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How Megan Mitchell’s Students Learn Beyond Classroom Walls

keeping field trips alive

In the corner of Good Companions coffee shop on a cool morning, Megan Mitchell and one of her daughters sit down with warm drinks and sweet treats. As we begin talking, it’s clear that Mitchell is passionate about education, both inside the classroom and outside of school hours. During the workday, she teaches art in Dallas Independent School District (after serving as a second grade teacher in DeSoto ISD). On her own time, and sometimes using her own money, Mitchell takes students on field trips. With the traditional school outings a little less common these days, Mitchell takes it upon herself to make sure students experience museums, the opera and other destinations. She believes field trips create new perspectives and bring learning to life, as she explained during our conversation.

Where did your passion for field trips originate? My parents were both educators and encouraged free thinking and utilization of my creative energies. They made sure I was exposed to many different philosophies and had a variety of experiences, such as visiting national landmarks, living in Cambridge for a summer while my father attended Harvard on fellowship and meeting a diverse group of artists, theorists and authors. All of my exposure and experiences, as well as my parents’ encouragement, are the influential factors that shaped me into the educator I am today.

What prompted you to personally make more field trips possible? My community involvement began to evolve about eight years ago, when budgets for education began to be cut across the state, and decisions were made to minimize field trips for students. This was detrimental to the development of our students—because more often than not, those trips were the only exposure these students would have to actually apply concepts or see concepts being applied in real-world settings.

So you’ve been doing this for a while. But you seem just as enthusiastic today, if not more so. I think that because I see those “aha” moments in the kids that it started rewarding me. It’s the discussions and hearing the conversations and the parents who reach back out to me and ask me to come to graduations to tell me that their kid still remembers the lesson they learned from me, or kids who moved to other states and have said, “Ms. Mitchell, I really appreciate you exposing me to poetry. I’m still passionate about it.”… A lot of times the way that I see our kids, their main conversations when they come to me are about Fortnite, or Drake, or whoever the current rap artist is. That’s their exposure to life.

I know there are a lot of families out there that it’s a standard to be able to take a trip to India or to go on a cruise. That’s not a lot of my students. I want them to know that the world is not just limited to their neighborhood. The world has so much more to offer. If I can plant that small seed … giving them the idea that we don’t live in a fated world, that they’re not fated to anything—that whatever they want, they can have, if they push for it and have the drive for it.

Giving students these experiences doesn’t happen for free. Do you ask the parents to pay for their kids? I mainly look for community-sponsored events that are open to the public, or I purchase memberships to organizations. But when there are registration fees or tickets that must be purchased, then yes, I ask them if they are able to contribute. For example, on our three-day field trip to the Children’s Arts and Literacy Festival in Abilene, my husband and I pay most of the hotel costs as well as all taxes, tips and other costs and fees. We ask parents to help cover some of the hotel (around $10 per child) and contribute what they can for food. This last year, I had a couple of students that could not afford it, and so I either asked community members or my husband and I [sponsored them]. Overall, we try to minimize costs wherever we can and look for educational experiences that are free or inexpensive.

Is this all on your mileage and on your car? Yeah, I never ask parents for any of that. My husband and I viewed it as, “If we’re taking our own children then we’re going anyway,” so I’m not going to ask parents for that additional [money]. We purchase our personal vehicles with trips in mind, so both of our vehicles have three rows each.

What are some of the lessons the kids are learning on the field trips? With the operas, we talk about the plot. These are basic things that a 7- and 8-year-old would be learning—so character, setting, problem, solution. I do introduce them to words like protagonist and antagonist, so I don’t ever dumb down vocabulary to them. At the movie theaters, how to make sure that we’re not bumping one another or to interrupt the movie for anyone else, that it’s about an experience … that if you bump a chair that you simply own up and say, “Excuse me,” that we don’t put our feet on the chair, simple things of how to go to a theater.

When we’re doing the Dallas opera, they do a great job of learning how you show thanks and say, “Brava, bravo, bravissimo,” and who you’re saying that for. They’ve learned about musical instruments, they’ve gotten to play orchestra instruments. They’ve been able to play the trumpet. They get to interview authors. They ask questions and find their drive and their motivation. I’ve taken a set of kids to an event to meet Dav Pilkey [author and illustrator of the Captain Underpants and Dog Man series]. When we go to the Arboretum, we talk about geometry, and how do you plan a garden, and that it’s not just about horticulture, but it’s about knowing your math design, color schemes.

And kids may find their passion on one of these field trips. Exactly. I got into teaching to truly help kids figure out what they were passionate about. My ideology is—it may not always be what I’m passionate about, and that should not be my purpose for this. If it’s something they’re passionate about, how do I get them connected to the right people to further their education? Hopefully the field trips help put them on the right path.

Making It Happen

Megan Mitchell doesn’t have a formal fundraising system yet, but she would welcome donations toward the field trips or a new van. She hopes to start a website early this year. In the meantime, feel free to reach out to her via Facebook (search Megan McCutchen-Mitchell).

Image courtesy of Megan Mitchell.