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American History in Person: Junior High Student Trip to Washington DC & Philadelphia

Students from The Big Piney School in Wyoming in front of the Washington Cathedral.

Greg Bell, a junior high U.S. History and World Geography teacher from Wyoming, takes 30-40 students on an East Coast tour each year that includes visits to Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and even Gettysburg. These trips expand student learning about these subjects and expose them to a whole new world.  Bell’s group comes from Big Piney, WY — a town of about 1,000 people. It is 100 miles to the nearest shopping mall.  Visiting the urban areas of the East Coast is a real eye opener. Bell says, “I have taken students on these trips for 19 years now. Some people remark that it must get boring.  After all this time I have not grown tired of it. It is the highlight of my year. It’s a social studies teacher’s dream.”

Encountering American historical sites in person is different than learning about them through reading and lectures.  “I can lecture to the kids about George Washington,” says Bell, “but there is nothing like watching a kid walk through Mount Vernon on his own.” During their trip to Washington’s former estate, they met George Washington in person (a living history actor) and were able to ask him questions.

Greg and his son, Jefrrey Bell, stand in front of the Liberty Bell on their school trip to Philadelphia.

Meanwhile other actors were shooting replicas of Colonial weapons. Life in the Eighteenth Century is dramatized in front of the student group and they get to tour a well-preserved, authentic plantation from that time period – complete with living history actors who re-enact life in the Revolutionary period.

Curriculum objectives are closely tied to the itinerary of the trip. Bell’s U.S. History class begins with the American Revolution and ends with the Civil War.  That’s why a visit to Philadelphia is on the itinerary.  “It’s the birthplace of America,” remarked Bell. “We walk through Independence Hall and see the actual place where the Constitution was written.”  Students remember their time spent at Independence Hall vividly, and often speak about this, and other sites in their post trip discussions back at Big Piney School.

Philadelphia is the birthplace of America, but Washington D.C. is the hub of government today.  At Arlington Cemetery, Big Piney School students witnessed the changing of the guard. “In class,” Bell says, “we speak about what a reverent place it is.  We stop and see famous Americans buried there. Who, as an American, cannot be touched by looking off at those endless rows of white headstones?”  Another somber site students visit is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Bell covers the holocaust of World War II in his 7th grade World Geography class.  Bell steers the students away from the more graphic exhibitions. He says they can return in a few years, when they are older. But the most memorable exhibits for students are the display of the shoes of the Holocaust and Daniel’s story.  “There are mountains and mountains of shoes, and each pair represents a person – a human being,” remarked Bell.  Kids also relate to Daniel’s story of the holocaust, because he is about their age.  “Every year some of the kids come out of the elevator in tears,” says Bell.

The Big Piney School 8th Grade Class poses for a picture while they visit the East Coast.

Post trip in-class exercises include discussions of sites that sparked students’ creativity with challenges to recall the memory of what they’ve seen.  “When we return we have a sharing activity, comparing and contrasting what we’ve done in class versus what we saw on the trip,” said Bell.  Some students even make Power Point presentations to share photos of their trip with other students. Bell has designed a fun, interactive exercise for his classes.  “We play a little review game where the students get clues about the history and location of a site. Their task is to guess which site it is,” said Bell.  Exercises such as these stimulate memories of the trip and get them talking about it to one another.

In addition to being a history and world geography teacher, Greg Bell is also the Social Studies Chair for Sublette District #9. This position puts him in charge of setting up K-12 curricula for Social Studies teachers in his district. He is a husband and father of two children. His job is challenging, and his work impacts other teachers. Recently, some of Bell’s female students purchased him a bracelet that says, ‘what you do matters.’ He was wearing this bracelet during the interview. Clearly Bell’s teaching methods –which include these annual trips to Washington D.C. and Philadelphia — do have a lasting impact on students and the way he chooses to educate them.

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