Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On the Road with The Willows

Sea Lions and Dolphins and Sharks, Oh My!

Imagine waking up one morning to find one of your roommates staring you right in the face. Disconcerting, perhaps – and, especially so, if your roommate is a Great White Shark!

For a Willows’ second grader, it’s simply one of the unusual perks of the traditional overnight trip to Sea World. This trip - a highlight of the second grade curriculum since 1997 – celebrates the students’ yearlong study of the oceans.

Each May, the children trek, via bus, to San Diego and spend the night on the Sea World grounds, sleeping in rooms that house sea animals. Kids and teachers arrange their sleeping bags on the floor and fall asleep (or not!) to the glow of the aquarium tanks. The next morning, children tour the park and enjoy some of Sea World’s famed animal shows.

Amy Dugré and Maura Visconsi were the second grade teachers in 1997, that first year. “We had been talking about wanting to do this trip all year,” remembers Amy. “Maura made contact with a friend of hers who worked at Sea World, and once Lisa learned that it was an established program with good supervision, we decided to go for it.”

“It really was amazing,” Amy adds. “They had a specialized curriculum that integrated with everything we were doing. And the best was being able to enjoy Sea World after the park closed.”

Embarking on an overnight adventure with such young students might seem unusual, but at The Willows, it’s part of the teachers’ focus on integrated learning experiences at each grade level. From second grade on, each student has the opportunity to participate in a trip that connects with the curriculum.

The overnight trips often provide those “aha” moments for students, when their classroom learning comes alive and takes on a new significance. Perhaps this moment occurs on the third grade trip to Big Rock Creek Camp, when a student lying on his back, gazing up at the stars discovers the Orion constellation . . .

or maybe it’s on the fourth grade trip to Astrocamp, when students work underwater with their classmates to assemble a structure with plastic building materials and truly understand what it feels like to be an astronaut working in a low-gravity environment.

Seventh graders travel even further afield, visiting Washington, D.C., as they study American history. Students explore the Smithsonian Museums on the Mall, visit the city’s monuments, and day trip to one of the many historic sites outside the city.

“I especially loved the Library of Congress,” notes Jacob G., a current student, who was a member of this fall’s excursion to the nation’s Capitol. “The entire book collection was amazing, but I was astounded by the art. It covered the place from head to toe. Sculpture, mosaic, architecture, and painting—it was all there waiting for everyone and anyone.”

“I loved the Lincoln Memorial at night,” adds seventh grader Sophie K. “The view of the reflecting pool was so beautiful. It was also fun to see Steve point out that there was a mistake in the engravings on the wall.”

The trips support the curriculum, but also allow students to build independence in a safe setting. For many students, The Willows’ overnight trips are the first time they spend any significant time away from home and family.

Back in 1998, Tori Storosh, ’02 participated in the third grade’s first overnight trip to Big Rock Creek Camp. It was her first time sleeping away from home, and she was incredibly anxious. “I remember my teachers being extremely supportive and understanding of my troubles and fears. They tried to make it as fun for me as possible, and it was really nice of everyone to be so caring. I think that says a lot about the community that is formed at The Willows.”

 Reflecting on the decision to commit to overnight trips at almost every grade level, Lisa Rosenstein says, “It was a natural decision for us. Our curriculum emphasizes experiential learning – we want our children to understand first-hand those connections between the classroom and the world beyond.”

 “Plus,” she adds, “The shared experience of these trips is priceless. As our students grow older and move through the Lower and Middle School, they’re able to look back and remember all the adventures that they’ve had as a group. It’s just one more element that binds them together as a community.”

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