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In Defense of Field Trips: A Conversation with Educators from an Extraordinary Alabama Public School

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People looking for a public school Cinderella story need look no further than George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Alabama. The once struggling school, which serves mostly low-income children, now boasts state math and reading test scores most wealthy suburban schools would be proud of. (See our story about George Hall's Success).

George Hall did not have to sacrifice all but the basics to get there. Instead, the school's staff courageously focused on what some would consider frills in an era of high-stakes accountability: innovative technologies; rich vocabulary and content knowledge; even field trips.

We recently spoke with George Hall principal Terri Tomlinson and teachers Elizabeth Reints and Melissa Mitchell.

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Hear highlights from our interview (5 minutes)


Public School Insights: If I understand it correctly, George Hall Elementary has an almost 100 percent proficiency rate in English Language Arts and mathematics, with almost 100 percent of your students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. As you know, that's not the standard formula. How do you do it?

Tomlinson: When we first got here, we realized how low the scores were and how poorly our students performed in Reading Language Arts, and especially in vocabulary.We struggled with it the first year that we were here and made what I would consider minimal gains.

The next year we were invited, through the Alabama Best Practices Center, to participate in the 21st Century Learners Project, which was a technology initiative from [the] A+ [Education Partnership]. We put together a team of five teachers, and after the first meeting they came back to the school with an assignment. They had to do a project.

And as a school, we had been discussing how low the vocabulary and reading scores were and what difficulty our students had with writing. So we came up with the idea that we would use technology to increase student achievement in the area of vocabulary, but with a spillover into reading and writing, as well.

The project that we finally decided on was that we would use technology in … our field trips to actually teach vocabulary. [The idea was] when students went on field trips, they'd take the digital cameras [and] recorders, [record what they did on the trip], and then they'd come back and produce a product.

Public School Insights: Do you think that collaboration among teachers and you, as the principal has been particularly important in the work that you've done?

Tomlinson: We are a very collaborative faculty and staff. I think that the use of technology, the field trips, the focus on student achievement…has helped us to work together, both at [particular] grade levels and across grade levels. We do a lot of long-range planning; a lot of looking at the standards that we need to cover and the different ways that we can cover the standards.

We've grown our own experts and so we have a lot of guidance within our own faculty. If we're going to do something with technology, we have our go-to people. We have our strong reading experts. We have Melissa [who] is our strong writing expert. We have a strong math [person]. We're very open about sharing our ideas.

Public School Insights: As you know, a lot of people have worried that schools have narrowed what they do in order to focus on those math and reading scores. And it sounds like George Hall is by no means one of those schools.

Tomlinson: Children who are raised in generational poverty have very, very few experiences outside of their neighborhood. And we are a very tight neighborhood school. Many of our kids have absolutely no transportation, and a trip to the mall in Midtown is like a vacation. So I think when you put it in perspective, we felt like our kids needed the experiences provided by field trips. But what could we do that would be both a richer experience for the kids, and also one that would help with student achievement?

We realized that we really needed to coordinate the vocabulary words with the lessons that [students] were involved in or align them with the units in our reading series. [W]e would identify the vocabulary that we needed to teach. The teachers would pre-teach the vocabulary. [Then] they'd take the students on the fieldtrip that aligned with the lesson. [The teachers] would make sure that they were using the appropriate vocabulary on the fieldtrip. Then they would come back and produce either a photo story or a product. 

[For instance,] it might be a hall display…[or] a series of writings about where the students had been. It could have been, in the lower grades, ashared writing or modeled writing by the teacher, using the vocabulary words.

The first time we did state assessment [after the fieldtrips], we jumped…in the area of vocabulary as measured by the SAT 10. It was an unbelievable success. Our students did extremely well with this, because I think we made it real for them.

[W]e have really evolved from where we started.

We now have a production studio that we put in about a year ago. We have a lot of technology we've just put in, with the SMART Board, document cameras, a slate…so we have a lot going on.

We do a writing fair every year at the end of the year, and this year was our biggest yet. And we used virtual field trips to do a lot of the writing for the writing fair. The theme of the writing fair this year was "U.S. History and Patriotism."

And Melissa [our lead writing teacher] put a timeline up that ran throughout the entire building that began in 1607 and went to the present and on into the future. The kids at all levels had to write about different events in U.S. history. It was a tremendous learning experience. It increased our knowledge of U.S. history, [and] we worked with math with the timeline -- just a lot of creative things.

And now I'm going to let Liz and Melissa talk to you, because they are involved in the production of what we do with vocabulary.

Reints: One of the goals was to teach the children -- and initially we had to teach the teachers-- how to use Web 2.0 tools. We were given the project to give us an opportunity to show the children how to do blogging, how to do web pages, how to do photo stories.

We hope now that we've given the children the technology background that they need, as well as an opportunity to increase their academic achievement in all areas, not just reading and reading vocabulary.

Public School Insights: If you had then a very brief lesson you would want to share with other schools out there that are in similar circumstances and want to replicate your success, what would that lesson be?

Tomlinson: I think there's probably no box. You know, people always say you have to think outside of the box. I think when you plan with children, there is no box. You have to be very focused, you have to be data driven, you have to make it real for kids. And we do a lot of extras, but every extra ties back in to what's important to be successful academically. We are very focused. There is nothing done in this building that does not have a purpose. And I've heard the phrase "laser-like focus." We are very focused on providing what our students need to be successful in the adult world.

