Eighth Grade Trip to New York City

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

At the center of GUS’s strong and challenging academic program is the student—and the excitement of discovery. Our experiential, place-based approach to the academic curriculum—employing field trips, lively debate, cross-curricular connections, and theme-based projects—encourages our students to remain learners for a lifetime. Over the course of their time at GUS, students participate in over 50 adventures. This past Saturday, our students returned from one of the most anticipated GUS adventures: the eighth grade trip to New York City.

The NYC trip jump-starts many themes of the eighth grade curriculum. At the same time, the trip exposes students to a world that—though it’s only a bus ride away—is far different from their own. The destination-packed, four-day trip leaves students with shared memories that endure and experiences that affirm and extend all that they are learning in the classroom.

Of course, some of the students have been to New York City before, but this trip is quite unique. And for those who haven't been to the city, it is a powerful first visit. Inevitably, the wonder that accompanies first impressions becomes contagious. Few can stifle a "Wow!" when they see Times Square, whether for the first time or the fifth. But don't let the bright lights of Broadway fool you, this trip is grounded in meaningful exploration and educational purpose. Traveling with their classmates, sharing the rich history and cultural offerings of the city, the students take in all the sights with fresh eyes and inquisitive minds. Their conversations and the connections they make ensure that they come away having experienced a deeper kind of learning.

A main focus of the trip is to provide the students with rich, primary source material for their subsequent study of immigration, United States history, and the cultural impact of the American Dream. They explore immigration from a variety of vantage points and tour such landmarks as the United Nations and Ellis Island. Director of Upper School Gretchen Forsyth considered this year’s visit to the UN particularly inspiring. “Our visit offered an excellent review of the human rights unit the students studied in seventh grade. And I couldn't help but wonder if we have some future world leaders among us.” The eighth graders also gained insight into some campaign issues, such as nuclear proliferation and UN peacekeeping work. The Golden Rule, a mosaic on display, donated by Norman Rockwell, called to mind discussions the students had been having during their advisory lunches. (http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=47089#.WBDf35MrJPs). It was a powerful connection when the students realized that the values they talked about here at GUS are global values at the heart of the work done by the UN. The GUS students were excellent guests. They were respectful and engaged and asked discerning questions.

On another day, eighth graders headed to Battery Park to catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where they toured the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. They studied photographs, artifacts, and displays, gathering information for a humanities assignment in which they will imagine what it was like to come to this country over 100 years ago. Several commented on how “cool” it was to climb the same steps as their ancestors. Being there, on Ellis Island, made the lesson come alive for the students and elicited both intellectual and emotional responses—the kinds of connections that make learning personal and relevant.

Another item on the agenda was a walk to Wall Street and then on to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Faculty and students both commented that an amazing sense of solace seemed to hang over the site (Memorial video). Particularly moving was the “survivor tree,” which had grown significantly since the school’s first visit, an apt symbol of how we continue to live and grow. Students acknowledged that the visit was a powerful experience; although difficult, they felt that it was definitely worthwhile (Museum video). As Ms. Forsyth shared with parents, “Fifteen years ago, we vowed never to forget, and today, we toured the memorial with young people who weren't even born at that time. The museum conveys the message that remembering honors the victims. In our conversations with students, we focused on what happened following that day. We shared stories about how people treated each other with more kindness and compassion and helped each other. This is a valuable message, and I believe our students understood. They sought to support each other as they processed what they had seen.”

Students visited MoMA to gather inspiration for their culminating eighth grade art assignment, the White Shirt Project. This year, coincidentally, there was an exhibit on migration, both voluntary and forced. The works highlighted how “people travel around the world. They bring their traditions, knowledge, and beliefs with them, often mixing their cultures with those of their new homes." Students also saw such notable pieces as Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Umberto Boccioni’s The City Rises. There were a few comments from students along the lines of “I could do that,” effectively raising expectations for the quality of their own work. This week, they choose the artist they will focus on for their White Shirt Project. It will be interesting to see how their time at MoMA influences their work.  

After MoMA, the students and teachers headed to the Tenement Museum (with star sightings of Rob Reiner and Hoda Kotb along the way). Here, they traveled back in time and experienced what it was like to live at 97 Orchard Street in 1916. (Go online and experience a virtual tour at Tenement Tour.) They divided into groups. One group was led by Victoria Confino, a 14 year-old girl who lived in the tenement in 1916, who took them on a tour of the apartment where she lived with her parents and brothers. The other group met the Moore family, from Ireland. These presentations focused on issues of discrimination and survival and continued the narrative about immigrants in America begun at Ellis Island. 

On their final night, students attended the Broadway show Matilda. After the performance, students got to meet one of the stars, Gavin Swartz, who is a vocal student of GUS music teacher Sarah Bailes. Gavin plays Nigel in the play, and he spent some quality time answering the students’ questions and providing a view into what it takes to put on a Broadway show. It was amusing to observe the students’ gradual dawning of realization that this new friend managed to have a full-time job on Broadway while also being a full-time student. It certainly challenged the notion of what it means to be a busy 8th grader! The students made fast friends with Gavin, who hopes to attend the 8th grade production of Peter Pan this spring.

The trip ended with a visit to the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. The former aircraft carrier USS Intrepid was used during World War II, Vietnam, and the Cold War. In addition, Intrepid was a NASA recovery vessel and now has the Enterprise space shuttle on board. The students explored the ship, toured a submarine, watched a video on kamikaze fighters in WWII, and more. (Check out the museum’s website.)

Each year on this trip, eighth graders tap into their own creativity to construct personal meaning from their experiences. Could your son or daughter visit these sites with your family? Absolutely, and they should because that would be a valuable experience, but it would be quite different from the experience they just had. When your child is with their teachers and classmates, their classroom comraderie and shared purpose of inquiry travel with them. One idea might be the most important that children learn at GUS: learning is not confined to a classroom. This field trip might have lasted for only four days, but the insights and questions that engaged our learners can shape a lifetime.

Whitney Buckley