My job at this school has come with a lot of firsts, and organising an excursion for one of my classes was one of them.
As mentioned in previous posts, one of my classes this year is a non-curriculum class. Instead of focusing on content prescribed in a curriculum, it is a chance for students to do something not necessarily ‘school-like’, something that involves developing ‘life skills’ and/or broadening their experiences.
My classes for this are STEM-based, which gives me a bit of a challenge trying to justify how the activities we do are related to team building or problem solving etc. I know, most of you reading this will be thinking how ridiculous that sounds, because to us STEM incorporates those things naturally, but having to actually explicitly state how can be difficult.
I decided to take advantage of the fact that we are within driving distance of The Royal Observatory at Greenwich. It is a place I’d wanted to go, and I saw this as the perfect opportunity for myself and my students. What is more mind-blowing and life-thought-provoking than exploring what it means to have the entire universe around us?
I remember from my own experiences, some as early as primary school and some as recent as last year, how humbling and inspiring it can be to learn about space. To learn about our tiny, insignificant place within it. The realise the true meaning of continuity, and that in the grand scheme of the universe our own lives are so completely insignificant. But also to realise what we have done to explore what we currently know of the universe. All the people and technology and creativity that has gone into developing this understanding. The people who are sitting right now outside our atmosphere. The people who will one day sit ON ANOTHER PLANET. It’s simply incredible.
Organising the trip took a lot more time and effort than I thought it would, but in hindsight I also expected that. There were pages and pages of forms to fill out, people to coordinate, letters and emails to write. Having never done it before, it was definitely a daunting task. Especially when you are told it will be taken care of for you, only to find out that no you’ll have to do it yourself, and quickly because the trip is next week.
Luckily for me the Observatory includes a full risk assessment in their booking confirmation package. It meant I didn’t have to sit there for who knows how long thinking of all the things that could have gone wrong, and how to prevent them. Being the legal guardian of the students I took out on the trip was something on my mind all day – if anything happened to any of them while we were out it was my responsibility, even if they did something completely stupid that got them into that situation in the first place.
I know that’s why we have a staff-to-student ratio, but it doesn’t stop the stress. I’m sure we can all remember how we behaved on school trips – everyone goes just a little bit (or a lot) silly, and unless they have great respect for the teachers there with them it can go to mess very quickly.
I am lucky enough to have a great relationship with my students, who in this group are all nice people to begin with, so they all listened to my instructions and behaved well throughout the day. We did have instances of silliness, but nothing extreme enough to make me have to get grumpy at them.
We had to leave class in the morning to get there on time, which meant chasing a few students who forgot and rushing them on to the bus. They were all super excited to get out of school and do something different for the day, which meant lots of giggling and jokes on the way there.
When we arrived we were led through to an area where the students could store their bags, and they were even more impressed with their excursion when they learnt they didn’t even need to bring a pen with them. This trip was all about exploration, and nothing about ‘proving how much they have learnt’ while not being in school.
Our first activity of the day was a presentation from an astronomer. I think the students were a bit surprised to find out that it was a young man talking to us, not an old one. The presenter was about my age, wearing casual clothes, talking in a way that they could immediately relate to. He explained things simply, but in no way condescendingly or patronisingly. He probably said things that they didn’t quite understand, but he didn’t make the assumption that they wouldn’t. He treated them just like an audience of people, not school kids, and they responded very well to that.
Every time he finished discussing a section of the talk, the students were asked to participate in a little quiz. Each had their own control pad, like a little remote, and had to punch in their vote for the answer out of the options given. It was completely anonymous, and they were all interested enough to actually try answering correctly. We all laughed at the silly answers, and the presenter explained why the right ones were the right ones.
I think the topic of most interest was the potential of living on Mars, and the current NASA plan to make that happen. A few of the boys particularly lit up when they were told it would be happening at a time where they could be the right age to be candidate for the trip.
Lunch and Exhibits
After the talk we had a break for lunch. I’d organised a lunch room for us, as per suggested on the booking form, so that we had our own space to relax in. Us staff sat apart from the students, but I could hear that most of their conversations were either about the talk or space in general (and of course their food!). Clearly they were engaged with what they’d seen so far, which made me very happy.
We then had time to explore the interactive exhibits on display. The boys really enjoyed the simulation where they had to design and build a rocket to go explore some planet – they tried many times but couldn’t quite get it right. Here they naturally worked together as a team and tried problem solving, self-assigning themselves roles and hearing each others suggestions. The girls, on the other hand, were fascinated by the concept of the sun exploding in a few billion years, and were clearly having an existential crisis. The concept of Earth not existing was mind boggling for them, and they distracted themselves with some of the more silly exhibits and the photography display.
When we’d exhausted the exhibits, it was time to settle in to the planetarium for a show about what it means to be an astronaut. None of the students had ever had the unique experience of such a show before – reclining chairs specifically designed to direct your attention to the domed roof, which fills your line of vision. The shows are designed in such a way that you feel completely immersed in what you are watching (to the point of feeling a bit motion-sick at times!).
With the rest of the room very dark, and David Tennant narrating, it made for a completely engaging session. At the end, we were asked to stay back as the rest of the public left, and the students were given the opportunity to ask questions about anything they’d seen that day. Of course the girls asked about the sun exploding, and the boys asked a few questions about the technology involved.
Back to School
In the end it was time to head back to school. We collected our bags and went back outside. We had a quick moment to go look at the incredible view of London and take some happy snaps for the school newsletter, then it was off to the bus.
Our bus was parked about a 10 minute walk away, and we walked along the path in a beautiful park. We spotted squirrels and puppies, and I even let the students run around and ahead of the group. Shock horror! I know many teachers/schools who would never allow such a thing – students should be in a group walking calmly back to the bus together, particularly as they are in uniform! But this was a group of 13 year old Londoners, outside in a park, on a school day, with glorious sunshine beaming down. Of course I was going to let them run and be a bit silly! I would have myself if it wouldn’t have been too improper! Plus, I knew I could trust this particular group to not be entirely ridiculous, and they were all in my sight and polite to the members of the public around us.
On the bus back to school they were even more loud and happy than they were on the way there. The girls were singing along to the radio, which prompted the boys to copy them in silly voices, which just turned into them all singing along properly to Ed Sheeran (much to my delight). Back at school they all assured me they had a fantastic time and absolutely loved it, and that they had all learned something new even though they weren’t trying.
So, my first self-organised and run excursion was a success!