Passport to Learning (Or, the Pros and Cons of End-of-Year Trips)

Starting in September, our students work to earn Passport Points. These points are given for grades (3 points for each A, 2 points for each B, etc.), behavior (3 points for each week "in the green," where students earn fewer than three demerits, etc.), and special accomplishments (like being a behavioral VIP or making honor roll). Students with enough Passport Points earn their space on the end-of-year trip.

(Seventh graders in New Orleans' French Quarter)

As students progress through the grade levels, their end-of-year trips become bigger and better. Our fifth graders travel upstate to a summer camp for outdoor sports (like kayaking and high ropes courses) and team building activities. However, our seventh graders travel to New Orleans to complete service learning projects in communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina, and our eighth graders study international ecology in the rainforests of Costa Rica. For many of them, these trips mark their first overnights away from their families, their first experiences on an airplane, and their first journeys outside of the country.

But even though these trips sound like a dream-come-true for any middle school student, there are always some pros and cons to be considered:


Tangible Long-Term Goals
Let's start with the most obvious one: these end-of-year trips provide students with a tangible long-term goal that they can focus on throughout the school year. This helps build their capacity for self-control. If they can stay committed to making the "right choices" (completing their homework, studying for tests/quizzes, participating during class, etc.), then they'll receive the reward at the end. Also, because there's no cap on the number of students who can go on the end-of-year trips (as opposed to only the twenty highest-achieving students receiving a ticket), even students who sometimes struggle can earn their spot.

I think that it's significant that our charter network's high schools don't provide students with end-of-year trips; instead, students partake in college tours throughout the school year. (Many of these college tours happen in-state because the majority of our students take advantage of discounted SUNY and CUNY tuition rates.) For middle school students, college can seem distant and hypothetical; Costa Rica makes a much stronger motivating "carrot." By the time they reach high school, however, students have a greater capacity for long-term planning and delayed gratification. They realize that the ultimate "prize" is a college education, as opposed to an early summer vacation.

(On a New Orleans swamp tour with baby alligator Henry)

Community Building
During these trips, we combine students into cross-advisory groups. They work alongside classmates that they may have never interacted with before. We also take every available opportunity to push for inclusivity -- publicly rewarding students who demonstrate "inclusive behaviors" (sitting with a socially-struggling classmates at lunch, inviting "outsiders" to join their conversations/activities, mixing up their seats on the tour bus, etc.). Teachers also have an opportunity to build relationships with students outside of the classroom, which can then carry over into their day-to-day academic work. The little inside jokes and shared experiences that come out of these end-of-year trips help to make our school into a stronger community.

(Eating beignets outside of Café Du Monde)

Building Life Skills
In many ways, these end-of-year trips are the ultimate "college prep." Students have their first experiences going through airport security, being responsible for their own bedtimes (since students stay in their own "dorm rooms"), and giving back to their communities through service learning projects (where they frequently have to interact with the elderly and/or disabled). While academics might not be at a premium on these trips, students' social skills definitely get a workout. They have to resolve the conflicts that can arise when you have to be around your classmates 24/7 (just like how they're going to have to learn to co-exist with roommates in their dorms); they have to work in situations that might be outside of their comfort zones. Overall, I think that these end-of-year trips strengthen the "soft skills" that are frequently neglected in the classroom but that our students will need to successfully navigate high school and college.

(Weeding a community garden in Treme)

The World as a Classroom
I'm a huge believer in using the world as a classroom. Whether it's touring through the unique architecture of New Orleans' French Quarter or riding a zipline through the rainforest canopies of Costa Rica, these end-of-year trips get our students outside of the South Williamsburg housing projects and into a world that might be completely unfamiliar to them. I'm all in favor of more field trips, more experiential learning, and more interactions with community members. (School Without Walls, I'm looking at you!)


Staying Strong with Passport Points
Our biggest problems on end-of-year trips usually revolve around students who fell just short of the Passport Point totals. Our school will sometimes end up with "extra tickets" because of students who dropped out or ended up becoming ineligible because of significant infractions (like multiple suspensions late in the year). Our school feels obligated to use these tickets, so they take students who are on the "cusp" -- who didn't quite have enough Passport Points to be eligible but came close. After six years of student travel experiences, I can honestly say that our school should shred those "extra tickets" and leave the students who fell short back in Brooklyn. Students need to know that they earned the end-of-year trip; bringing along students without the requisite number of Passport Points sends the wrong message.

Problems with the Destinations
I've never seen the actual budget, but some of these end-of-year trips must cost about $3,000 per student. For that amount of money, we could take them almost anywhere in the world. I can never understand why we choose to take them to Costa Rica, especially when so many of our Latino/a students spend their summers in Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republican. One of my co-workers told me that students are more excited about that trip BECAUSE it's a location that's familiar to them. (They especially like sharing information with their classmates, frequently pointing and exclaiming: "We have those kinds of trees in the DR!") But I can't help wondering if our students might be better served with a trip to somewhere completely unfamiliar, somewhere to which their parents might not take them. Another Spanish-speaking country maybe. Like . . . Spain? Just a thought.

(Hanging out at the airport. For many hours.)

So Many Expenses
These trips are EXPENSIVE. And, since most of our students live at or below the poverty line, we're the ones picking up the tab. Parents are expected to make a small contribution of $500 or less, although scholarships are available for students whose families don't have any expendable income. (Every student who has enough Passport Points gets to go on the end-of-year trip, regardless of their economic situation.) I absolutely love the equity that this provides. My high school had travel opportunities, but I was never able to go on them because we couldn't come up with the exorbiant costs. (I went to an elite private school where most of their families didn't know the meaning of "budget travel.") However, even though I understand that these end-of-year trips provide valuable learning opportunities, I just can't wrap my mind around the $210,000+ price tag. For a single trip. And, as previously mentioned, when students aren't getting a brand-new cultural experience, I'm forced to question if the trips are worth the costs.

Those are my pros and cons regarding our end-of-year trips. Overall, I support them and always have a fantastic time traveling with the seventh graders to New Orleans. I think it goes without saying that I'm a huge advocate of educational travel (as proven by the fact that I'll be spending half of next year in Scotland and England), and I want my students to have the same access to those opportunities as I do -- even if they do attend a Title 1 school.

Day Ten (31 Days of Trip Planning): FINALLY contacted every organization/individual that I want to meet with in Dublin. On to the next part of my trip: I contacted the Royal Exchange Young Company in England and filled out volunteer paperwork for the International Youth Arts Festival in Kingston. I'm debating whether or not I want to take a side-trip to Scotland to attend the National Festival of Youth Theatre in Glenrothes. Participants stay in tents which a) is AMAZING but b) would be a hindrance because there's no way that a tent will fit in my Porter 46 and make it through RyanAir's stringent carry-on requirements. #europeantravelproblems

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