Field Trip Guide: A Teacher's Guide to Planning a School Historical Field Trip


Field Trip Guide: A Teacher's Guide to Planning a School Historical Field Trip

by Mary Brigid Barrett

One of the best ways to get students excited about history is to get them out of the classroom to visit a historical site or museum. A student excursion to the White House (see our Field Trip Guide! Visiting The White House) and Washington, D.C., creates a lifetime of memories.  But you need not go all the way to Washington, D.C., in order to plan a presidential field trip; check out the NCBLA’s list of possible presidential field trip opportunities here: (see our Field Trip Guide! Presidential Birthplaces, Houses, and Libraries). In addition to all the historic presidential places and museums recommended on this site, there are numerous American history destinations you can visit all across the country that will enrich young people’s understanding of our nation’s heritage. Our extraordinary art museums, science museums, and children’s museums, as well as our great urban public libraries, also provide exciting and entertaining experiences for young people that will enrich their understanding of America’s history and culture. 

Before You Go:

Check in with your school’s principal or read your faculty handbook to discover your school’s field trip policy and rules. 

Find out if your school has a field trip budget. If it does not, you will need to know how you will cover the costs of students who will not be able to pay for field trip transportation and expenses such as admission. Many schools have a slush or emergency fund to cover such occurrences.

Visit your neighborhood library where you will find information on both local and national museums and historical destinations, as well as travel guidebooks, videos, and DVDs that can help you plan day trips and excursions. Once you have determined your destination, your neighborhood and school librarians can help you find interesting books related to the historical topic or era of your visit—books you can share with your students! 

Check your local newspaper regularly to find special exhibits, programs, and projects that are of interest to your students.

Contact your destination site and/or check its website to find out admission fees, hours, and travel directions.  Most historical sites and museums have education departments and staff who can help you plan your field trip. Tell the educational staff member about your educational goals for the visit so they can help you organize a trip that will suite your class’s needs. Check to see if they have group rates and/or students prices.  Also check to see if there are food facilities available where you can purchase snacks or meals and/or a place where you can sit down and enjoy your own brown-bag snack or lunch. 

If a member of your class has special needs, contact the destination to make sure that he or she will have access to exhibits and parking areas, and find out if there is a particular entrance that best accommodates the students’ needs. Many museums and sites have special materials for hearing- and sight-impaired adults and children, but may need advance notice to accommodate needs. 

If you have not visited the historical site or museum yourself, if at all possible, visit it before your classroom field trip. That way you will have the advantage of knowing exactly what to expect and you can prepare your students accordingly.

Make sure you are informed about dress and security guidelines. Many museums do not permit visiting students to carry backpacks in the exhibit areas.

When planning the trip be sure to investigate transportation options and include that cost, if any, into the needs of the trip. You will need to know if your school system will cover any of your expenses.  

Make sure you get a confirmation letter or missive from the trip destination with a complete itinerary.

Plan your chaperone needs. Make sure you have enough chaperones; the younger the students, the more chaperones you will need. If you have a special needs student, he or she may need an individual chaperone.

Write and send a letter home to your students’ guardians concerning the proposed field trip. The letter should include the destination, the purpose and goals of the trip, costs, a request for chaperones or other volunteers, a way to contact you confidentially if a guardian cannot cover the expense of the trip, and a tear-off permission slip to be signed and returned promptly to class. If a student needs to bring medication, or has special travel needs, there should be a place on the return slip where guardians can note that information. Your school may have a standard permission form for you to use. Be prepared. Some students, for a variety of reasons, will not be permitted to go on the field trip. You should have alternate plans in place for those students.

Thoroughly review your confirmation letter and itinerary. Is everything accurate, including arrival time, lunch time, and area in the site or museum that you wish to visit? Make sure you know what entrance your class should use when they get to the museum or site. Many places have special entrances, reception areas, and facilities for class groups.

Once plans are in place, a week ahead of the trip, send another letter home as a reminder confirming trip details. Also include a list of things you expect students to take on the trip, such as a notebook or sketchbook, pencils, a brown-bag lunch or lunch money. You may also want to send a letter to class chaperones with your expectations, a list of their responsibilities, and a list of the students in their group. And with chaperones—remember you are the teacher, you are in charge. It is your responsibility to make sure everything goes smoothly.

Discuss the upcoming visit with your students, especially if they have never visited an historical site or museum. Give them an idea of what to expect. Talk about the historical events, people, subjects, or eras that are associated with your chosen destination. Visit your local library and take out books and visual materials on topics related to your destination to share with your class. Explore the destination’s web site together. For example, if you are visiting President John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, first read its website with your students. Both you and your student can go to your school and/or public library to borrow age-appropriate books about President Kennedy to read and share in class. Find out the year President Kennedy was born and together find out what happened in America during that era by reading books and using Internet resources. Preparation and information sharing will enhance your students’ experience.

After your students understand where they are going, and have a general idea of what to expect, ask them what they would like to do and see once you arrive. What interests and excites them? What are their needs? What are their questions and concerns?

Establish ground rules before going to the museum. Will students be able to explore the museum on their own or in small groups with their chaperone? Will students bring or purchase a lunch? Will students be able to spend time in the gift shop before they leave? And, if yes, what accommodations will be made for students who cannot, for whatever reason, purchase things in the gift shop?

