This past Friday the school counselor and I took 10 students on a trip to the Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania.  We’ve been working on a history project based around the fact that our old building, which stood for 100 years, is being torn down.  (For more on the project, check out our blog.)

The exhibition was of 14 paintings by David Kennedy (who I can’t provide a link to since he is fairly unknown), a Scottish immigrant who painted highly detailed watercolors of paintings around Philadelphia.  The 14 paintings featured in the exhibit were all of West Philadelphia, the part of the city in which our students live.  The trip involved a self-guided tour of the paintings, an informal discussion of the works as well as a wonderful and engaging performance and a lively scavenger hunt.  Our students were excited by the paintings and provided thoughtful and intelligent discussion about them.  I was bursting with pride.

While the exhibit was the focus of the trip, our students learned exponentially more just through the experience of leaving the school and leaving the neighborhood.  As we climbed onto the trolley, I was amazed to hear that a few of my students had never taken any of the trolleys, whose tracks snake all over West Philadelphia and which are considered the way to get around this part of the city.  After we left the gallery, we took the students on a walking tour of the Penn campus, which was full of students of all shapes, sizes and colors.  We were able to discuss college with our students in a real way and show them what a college campus looks like. 

The most memorable moment was when a large group of non-English speaking Chinese business people visiting Penn’s Wharton School of Business, started snapping pictures of our students as they posed in the Button sculpture outside of Penn’s main library.  One of our students went over to the group, who were at that time posing for a group picture with a sign written entirely in Chinese, and asked them where they came from and what the sign said.  Eventually, our students became rock stars, taking photos with the visitors and posing in pictures with them and a statue of Benjamin Franklin.

Afterward, as we searched for help finding the entrance to the Westbound trolley, one of my students saw an Asian person and said, “They don’t speak English.”  I had to explain that people of all races and backgrounds speak English and that we couldn’t just assume that they don’t speak English because of the way they look.  In fact, I added, many people in other countries learn English from a young age even if they’ve never been to the United States.

Sitting on the trolley ride back to the school, we sunk into the chairs–it had been a long day!  I was sitting next to an older gentleman who, seeing that I was a teacher, began to tell me about the volunteer work he does with children, pulling a beautiful ceramic masquerade mask he had bought for the children from a bag on his lap.  He also began to tell me about his experiences in the hills of India while he was deployed there.  As I wished him well and stepped off the trolley I realized that I, too, had learned something on this trip: You never know what people’s stories are and where they’ve been or what they’ve seen.

While the counselor and I slightly regretted letting our students jump into pictures with complete strangers, we agreed that it was a great experience for them to have a positive interaction with people who don’t look like them and who don’t even speak English.  The Chinese visitors, we agreed, may have never spoken or interacted with an African-American before, so our students made a positive impression for them to take back to China with them.

If we isolate our students in a classroom and limit their trips to closed in places, we limit their learning experience.  Very few of our classes go on trips–mostly due to ‘behavior issues’–but our students are the kind of population that need this kind of experience the most.  Many children in urban neighborhoods don’t get to venture outside their neighborhood or outside of their comfort zone.  Perhaps that means that we, as educators, need to step outside our own comfort zones to give our students a meaningful experience.

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