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Adventures in Learning: The Impact of Middle School Field Trips

The moments just before a field trip begins – as students board the bus and chatter with classmates – are often laced with a tangible and distinct sense of anticipation. For our seventh and eighth graders traveling to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, respectively, the early start and hours-long bus ride did little to dampen those initial bursts of excitement. They eagerly looked ahead to the adventure awaiting them, including exploring historic sites and bonding as a grade. Over the course of three days, seventh graders visited the D.C. monuments and museums, discussing current issues and the characteristics of engaged citizens; eighth graders visited the Liberty Bell, toured Philadelphia’s Historic District and Independence Hall, and climbed the “Rocky” steps. These overnight trips are a defining part of Middle School life at Calhoun and a highlight for many students. Zoe F. ‘28 recently reflected on her experience traveling to Washington, D.C. last year, writing, “It was a trip that taught us, but we also got to do activities with our friends.” Zoe’s sentiment fully captures our Middle School’s approach to experiential learning.

(L) Eighth graders visiting the Liberty Bell during their trip to Philadelphia. (R) Seventh graders posing in front of the White House in Washington, D.C.


Field trips, to destinations near and far, are a ceremonial rite of passage for a Calhoun Middle Schooler. Though put on pause during the pandemic, in the years since, there has been a reinvestment in getting students to experience the world outside the classroom. The idea of “Calhoun Everywhere,” which refers to the school’s commitment to students exploring and engaging with the world around them, has been a driving force for Nayantara Mhatre, Assistant Director of Middle School. As Calhoun’s strategic plan outlines, “Moving beyond the school walls multiplies the opportunities for experiential learning—hands on, project based, multi-sensory and immediate.” This initiative is woven throughout the Middle School experience, where students in all grades regularly take trips to locations in the city and beyond. This year, eighth graders will also resume their international trips – traveling to Spain and Taiwan to further their language studies. 

“Moving beyond the school walls multiplies the opportunities for experiential learning—hands on, project based, multi-sensory and immediate.” Calhoun's Strategic Plan

When planning local outings in the city, Middle School teachers take advantage of all the five boroughs have to offer – from art and culture to history and science. Trips to museums, including the American Museum of Natural History and Museum of Mathematics, are commonplace and serve to expose students to everything there is to learn. As Nayantara explains, “Helping them understand the wealth of access we have [to information] is important.” The elective Art in the City regularly takes trips to view different art pieces and exhibits; the class is "about getting students out into the city to experience art in museums, galleries, public spaces, and artists' studios,” describes MS art teacher Amy Konen. For Black History/Black Futures Month, Middle Schoolers participated in a Black Lives Matter Teach-Out, venturing to Queens, Harlem and Brooklyn to learn more about Black changemakers. In the past few years, Middle Schoolers have also traveled to Chinatown, visited the Nuyorican Poets Café and watched a PHILADANCO! performance, among many other highlights. 

(L) Students in the Middle School Art in the City elective visiting artist and musician Ken Butler's studio in Brooklyn. (R) Sixth graders visiting the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens as part of the Middle School's Black Lives Matter Teach-Out.


Traveling to outdoor destinations in the greater New York City area is another important element of the Middle School’s approach to hands-on learning. “Seeing students in a different environment is always very powerful,” describes Nayantara, as it allows teachers to observe students’ strengths and areas for growth. In the fall semester, the entire Middle School took an overnight trip to the Frost Valley YMCA Camp, where students had the opportunity to try new things and simply enjoy spending time in nature. They formed connections with classmates and built stronger bonds through group challenges and shared mealtimes. “Frost Valley’s team-building curriculum emphasizes the value of working together while recognizing individual strengths within the workings of the entire group,” explains Nayantara. This was highlighted in one of the more memorable parts of the trip, the high ropes course. As Zoe recalls, “I enjoyed this part of Frost Valley because it made it a challenge for everyone in your group and you had to trust that they would not drop you…. It was so fun to support each other, whether you were climbing or holding the rope.”

Middle Schoolers on the high ropes course at Frost Valley.


Field trips enhance and extend classroom learning, connecting back to the core Middle School curriculum. In the fall, eighth graders did a self-guided tour through the National Museum of the American Indian and visited multiple historic sites around lower Manhattan, including Trinity Church and the 9/11 Memorial Pools. Social studies teacher Sean Strausbaugh explains that the trip complemented students’ study of Native North American peoples and resistance to US westward expansion. On a hiking trip in Black Rock Forest, students explored native ecosystems and collected samples like moss, water, or a branch, which they then observed under a microscope. “I connected it to my science class when we were learning about cells and microscopes,” writes Zoe. These adventures help bring education to life.

"Field trips can be a concrete experience to support abstract thinking." Nayantara Mhatre, Assistant Director of Middle School

Middle School is a crucial time for students to engage with learning beyond the classroom. As Nayantara notes, “Developmentally, they are in a space of questioning everything around them and craving evidence of things. They are able to move between the concrete and the abstract. Field trips can be a concrete experience to support abstract thinking.” Opportunities to visit a range of destinations – from nearby museums to far-off countries – stimulate Middle Schoolers’ intellectual curiosity and drive deeper learning. Field trips also allow students to develop a strong sense of community and collaboration within their grade and division, and it all starts with the bus ride.