Arms laden with Food Basics groceries, we trudged south west across snowy Victoria Park Avenue and Sheppard Avenue East and took shelter kitty corner in the iconic Johnny’s Burgers in Scarborough before heading for Round Two of grocery shopping, a multicultural one at Hong Tai Supermarket.
Just one of dozens of field trips in recent years to places far and near to help my students not only to learn and use the language but also to settle in their new home of Canada. Looking back, it’s hard not to notice how different field trips have become in the post- funding world. Gone are end-to-end, fully paid for rides in yellow school buses and padded seats to subsidized tourist destinations up the CN Tower or over at the zoo. Out they went with roundtrip TTC token reimbursements and all the rest.
We watched in learnt helplessness as those school trips, cushy on hindsight, went from three or four a year to two and one great big one, and then nothing at all. Thanks to the likes of the Toronto Region Conservation Authority’s multicultural program, we still get the occasional and limited subsidy for a school bus to be shared by all classes, but we have to pay the entrance fee at the destination.
In short, it has been a belt-tightening time, and for those of us who would commend the educational glories of field trips, it was also time to walk the talk. And some walk it was, having to step out in at least five areas.
Risk Waivers and Photo Releases
“I hereby release and forever discharge” the organizers “of all actions, injury, damage,” quoth the intake paperwork every new student has to sign, adult and child participants included, before it goes into their dossier. From then on until the participants leave, permission has been granted for their photos to be taken for internal sharing and publicity purposes. And the amount of permission papers saved is substantial.
As a caveat, every organization is different, and how and how often a teacher organizes field trips will depend much on the decision that organization makes on risks in this regard. But having the paperwork out of the way does free the teacher to other instructional mischief.
Openness to Transit and Car Pooling
Free from dependence on school buses, we need to decide on modes of travel, which throws up some interesting challenges.
The first is the concept of students meeting, not in the car park of the LINC school but by prior appointment with classmates at a designated TTC station, in our case Don Mills. Depending on the level of the challenge, students are sometimes told to go directly to the event downtown, a free concert for example. On a recent trip to the Toronto Reference Library, my new Yemeni student, who had been holed up in Fort McMurray, Alberta, for her first three years before coming to Toronto, excitedly told me upon arrival at the library entrance that the subway trip was for her a maiden voyage, and she’d stayed up the night before loading screenshots of the route map onto her smartphone. More typically, the students would have studied the route and exchanged phone and Whatsapp details in the days leading up to the trip.
The availability of private cars provided by volunteers or students varies greatly from one cohort to another. Some batches drive a fleet of higher-end SUVs. Others can’t afford to take the bus and so walk to school, but often they’re mixed. Liability and insurance, like school board field trips, would be covered by the car owners’ insurance. But having cars and drivers to car pool simply opens up places beyond walking and TTC range. Daniel Ren heard our call for drivers and cars through our class alumni page on Facebook and responded. Having left my LINC 4–5 level the year before and moved to Mississauga, where he works as a computer programmer from home, he nonetheless made the journey back to his alma mater in North York, picked up a carload of new classmates to drive them to and from Niagara Falls, and finally headed back home on the congested 401.
Up Front Freedom to Find Free Fields
We finally made Niagara Falls after years of calculating travel times by coach or school bus, contacting the casino bus, and otherwise talking about it. It was the Harper era, and we really dug in to the War of 1812 lore, standing atop the cemetery at Drummond Hill and recalling that fateful summer battle with that Great Invader Enemy Down South before soothing our nerves on the winery route on the way back.
Or we’d skip the Falls on some trips to learn about navigating the Great Lakes at the Welland Canal Museum at Lock 3 or to check out agricultural products at Great Mountain Ginseng Farm.
But come August, we’d hit the 404 and head north to Stouffville to Farintosh Farms to pick corn. Owner Guy Farintosh would teach us how to eat corn right off the cob right off the stalk. We just had to pay for what we took home, bunches of hand-picked corn and beans and loads of watermelons and squashes from the barnhouse. The photos and memories came free.
Within the City of Toronto, government and nongovernment destinations abound for field trippers. City Hall, Nathan Phillips Square, and Queens Park are fair game in all seasons, even more when Council and subcommittees are in session, in outdoor skating season, or during Caribana or Tasty Thursdays. Toronto’s two well-hidden ski centres offer discounted lessons with rental equipment, but always make sure to offer a free option for those not paying, where they can not only take pictures of classmates in funny poses but also learn about Ski Patrol and the technology of snow sports, touching skis, snowboards, and bindings, watching demos, sitting by the fireplace over a mug of hot chocolate, digging into their picnic lunch, etc.
The Art Gallery of Ontario has fabulous neighbourhood and community access programs that welcome needy individuals and LINC classes to view their favourite Group of Seven paintings or Henry Moore sculptures for free. For us, what was even more intimate were visits to the Durdy Bayramov Art Foundation, a unique museum created out of a private home along Bayview just north of York Mills. The founder and president of the foundation herself, Keya Bayramova, would be there to show us her late father’s paintings and photos, which added a multicultural dimension through the genius of a Soviet-era Turkmen artist. The museum graciously accepts requests for LINC visits, and I’m immensely gratified to have met Keya when she first walked into my LINC class a few years ago.
Challenge to Integrate the Curriculum
The LINC curriculum is theme-based, with topics spanning public transit, geography, culture & society, government, and environmental issues to getting employment and starting a small business. The better-integrated the field trip with the theme, the greater the learning and traction of activities before and after. So it’s no serious loss when we can’t afford to visit Casa Loma or CN Tower these days as they are difficult to fit into the curriculum anyway. And they can probably be accessed for free on the one-year pass that comes when students get their Canadian citizenship and have to leave the LINC program.
The purpose of this sharing is not, of course, to be exhaustive in listing out all the field trip destinations in Toronto. That would futile as nobody knows all the possibilities out there, and things keep changing. However, if LINC teachers care to integrate field trips into their curriculum, there is a platform on which to pool their secrets consisting of a Facebook page and an online spreadsheet.
Catalyst to Pedagogy
Technology can be an aid to field-trip management. My students are told to check the class blog before heading out on any field trip. If they forget the meetup or destination time or venue or if there are any last-minute cancellations or changes, they can find out before it is too late. On the trip itself, they may have to take selfies or wefies of the things and places they see. At Toronto Reference Library, the pictorial artefacts they had to pose with and upload to their blogs included various newly renovated features, the 3D printer, and the ESL section. Of course, they would typically also have to write a trip report on their blogs when they get back to class on Friday.
Yet technology is not the only catalyst to successful field trips. On trips to the AGO, for instance, we have used Dictation Triptychs, three-column handouts that marry the intense interactivity of jigsaw classrooms with the intense use of the four skills through dictation, all to accelerate the use of target functions and forms that are natural and real. So having studied the life of Canadian artist William Kurelek, we practised and simulated a gallery dialogue about two highly contrastive pieces of his works before playing it out in that very location itself in AGO, the Kurelek Room.
So there we were in the Hong Tai Supermarket, arms temporarily relieved as previously- bought groceries went into wheeled baskets, going around in pairs, Chinese student with non-Chinese, finessing the treatment and recipe of raw jellyfish and other merciless delicacies. Which seems as good a place as any to end my rambling journey.