this clip, I intend to search for individuals to give first-hand accounts (videos, at the very least). Also, I love the idea of field work, which implies more critical thinking and involvement than a mere field trip. Activism and social justice are critical values for students today.

    Unfortunately, Polaris Charter School is a novelty. Their mission involves personal and civic responsibility, and their goals include “experiential excursions.” As a charter school, they have more freedom to operate than public schools. Ideally, infrastructure changes would occur to allow all public schools similar opportunities. All students deserve the right to have individualized instruction and the opportunity to become agents of change.

  2. Hi Vivian,
    I really enjoyed the video and your post. The school put so much thought and effort into planning that field trip and coordinating with guests; it was inspiring. I do not have super memorable field trips from elementary, but I did have one that really sticks out to me from high school. We were allowed to meet a survivor of the holocaust and hear his story. He explained how he escaped from a camp and found refuge in France until he could get to America as just a boy. He was so inspiring because he had been through so much at such a young age but continued fighting and living for a beautiful life. He has since passed, but it has stuck with me because of how emotional it was. As educators, I think we should all allow our students to delve into learning from primary sources. Whether it is a fantastic field trip or bringing in a guest speaker, they deserve that chance 🙂

  3. Hi Vivian,

    I loved loved lovvveeddd the video you decided to share with us. I love how the lady in the video stressed that it is not only important to get students to learn about history and think critically about them, but that they think of themselves as citizens (as we’ve mentioned a few times this year) and “agents of change.”

    I think that the trip the project took was a remarkable way of teaching students. After watching the clip I was asking myself what grade these students were enrolled in, and I got to thinking about how much is appropriate for them to learn. I went back and found out and that they were in fifth and sixth grade, which makes more sense for what students observed while there. I was worried that the class would be too young to tackle hard topics such as the KKK and other violence inflicted. But the way of teaching is to not hide or keep any information from students but rather adapt it in a way that is appropriate for students because keeping it from them would hinder them from being the citizens they are to become, especially in this video with the project.
    Because my high school was majority Jewish, we involved ourselves a lot in working with people who went through or know someone who went through the Holocaust. The school invited families and other speakers who went through the Holocaust to talk about their experiences. In seventh grade, our class also went to the Holocaust museum. The stories shared at the assemblies were so powerful and I loved how my school also dedicated advisory meetings or other group meetings the same day to reflect. We share the property of the school with the VA and for Veterans Day and many other holidays, veterans came to speak and I sang, served food, helped with the garden, and planned events for veterans who would always share stories with me.

    I have loved every single bit of learning people’s history and it is much more effective and engaging than a textbook.

  4. Vivian,
    Thank you so much for sharing that video. It was really inspiring to see the students learning from people who experienced the history the students were learning about. I can only imagine how that experience shaped and helped those students really understand what happened and how we got to where we are in the world. It makes me think of the Freedom Writers movie, when the students are studying the Holocaust and getting to speak to people who survived concentration camps. I think it is really powerful to hear first hand accounts and be able to walk where history was made. I really like in the video how the lady described their experience in Birmingham not a field TRIP but a field WORK. I think this is a great way to look at these kinds of experiences and valuable lesson that will leave an impact on the students. Like you, I also remember taking a Jamestown field trip and to be honest, I don’t really remember most of it. The field trip that has always stuck with me, probably because of shock value, was the Body Worlds exhibit field trip I went to with my health class. We saw dissected preserved human bodies and got to see the inner workings and organs of the human body. It was a really neat (and a little gross) exhibit that I will never forget.
    I think in any case, getting hands on experience with primary sources from a historical perspective, like the students in the video, is such a valuable and impactful experience. When possible, students should always be given opportunities to travel and witness historical sites, and interact with primary sources. Thank you Vivian for sharing this video!

  5. Vivian, I agree, too often there are missed opportunities in the classroom where something more impactful could have been inserted to really make a difference in the learning. My 4th Grade obligatory trip to Jamestown was quite similar. I remember being there but I don’t remember much of what was taught. For me, growing up with my grandmother being a Holocaust Survivor gave me an incredible first hand experience with a primary source but honestly, it wasn’t until she accompanied me on a Sunday School trip to the newly opened Richmond Holcaust Museum did her story come alive. She and I walked slowly through the museum and while I was glancing all around barely noticing the horrific images on the walls, she was studying them for recollection. She was searching for family members in the photos where I was merely walking to the next destination. It wasn’t until she stopped and stared and began explaining the background of the photos on the wall did I really begin to understand what she and so many others had gone through. Immaturity on my part certainly played a role in my indifference until she started speaking. She wasn’t even speaking to me. She was just remembering. I could have gone to the museum 100 times and not gotten out of it what I did walking with her. Primary sources are so rare and should be preserved to be able to share the experiences as well as the hardships to be able to really pass along that information in an incredibly impactful way. Students need to be reminded that history is made up of real people with real feelings and real stories.

  6. Hi Vivian,

    I love your post and the attached video; I think this is the best example of a field trip. I believe it is important to emphasize that this is a lower-income school, I usually would not want to highlight income, but it just reiterates that if done correctly, field trips can be fun and telling without breaking the bank. The pre-field trip experience with community members of the time helped to preface the trip and expand the student’s understanding. It also provided a combination of historical facts with emotional accounts; this helps to draw the students in and engage them.

    For my own school experience, I remember some memorable field trips, including going to Washington D.C. in the third grade. I look back fondly on that trip because we essentially got free rein of the city; our chaperones took us to museums, gardens, but also restaurants, and ice cream parlors. In my senior year of high school, I also took a week-long class about poetry; for that course, we went to different Japanese gardens around Virginia, including Morven gardens and Maymont. This field trip experience was incredible; we attended traditional tea ceremonies and immersed ourselves entirely in all the locations and their traditions. I feel as if this experience mirrored the ones we saw in the video you shared. I hope that as covid-19 lessens, we will be able to start attending field trips; some schools are utilizing online field trips, but they don’t seem to be as effective. Given Virginia’s rich history, field trips can be fun, enriching, and SOL-related.

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