For the past six years, I have organized a trip to Washington, D.C. as an enrichment opportunity to accompany our study of the Holocaust (Night and now The Book Thief) in 10th grade literature as well as the study of World War II in 10th grade social studies. I’m not trying to toot my own horn at all here – it’s a pain in the butt to organize, but I get way more out of it than I put into it. Beyond my involvement, four other teachers went along yesterday as chaperones – paying their own way in the effort to keep the cost as minimal as possible for our students – and this is something that is truly appreciated.
Basically, the trip goes like this: we leave at 5am, stop once on the way to D.C., take a quick driving tour around the monuments (and if you’re in the Pittsburgh area and ever looking for a bus company and driver, George from McIlwain Charters is phenomenal), give the kids from about 10am -2pm on their own, tour the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for the rest of the afternoon, stop for dinner on the way home, then pull back in to school around 10:30pm. It’s a long day, for sure.
There’s no state testing mandating it. There’s no check for understanding overseeing it. There’s just learning going on throughout. And this is the thing we forget about when we think of our educational system. We forget that there are teachers willing to give up their Saturdays with their families and shell out $40 each in order to provide a group of 49 the opportunity. We forget that there are teachers willing to go the extra mile, so to speak, even when their discipline isn’t covered on the trip. We forget that there are teachers who feed off of the smiles they see on their students’ faces when they discover a piece of artwork in person that they’ve only seen in a book or online before. We forget that there are teachers who are proud of their students’ questions after obviously paying attention in a museum that evokes so many emotions about a topic that is gut wrenching to say the least. We never hear about these teachers.
We don’t give our students enough credit at times – myself included. We forget that they’re 15 years old and sometimes haven’t been given the opportunity to prove their responsibility – myself included. The students on this trip were granted a tremendous amount of freedom – from 10 – 2 they were on their own to see what they wanted to see on the Mall. They spoke of the National Archives, how awesome Arcimboldo’s exhibit at the National Gallery of Art was (no, I hadn’t heard of him, either, but check him out, the kids were right, his work is fascinating), their visit to the Air and Space Museum, their walk to the White House, the Newseum and the Lincoln Memorial and then they spoke at length about their walk through the Holocaust Museum. And they were on time for everything they were supposed to be on time for. They were where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there, demonstrating their ability to handle this responsibility when it was given to them. Did I worry about them as they were on their own in D.C.? You’re darn right I did. And they proved to me that I didn’t need to.
Some of the students realized how fortunate they were to follow along with a Holocaust survivor who was sharing his stories with those who wanted to walk with him through the museum. What an incredible opportunity that I hope these kids never forget. Mr. Sztajer explained to them very clearly that they were needed to keep his stories alive, that the survivors are dying and that their help was needed. I am confident that his words will live on as these students share what they saw and heard. Elie Wiesel and Markus Zusak had their words and images brought even more to life because students ate up the opportunity to visit a museum that is sometimes haunting, but unbelievably rewarding, to visit.
As teachers, we get knocked around in the press and in our communities. We’re money hungry and greedy to have the nerve to fight tooth and nail for our benefits. We get little respect for what we do. We’re insulted by people who have no idea what it is that we do on a daily basis – no idea of what kind of fires we put out daily – NONE. We’re not educated enough and we’re glorified babysitters. But if what I did yesterday was babysitting, then I’m fine with this – you can call me a babysitter all you want.