And I'm going to let Melissa talk about our production studio and what it's done for [our students’] oral speaking [and] expression. Our kids were very timid and never talked five years ago. [Now] we've got some fantastic reporters.

Mitchell: This year was our first year with the broadcast studio, and we used a group of fifth-graders as our journalists. We've had an online newspaper and a newspaper staff in past years, and the children write on activities going on in the school and fieldtrips that they're going on.

But this year they not only wrote those and published them online, we also taught them to use digital cameras and video cameras, and taught them how to make Movie Maker projects and PowerPoint presentations to use in the context of a broadcast. And they write their own script and they broadcast them. We upload them to the Internet and the school also has a portal where we can upload them. Other grade levels can go on and watch the newscasts and other children can see not only what fifth-grade students are doing, but…what all grade levels are doing.

Public School Insights: When you…give them the scripts to write and they do the broadcasts, are they aligning this with the school curriculum and with things they're currently doing in their classes?

Mitchell: Well, the main focus of writing in the fifth grade is mode-driven writing. They write narrative papers. They also write a lot of expository papers. And we've aligned the newspaper articles they write to be in a similar format to their expository writing. But then we push for them to be more expressive and put more personality into it because that’s not something that they always get to do [in the classroom].

Public School Insights: You mentioned earlier that you've been taking them on virtual field trips. I was wondering if you could explain that a little more fully.

Reints: [T]hrough certain web sites we've been able to find places that the students can go to get information about particular cities. For example, Washington, D.C. and the monuments there. They can use those web sites to go to places that we certainly wouldn't be able to send them, and then they can use that information in their writing.

Public School Insights: You're doing quite a lot. Is there ever a fear that you're unable to fit it all in, given the time you have to teach these kids?

Tomlinson: We did realize that, not this past school year, but the year before, and our faculty voted to extend the school day by one hour. And it was pretty much a unanimous vote.

We felt that the accepted way of providing extended day activities was not really productive. The students who needed it the most were the ones who never stayed. Our rationale for extending the school day was that we would be able to provide every student either intervention or enrichment, and there was no stigma attached to being here, because the whole building stayed.

And we did robotics, we did the journalism club, we did some technology. There were several activities that we did with the students that were enrichment-type activities, but then the students who really needed the intervention were also in the intervention activities. That was very effective, and our scores were the highest yet after the year of the extended day activities where we actually built it in five days a week, all year.

This year we were not able to do [the extended day] because of budget cuts. And we really felt –it; the teachers every day [said], "The day is much too short. We miss having that extra hour." And so this year we have really tightened our budgets and our plans right now are to extend the day again. There was not one person [on our faculty] who said, "No, I'm not going to do that."

Public School Insights: So the messages I'm drawing from what you're saying are that, first of all, the extended day makes sense when you know very well what you're going to use the time for, when the faculty are all together on the importance of it, and when you all agree on the goals. And that it costs money.

Tomlinson: It costs a fortune to do [the extended day]. And we are always looking for ways to help us pay for this -- looking for grants for the innovative teaching or any way that we can. It's not built into a teacher's contract; we pay each teacher a stipend every day to stay.

This is very costly, but the benefit for the students is overwhelming. Our students experienced so much success the year that we did it, because we were really able to pinpoint the intervention that students needed and provide it.

It seems like we do a lot, but I don't know what we would stop doing at this point. We do get tired, but I think the teachers seem to enjoy it as much as the students.

Most of our students do not have computers in the home, and our nearest library is about three miles down the road. We need to be able to provide that experience with the computers and the exposure to technology, in our buildings. And hopefully, that's what drove what we were doing with the fieldtrips.

Public School Insights: From your descriptions, it sounds like you're also doing an awful lot together with your community to make these fieldtrips work. Is that true?

Tomlinson: Our parents have been very supportive since we got here, five years ago. They come to the school now. [But] the community is the last [project]; it is still very hard at this point. Many of our students will come back to this community, not because they're not able to go any farther or to have a career or to go to a technical school, but they will come back because their parents don't know any different from being here. Our goal is, with the field trips, to open up that world.

Public School Insights: Given that the president and the secretary of education are talking about turnarounds right now they should pay some heed to George Hall.

Tomlinson: I think they need to pay attention to George Hall and the success that we have experienced and [its] sustainability. It's not that we turned it around for one year and then after one year went back. We have seen gains -- not huge gains every year, but we have had steady gains each year in what we have done. I think about when we got here, our reading levels for the entire school was ending first grade. And that was even our fifth grade students. Nobody could read here.

And now when I look at reports for the end of the year, with the exception 10 percent or less of our students, probably 90 percent or 92 percent of our students are close to grade level or right at grade level in reading at this [point].

There have been tremendous strides here and the confidence level of the students [has greatly improved]. I think that's what we see more than anything. [O]ur children have a level of confidence and the self esteem that was never there before. And they're happy to be here, but there’s a lot of rigor in our curriculum. I would think that we’re probably one of the toughest elementary schools in our district. The rigor is there, but if you keep raising the expectations, the students will keep rising to the expectations.