The end of May and beginning of June is a month-long "mini-season" for those of us working in museums or interpretive centers across the nation. This four-week stretch could be called "The Invasion of the School Groups."
Like the return of the pelicans, one almost forgets over the winter what it's like to have these groups around. Just as spring brings both beautiful flowers and pesky bugs, so school group visits can be both fun and challenging. Our attempt as interpretive staff for Washington State Parks is to create positive, memorable, educational experiences for people of all ages. This time of year our focus is especially on school kids. I intentionally used the word "attempt" with the understanding of how difficult it can be to teach those who don't want to learn.
This year's "mini-season" has been a real mix of groups; kids from Seattle to Rainier arriving in buses with either fire or sleep in their eyes. The other day I had one of those tours that made me feel like my job was both important and special. I got called a half hour before this group of fourth graders was supposed to be coming into the park. The scheduled tour leader was stuck out of town so I jumped in, without really knowing what I was getting into. I knew this group wanted to tour the new Confluence Project sites as they had been seeing some of the other locations for this project upriver. I was excited to give my first program to kids at the basalt fish cleaning table. What I didn't know is that the group consisted of about a dozen geniuses.
When we were all assembled I asked them "What does the Confluence Project mean to you, in one long sentence?" This short smart-looking girl took the first stab, "Well the word confluence comes from the word fluent." She proceeded to give the Latin definition in detail. I thought I was in for it. The other kids were equally bright but less technical in their summaries. The chaperones and teachers just stood back and smiled. After giving the kids my interpretation of the location we continued on to the viewing platform overlooking Baker Bay.
Following the crushed oyster shell path, I heard kids naming the native plants and pointing out birds to each other. As we stood on the platform, looking out over the bay and the trail we had just taken, someone asked, "Was this really a parking lot?" Everyone was impressed with the history and the natural beauty of the cape, and they had just started their tour.
This was the dream group. We continued towards Waikiki Beach and checked out the totem circle while having a discussion about the importance of cedar to native peoples. We ended up down by the water and I had to give up on education for awhile while the kids chased the waves back and forth without getting too wet. Not all school trips are this great, but we have had other memorable groups this spring.
A couple of weeks ago, the center was filled with another group of fourth-graders. They were equally knowledgeable and well-prepped by their teachers. These kids were a bit different though; they all showed up in buckskin clothing and coonskin hats! I have never seen a more spirited group of kids in the park. I remember walking through the exhibits, as we typically do while groups are in the building. These kids were sprawled out on the floor, in their own place, jotting notes or drawing in their journals. I never once had to say, "Where's your chaperone?" The lights, elevator, and bathroom sinks weren't used as entertainment. Nobody tried crawling into the 100 year old life-saving service boat. There were no games of tag, either in the center or the battery outside.
Sometimes, when a particularly challenging school group leaves the interpretive center my ears just buzz, my mind is left tangled and my stomach is hungry for the lunch I missed. These two groups really reinforced to me that learning should be fun and rewarding. Life is too short not to be passionate, even when you are only in fourth grade.
Jon Schmidt is an Interpretive Specialist at Cape Disappointment State Park. To contact him, call the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at 642-3029 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.