Commentary By: Dr. Joseph Conway
CAMDEN, N.J. — Camden’s Charter School Network — which includes Camden’s Pride Elementary, Katz-Dalsey Elementary, Camden’s Promise Middle, and Camden Academy Charter High School — has always been highly invested in and has treasured its field trip excursions.
Year upon year we have had hallmark events through every grade of our school. From Kindergarten through 12th grade students experience museum excursions, theater plays, Baltimore trips, overnighting in Williamsburg, high and low ropes courses, college campus exposures, high school adventures to the Florida keys for environmental AP classes, senior trips to Florida, and the list goes on.
Having our children experience out of school field trips is an important part of our curriculum which allows our Camden kids to go beyond the city limits and experience the world. Additionally, one of our pride and joys is having not only our kids experience the world, but no matter whatever trip we go on, having our hosts experience our children. Breaking some of the stereotypes associated with our great City of Camden is a ripple effect that we have been very proud of over our storied history.
The advent of COVID 19 has tremendously curtailed field experiences for our students since March. To do anything we must check travel advisories, discuss cohort groups, work out significantly scaled back busing, follow cleaning regimens and check in regimens, and make sure that where we want to go is even open. Quite a thorn in the side to our programs. Thus, the joy of field trips has been reduced to playground visits and park walk-arounds. Virtual field trips have become the go-to, but this is a pale shade of an experience compared to the real thing.
Having said that, I had the pleasure of going on a recent trip with the good fortune of a partner organization the Delaware River Keeper Network program. They had a grant for 15 kayaks which they were not able to use for the day. Would we be interested? Absolutely!
In a moment of almost normalcy, Camden’s Promise Charter School students went on a field trip for their STEAM class as a first true outing for the year. This trip was arranged with much planning with the Delaware River Keeper Network. Over the course of two sessions, we were able to take 50 children through a field study exercise of science in the environment as well as a kayak excursion on the Delaware River from Pyne Point’s boat slip.
Students learned of the animal life and vegetation along the water’s edge. They learned basic kayaking safety, how to put on life vests, how to paddle and stroke correctly, and how to maneuver a single person kayak. We were within eyeshot of the Philadelphia skyline, Petty Island, and the Cooper River. We were able to see the changing tree foliage, the flora and fauna of this part of the Delaware, and hear the sounds of laughter and joy on this outside experience of our kids many of whom never went kayaking before.
Students were safe, they were happy, they were active, and they were having a life experience beyond the computer screen which has become the dominant tool in their lives.
These types of events are indispensable parts of the education of our children. To take time to make authentic connections, experience tangible real-life applications to what children are learning through the screen, and share with each other through team work and team building exercises has been missing from our curriculum this year. Even though the effort was tremendous, we have a responsibility to continue attempting these incredible opportunities.
At the end of our kayak and field study, all the students stood in a circle and shared a “rose and a thorn.” This is a culminating discussion about the good experiences and bad experiences which students may have had on their trip. They took a moment to connect with each other and with their most remembered moments of the day.
Sure, there were “thorns” about wet feet, muddy shoes, dirty hands, and disgusting bugs. Some falling in close calls and some concerns about pollution were brought up. But there were roses, too. First time kayakers were amazed by their trip. Students were proud of overcoming fears, seeing something unusual in nature, or simply making a connection with one of their fellow classmates.
The roses outweighed the thorns.
Dr. Joseph Conway is the superintendent and co-founder of the Camden Charter School Network that includes four schools in the City of Camden.
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