Social Education 55(6) pps. 398-399
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies

A Competitive Field Experience for Junior High and Middle Schools

Michael D. Evans
Field trips are indispensable educational tools for junior high and middle school students, yet teachers must carefully plan these excursions to help prevent discipline problems and to motivate students of all ability levels. Team competition between balanced groups of students provides a particularly successful structure for field trips. During a recent excursion to a national battlefield, team competition fostered cooperative learning experiences and raised self-esteem among a group of 7th graders, at the same time providing an incentive for learning and good citizenship throughout the school year. To cap their study of the Civil War, one hundred U.S. history students from urban Alexandria, Virginia, traveled to nearby Manassas National Battlefield Park. Located in northeast Virginia, about thirty miles west of Washington, D.C., this park marks the site of two major Civil War battles. The initial battle, on July 21, 1861, became the first major engagement of the war and made a hero of Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson, whose "stonewalquot; stand convinced the inexperienced Union troops to retreat to Washington. The second battle of Manassas, August 27-30, 1862, also ended in retreat for the Union army, giving Confederate General Robert E. Lee the confidence to press his attack into Maryland and later on to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Because of its rich historical significance and its convenient proximity to Alexandria, the Manassas Battlefield proved an ideal field trip site.

Prior to the visit, the history teacher prepared a lesson plan for use by participating teachers, all members of a teaching team. For two weeks, students learned about the battles at Manassas through word searches, situational discussions, and map studies emphasizing troop positions and supply lines. They also received ground rules pertaining to the program and a four-page worksheet provided by the National Park Service. Park rangers at the battlefield later commented on the students' perceptive questions and unusual level of prior knowledge.

Also during the two weeks preceding the trip, teachers divided students equally into groups of ten corresponding to the Confederate and Union companies that fought at Manassas. Each "company" received points for completed assignments and good behavior. After the trip, the three top-scoring teams received prizes; the winning team enjoyed a pizza party. To encourage cooperative learning and to give each team an equal chance in the competition, great care was taken to balance the groups with students of various ability levels and to separate potentially disruptive students. To ensure leadership within each company, teachers also appointed company captains and served as tactical advisers to these student commanders. Company captains chose their own ranking officers, who were responsible for various details of the trip, including the preparation of posters, flags, and buttons identifying the various companies.

On the day of the field trip, the Union and Confederate battalions rode on separate buses marked with appropriate insignia. During the ride, company members sat together and began answering questions from their worksheets. At the park, the companies walked the circuit of battlefield stations, absorbing presentations offered by the park service at each stop and then sharing their answers to questions on the worksheet pertaining to that specific station. At day's end, the students had completed sixty-five questions-both simple recall and short essays.

Successful completion of the questionnaire required varied skills, making the testing exercise a true cooperative endeavor. At each battle station, a myriad of relics, maps, and explanations required interpretation. Consequently, students were encouraged to collaborate to reach a company consensus. (In numerous instances, however, students refused to conform to the company consensus, which resulted in scoring differentials. Since the objective of this particular exercise is cooperative problem solving, the program could be improved by eliminating such deviations.)

Back at school, students reassembled in the cafeteria. Still seated by companies, they completed a follow-up exam, including an individual essay. The exam results, plus points for enthusiasm and good behavior, contributed to the final team scores.

Beyond the obvious history lesson, this three-hour field exercise provided numerous additional benefits for participants. Since team scores depended on individual performances, all students were motivated to become involved and to contribute to the problem-solving exercises. Strong students could channel their energies into leadership functions. Mediocre students gained confidence from their active involvement. Weaker students could participate with higher achieving students. Even those students who offered minimal participation displayed more interest in learning than under conventional circumstances. For all students, the experience of working with peers toward a common goal broke down psychological barriers imposed through prior homogeneous grouping.

Follow-up discussions revealed that students felt good about their accomplishments during the Manassas unit. Teachers also reported that many students displayed an increased interest in history and enjoyed a strengthened relationship with their peers. Some students also demonstrated a marked improvement in self-esteem. In addition, since school administrators do not allow extremely disruptive students to participate in field trips, anticipation of the next excursion created an ongoing incentive for good behavior in the classroom.

Although history lends itself easily to field trips, these principles can be applied in other disciplines as well. In any case, careful planning and follow-up can transform a routine field trip into an integral part of the curriculum and an enjoyable experience for all.