Make sure guardians and students label lunch bags, notebooks, bags, etc., with the school name and last name of the student.

Let your students know your expectations for appropriate behavior. Let them know:

When You Get There:

First stop: the designated entrance and reception area for class groups. Make sure all students and chaperones are present. Find out where students can leave coats, lunches, backpacks, etc. Make sure your students know the location of the restroom facilities. Establish public safety ground rules. Make sure students know what to do if they become lost or separated from their group.   

Make sure that all students and chaperones have any materials you or the educational staff person have prepared for them. See that all students and chaperones have floor plans and maps for the site. Chaperones also should have complete schedules for the day’s activities and some way to tell time.

You or the educational staff person should gather students together and share the day’s schedule, letting everyone know what happens when and where.

Pre-determined ground rules should be restated before your students begin their tour and activities.   

Remind students they are to listen to and obey the educational staff and chaperones.

Make sure students know they can ask questions. Encourage them to interact respectfully with exhibits and museum staff when appropriate.

Remind students to sketch, take notes, and participate in activities suggested by you or the educational staff.

Encourage both students and chaperones to discuss what they see with each other.

Have fun!

Before You Leave the Site or Museum:

Check to see if the educational staff has suggestions for follow-up classroom activities and lesson plans that you can use when you return to the classroom.

Make sure students have in hand everything they brought, including clothing items, backpacks, notebooks, lunch boxes, gift store purchases, etc.

Suggest that students thank the educational staff and their chaperones.

Make sure all students and chaperones are accounted for before leaving.

After Your Visit:

Recheck the field trip site’s website. Often, there is extended content, follow-up activities, and classroom discussion prompts on the website that you can use with your class.

As soon as possible help your students to relate their field trip experiences to work they have been or are doing in class. And throughout the school year, reference the class’s historical excursion. Help your students make connections between their experiences on the class field trips and the things that they do and learn. 

Conduct a class critique about your outing. Don’t ask students what they liked or disliked, or if the site and exhibits were good or bad. Rather, have a discussion about what worked and didn’t work. What exhibits were presented in ways that worked, that increased their wonder and curiosity, and why? What information was valuable? Did the layout of the museum or site work or not work, and why? Did the design of the presentations and exhibits work or not work, and why? Did the whole outing work or not work, and why? Have them evaluate their own interaction. Did they ask questions

Have a class discussion about the excursion’s content when you return to the classroom. If the conversation falters, ask students open-ended questions that stimulate the discussion. For example, if you have visited the Nixon presidential library, do not ask them if they liked the exhibits, for that kind of question usually evoke a simple one-word response of “yes” or “no.”  Instead, ask questions that inspire them to think on their own, to think critically. Questions like: The exhibit on President’s Nixon trip to China was interesting; it made me realize I do not know very much about China. What do you know?  Or: What do you think Richard Nixon could have done as president to help our country if he had not had to resign? How would you have handled the Watergate situation? Or: What things did Mrs. Nixon do as first lady that you thought were interesting? If you were the spouse of a president, what would you do?

Don’t be afraid to discuss controversial issues with your students.  If your class visits Monticello, discuss Thomas Jefferson and his ownerships of slaves.

Find examples of auditory materials related to your class trip. Share music, radio broadcasts, recorded poetry readings, taped conversations, etc, of the time period of the historical era related to your field trip.

Create a classroom souvenir of your day. Gather all the things you have from the trip—admission tickets, brochures, floor plans, photographs, sketches, notes, the wrapper from the cheeseburger someone ate at the snack bar—everything and anything. Grab some markers, paint, glue, and a giant piece of cardboard and make a huge class collage of your day. Or make a class scrap book; but do not just put photos and scraps into the book. Have students write their own captions for each item you place in the book. You will be delighted with their observations!  

Suggest students write a letter to an extended family member describing their visit. Letter writing seems to be a dying form of communication, but think how you treasure the letters you have received, for handwriting expresses so much about an individual. Let your students know what a special gift a letter is to the person who is receiving it. Or encourage your students to write a letter by email. Emailing can be terrific medium of communication, one that we as a culture have decided to use for quick, easy, and often abbreviated communication. But, email can be used for a more depth-filled communication. Encourage your kids to experiment with email, to use it to write meaningful letters about their experiences, as well as sending short communications to their friends.

Encourage your students to read newspapers and news magazines in both traditional and electronic formats, and then help them to make those important connections between current and historic events, as well as to things they learned on the class historic outing. For example: if your class visited Franklin Roosevelt’s amazing library in Hyde Park, New York, and your students learned about the events that led to World War II, they can compare and contrast events of the 1930’s and 1940’s to what happened in America and the rest of the world before the second Gulf War, using past and present newspapers and other primary source accounts. The best way to get kids into a daily or weekly habit of learning more about current events and what is going on in our nation is to do so yourself and reference what you have read in new sources on a daily basis in class. Kids and teens do what we do, not what we say.

Create special follow-up activities building on your class field trip:

Have a great trip! 

©2008 Mary Brigid Barrett; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance