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The World Is Their Oyster: Field Trips in the Middle School


Brooklyn Friends School may be in an urban setting, but in this city we have tremendous resources that enhance learning, not to mention an excellent mass transit system. Middle School faculty members are known for taking particular advantage of these resources, and have done so for many years. The trips are deeply embedded into the curriculum and have become a vital part of life in grades 5 through 8.

ms-cloisters-eOn Nov. 29 and Dec. 2, History Teachers Ticia Vreeland and Amanda Goodwin trekked with their 6th grade students – in two groups on different days, no less – to visit The Cloisters Museum in Upper Manhattan. Fortunately they had chaperoning help from Science Teacher Janet Villas, Middle School Dean Laurice Huang, Learning Specialist M’Balia Rubie-Miller and Latin Teacher Katy Koken.  “Doing two trips difficult for us,” said Ticia, “but it was the best thing for the children.” The extra trip was needed this year due to the growth in 6th grade enrollment, which now stands at 69.

For those not familiar, The Cloisters Museum is located in Fort Tryon Park and is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The collection, specializing in medieval European art and ms-cloisters-barchitecture, consists of four real cloisters from French monasteries and an abbey that were transported here and reconstructed in the 1930s, along with real indoor chapels from the era. A set of authentically reconstructed medieval gardens surrounds it.

“The tour we took was named Medieval Life,” explained Ticia, “but we specifically asked to see the Unicorn Tapestries, the Annunciation Triptych, the Three Kings statues, and some reliquaries,” [which are containers for holy relics.] “Amanda and I each teach two sections of History,” she continued.  “The curriculum starts with the Bible and then moves to medieval Europe, the medieval Middle East and the development of Islam, and ending with medieval West Africa.  This trip and the Feb. 7 visit to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine are part of the Medieval Europe study.”  At the Cathedral, the students had a guided tour and learned about the building’s similarities and differences with an authentic medieval cathedral.  “It’s a great way for sixth graders to see Cathedral design and architecture in person,” explained Ticia.  “We saw firsthand what we’ve been reading about come alive.”

ms-egypt-use-with-mummyFifth Grade Teacher Samantha Laserson, in her first year at BFS, hopped on the field trip bandwagon, joining with fellow Fifth Grade Teachers Alison Mirylees and Margaret Trissel to plan cultural activities for the students. On Dec. 9, the entire fifth grade class visited the Brooklyn Museum for a guided tour focusing on ancient civilizations.  “Sumer, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Egypt,” Samantha explained.  “We examined some stone carvings with cuneiform writing, as well as a mummy and some other Ancient Egyptian art.”

The students had just completed a curricular unit on these regions, so being in such close proximity to these artifacts right here in Brooklyn made a field trip a no-brainer. Every December the fifth grade also recreates an ancient Egyptian funeral procession in the hallways at Pearl Street, a time-honored event at the school, so the museum visit only ms-egypt-class-useenhanced the experience.  “I know that visiting the museum and the culminating fifth grade funeral are both beloved traditions here,” said Samantha.

What did the students think? “It was pretty cool,” said effusive fifth grader Isa, now in her first year at BFS.  “I learned a lot – it was really interesting.  I like that in the museum there were lots of examples, that I got to actually see in person…I recommend this, it was really cool.”

Her classmate Julian, now in his sixth year at the school, also gave the trip a thumbs up.  “I really liked getting to learn about the Greek mummy,” he said.  “It was mainly that we saw Egypt but there was this one mummy done in a style that the Greeks borrowed from Egypt.  We got to see some cool stuff. We also had a tour guide so we got to learn more than if we hadn’t.”

ms-hudson-c-try-to-useMiddle School trips aren’t restricted to history and the humanities. On Oct. 17, Janet Villas led the entire 8th grade on a trip for a deep dive into A Day in the Life of the Hudson River Watershed.  Fellow science teacher Kevin Cooney joined her and led students in the project, along with a scientist guide. “This program is part of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory annual snapshot day,” explained Janet. “On that day thousands of kids in New York State go down to the river and take water and core samples, do chemical and biological testing, and report their results back to the DEC. They even send a runner to get our samples at the river to keep them fresh.”

Janet already has an advantage in this arena thanks to her environmental activism in and out of BFS, and her ongoing classroom work with the Billion Oyster Project with students, an ongoing environmental restoration program done in affiliation with the New York Harbor Foundation.  “We did the same type of observations that we usually do for the Billion Oyster project,” she said, “but added a layer of additional tests and demonstrations.”

ms-hudson-d-try-to-useThe Hudson watershed field trip used to be an Upper School science project, Janet recalled, but last year she began doing it with eighth graders.  “It was a great success,” she said. “The most exciting part was the core sampling of the beach. We had to drive a tube into the sand and get a sample to be analyzed for all sorts of living and non-living things. We also learned how much shoreline will be under water in the event of continued climate change and we walked along the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge Park.”

Such projects don’t just serve an academic purpose for our students. It becomes a form of activism and service learning.  “We’re coordinating our work with Brooklyn Bridge Park educators, the Billion Oyster Project crew, and the DEC,” said Janet. “Everyone benefits.”

Not to be outdone for what will be the sixth year, Teachers Sarah Schlein and Ed Herzman‘s 8th graders will pay a visit this spring to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a restored 19th century tenement house in the iconic immigrant neighborhood.  “Our American history curriculum focuses on the time period from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement,” said Sarah. “We devote an entire unit in the to immigration at the turn of the 20th century.”

What better place to bring immigration to life than the Tenement Museum, a National Historic Site just three subway stops from Pearl Street ? As the museum’s website puts it, the original tenement home at 97 Orchard Street “enhances appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity.”

ms-tenement-must-useLast May students divided up into groups to take either the Hard Times or the Victoria Confino guided tour.  The first examines how immigrants survived economic depressions in the 19th and 20th centuries, including visits to the restored homes of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family.  The latter tour introduces visitors to 14-year-old Victoria Confino, who lived in the tenement in 1916. This year’s 8th graders will enjoy similar opportunities

Beating all of their teaching colleagues to the subways in late September of the 2016-17 school year, 7th grade English Teacher Jeremy Hawkins and Math Teacher Lyman took their students to visit the Shakespeare Garden within the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Structured in the style of an authentic English cottage-garden, the living exhibit features plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. The concept of a Shakespeare garden has been in vogue for many years throughout the world.  The original and surely most famous is that planted at Stratford-on-Avon in the 1920s and based on a 1586 woodcut from Shakespeare’s lifetime.  The Bard himself was known to be an avid gardener who knew his rosemary from his rue.

“The idea for the trip came a few years ago to me and theater teacher Lorna Jordan.” Jeremy said.  “One of the things we do is videotape the kids reading lines from Shakespeare that address flowers and flora.” Students also tackle Shakespeare in Jeremy’s English classes. These seeds continue to flourish in the Upper School under the guidance of Upper School Head Sidney Bridges, BFS’ resident Shakespeare scholar.

BFS’ first podcast of 2017, hosted by Media Services Director Andy Cohen, is a talk with Sidney and several Upper School students and faculty about experiencing William Shakespeare, including the rehearsal process for the January production of the Upper School play,  Shakespeare’s magical comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

ms-reyes-dPerhaps the most profound field trip of the recent past, and one that brings us back full circle to those iconic Three Kings at the Cloisters, was the Middle School Spanish classes’ trip to Harlem on Jan. 6 to celebrate and participate in El Dia de Reyes, or Three Kings Day, as never before. The idea came from Spanish teacher Kim Allen, who is new to BFS this year. Colleagues Laura Murtula-Montanya, a native of Spain now in her second year at BFS, along with Spanish and French teacher Paul Romano and Math Teacher Marna Herrity chaperoned and participated in the event.

“For me it’s natural to want to take kids out into the community and get them out of their bubbles,” said Kim, a birthright Quaker from Medicine Lodge, Kansas. “The holiday aside, the most significant part of the day was getting on a train and going to Harlem. And the students said, We’re in Harlem? This is Harlem? Oh!  That was the most important part of the day. They ms-reyes-must-usesaw it as a community not unlike their own and in some ways different, but it was a positive perception. They saw families, schools, how much Spanish was used in the community.”

Three Kings Day happens every year on January 6th, and for many Spanish-speaking people around the world, the Christmas season extends until this date.  “It’s the Epiphany,” explained Kim.  “This is where we get the idea of Christmas presents. It was the kings bearing gifts.  Little kids lay out shoes or little boxes and put in straw and food for the camels, not unlike milk and cookies for Santa.”

The Harlem parade, hosted by Museo del Barrio, is now in its 40th year. “It had a Borinquen, or Puerto Rican flavor – a lot of music with horns and drums,” said Kim. “It’s the idea of celebration and being the end of the holidays in addition to the religious significance.”

Our students didn’t simply tour the museum. At Kim’s urging the classes registered to actually participate in the parade, which was a first for BFS.  “We marched as a participating school. There were floats, several sets of kings – these giant, gorgeous puppets maybe two stories high, some kings on stilts, floats with Puerto Rican bands and dancers.  We were marching behind Harlem Elementary and a group protesting violence against gay Hispanics.”

ms-reyes-bThe roughly three-mile route ran from 106th and Park to 115th and Lexington in Spanish Harlem. Our students then walked back to the museum, a six-mile round trip in the freezing cold, to enjoy the festivities there – music, a cafe, and exhibits. “We told them, go be a part of the community,” Kim recalled. “And the kids said, What?  And we said, we trust you, go have a good time.  And they didn’t have to fill out worksheets. You don’t have to do that when you’re celebrating.”

There’s no doubt in Kim’s mind that the field trip was a hit with the students. For starters they all signed a postcard to her thanking her for thinking of the trip.  “They were very happy.  The discussion among the teachers is that this needs to be an annual tradition, to see that what they’re studying in Spanish class is connected to a community. It’s not just an academic subject. The idea is, you want to engage with people.”

ms-reyes-must-useBack in the classroom, students worked on their written Spanish by composing letters to Los Reyes, a major element of the holiday. In academic terms, participating in the tradition let them practice writing Spanish in different verb tenses.  Said Kim, “They were talking about how they have been good and this year, how they I want this, and how they want to be in the future.”

But that’s not the end of this energetic and unusual Spanish teacher’s story.  How did someone from Kansas become a Spanish-speaking Quaker?  “I’m actually an experienced history teacher but I’ve often taught Spanish,” she said. “I have a linguistics degree and I happen to be a Quaker.”  Kim’s father taught Spanish and received a master’s degree from a college in Mexico. “He directed a tour there called The Mexican Adventure so I used to go to Mexico a lot when I was a kid.”  Her family also frequently hosted Mexican foreign exchange students in their home. Kim also worked as a school administrator overseas, including at the American School of Rome, and she speaks fluent Italian.

In her hometown of Medicine Lodge there were indeed no Quaker meetings to be found, “but my family are pretty active Quakers,” Kim said. “I lived in a Quaker commune there when I was in sixth grade.  We walk the walk,” she said proudly of her family.  “I’ve been a human rights activist my whole life.”  Alas, the commune, a kibbutz-like experiment among 15 Kansas Quakers, was short-lived.  Why did they try it?   “It was the ’70s,” Kim quipped with a shrug.