Schools Use Field Trips to Teach Social Justice and Acceptance

It’s not every day a student-drafted legal brief in support of an undocumented family ends up on a high school teacher’s desk. But that’s exactly what Tim Breen, the Watershed School’s head of school, found after students returned from a project exploring human and ecological borders in Texas and Mexico. 

[Above: High school students from Watershed School hike during a 10-day backpacking trip in September 2018. (Photo courtesy Watershed School)]

Watershed is one of a number of schools in the United States that emphasize experiential learning as an important tool for exposing students to diverse perspectives and social justice issues. During the school’s recent borders project, ninth and 10th graders spent a week talking to people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border about the consequences of immigration policies. They also researched the ecological effects of building a border wall. 

The emotional impact was lasting, Breen says, so much so that one of his students pursued an internship with an immigration law firm and eventually helped write the brief that landed on his desk. 

This emotional aspect of learning is one that Breen considers integral to Watershed’s approach to education. “I think all meaningful learning is both cognitive and emotional. We learn best when we truly care about a question, topic, or problem,” he says. “Exploring ideas firsthand makes this emotional connection more likely to happen, as we see directly how our human and ecological communities are affected.”

Erin Angell, a teacher in Palo Alto School District’s social justice pathway, agrees that taking kids out of the classroom allows them to see the human side of social justice issues and to better understand diverse perspectives. It’s an approach that’s especially important in affluent schools such as hers, she says. 

Socioeconomically privileged students often “hear this single story where they have pity and sympathy, and that is certainly, I guess you might say, better than nothing,” Angell says, using the term “single story,” coined by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “But it’s not ideal because it doesn’t humanize the unheard voice. It simply tolerates, lends itself to platitudes instead of a deep resonating understanding of the humanity of the unheard voice. We try and make sure that when we go [on trips], we’re not playing into that single story.”

Angell and her colleague Eric Bloom, a history and social sciences teacher, take their students into communities they might not otherwise interact with. One of their regular trips is to a strawberry farm where they spend part of the day learning how to pick strawberries and then attend a workers’ collective meeting. 

Watershed School middle school students Rose, Mya, and Zoey enjoy Boulder, Colo.’s snowfall in October 2018. (Photo courtesy Watershed School)
Watershed School middle school students Rose, Mya, and Zoey enjoy Boulder, Colo.’s snowfall in October 2018. (Photo courtesy Watershed School)

Both the experience of picking fruit and hearing the workers’ perspectives firsthand often change how students perceive the situation. “Rather than leaving with sympathy or pity, one of our students commented that he had a newfound respect for the skill that goes into the labor. … So, again, humanizing rather than sympathizing, that’s the social justice component that comes out of being in the space rather than being told about it in a classroom.”

Traditionally, educators teach that compliance and rule-following are the paths to success, Breen says, but he wants young people to challenge the status quo. This can sometimes lead to uncomfortable conversations when students return to the classroom, especially about issues of diversity, or lack thereof, within the Watershed community. But they rise to the challenge, Breen says.

The question Breen continually asks himself as a head of school is, “How do we hold space for diverse perspectives?” A lot has to do with moving beyond a oversimplified understanding of social justice issues. 

“We work with our students to see the complexity in all situations. They become quite adept at this as they grow through our program,” he says. “This helps when exploring topics related to social justice, as our students are looking not for simple answers but rather looking to understand the complexity in each situation.”

During Watershed’s politics and citizenship course, 11th and 12th graders traveled to eastern Colorado and western Nebraska to interview people about their cultural, political, and ecological perspectives. The students found that the people they interacted with had different motivations from their own, and they discovered complicating factors they hadn’t thought of before. When students completed their final product — a podcast — Breen says they had more nuanced opinions than in the beginning.

While important, this new understanding can also make the world seem a little less certain.

“We have noticed that students can be overwhelmed with the challenges in the world,” Breen says. “One way to address this is to engage them in positive action.” Watershed wants them “to know that they can do work that makes their community better,” he says. 

For the Watershed student who became involved with immigrant-rights advocacy during Watershed’s borders course, the lesson stuck. Breen says she plans on studying to become an immigration lawyer once she graduates.

Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the fall 2019 issue.