All the other suggestions I had are work. Planing ahead, deciding what to wear, rejiggering your organization, and, perhaps most especially, getting kids to accept responsibility are all going to take sustained adult effort. My last observation is what makes it all worth while: foster enthusiasm.
I am often amazed at how regularly I have groups (and not just the students) that are honestly bored and disinterested in all the things Washington, DC has to offer. I get not wanting to travel or visit new places. I don’t understand shelling out a lot of money, including a fair amount for my personal services, when you don’t want to do be there. There’s a fair number of activities I have no desire to do, that’s why I don’t pay money for them!
Now my Scout group from this week had an easy time of it. They were off to an event only held every four years, the National Boy Scout Jamboree. It was something they had planned for years, and could barely contain their enthusiasm. Frankly, our little jaunt through Philly and DC was, at best, an amusing side show on the way to the big event.
Teachers bringing school kids face a different challenge. In many ways, this is simply an extension of school, an setting that doesn’t always help in encouraging unbridled enthusiasm. For understandable reasons, there is a direct relationship between the distance traveled and the enthusiasm shown. Kids from say, south Jersey may have been to DC several times before and are resigned to being dragged around sights they have already seen. Groups that fly in from the west coast have a much greater sense of adventure.
So what can we do about getting spirits up?
- Be enthusiastic yourself: Eighth graders are tough to impress. They are cynical and sarcastic about everything, but without the life experiences to temper it. But it’s just a shell, put up to protect themselves. Show them that you are not afraid to be excited to see things. Trust me, it’s not like they’re going to think you’re anymore of a dork than they already do.
- Have some fun: One reason I enjoy giving tours in New York compared to DC is that there is less pressure to be “educational”. Sure, they are still school trips, and I wax on eloquently about the City as a microcosm of the American Experience, blah, blah, etc. But, groups come to New York to have some fun, do some shopping, and give the kids a chance to let their hair down. Washington is often sold as the field trip equivalent of eating your vegetables, a facet that the monumental but ultimately sterile National Mall are reinforces. Throw some fun in your itinerary. Take in a ball game. Book a hotel that has a pool. Or even bring a frisbee and plan on down time on the Mall to liven things up a bit.
- Crush the whinging: Complaining is contagious. Don’t allow it. Teach your kids how to properly bitch. “My feet hurt” - bad. “I have a blister on my foot, can we stop and put a band-aid on it?” - good. Most people just aren’t accustomed to being uncomfortable nowadays, why should our kids be any different. Encourage kids to suggest solutions and not just throw up complaints. Your tour guide will thank you, but more importantly, the other students will have a better time too.
- Preparation: Here we go again, with the planning ahead. Consider having class projects in the weeks before your trip help to sharpen the excitement. Some of the best tours I give are when kids can personally relate to what they’re seeing. One class made models of all the monuments. Every student couldn’t wait to see “their” memorial and tell their friends some of the nuances they learned about it.
- Connect with DC: If your town has a connection to someone in DC, be it an student working as an on the Hill or a name on the Vietnam Wall, let your guide know early. I especially enjoy showing kids graves at Arlington that have a particular resonance, either a person they study in class or, more somberly in a few cases, a former student from their hometown recently killed in Iraq. Having a personal connection with the Nation’s Capital makes the visit that much more profound.
All in all, you can’t duplicate the excitement of 40,000 Scouts swinging by Washington on the way to the Jamboree, but you can do things on your own level to build enthusiasm for your annual trudge to Washington. You might find you have a better time yourself.