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Big Top Classroom

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Best Laid Plans

From field trips to extracurricular explorations, preparation counts

by Leanne Miller

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Best Laid Plans

From field trips to extracurricular explorations preparation counts

by Leanne Miller

More than a year in the planning and over in a week!

Five teachers and 28 students from Gordon Graydon Memorial SS in the Peel DSB spent eight days this May touring Spain – speaking the language, experiencing the culture, living the history and generally having a fabulous time.

With two weeks until departure Andrew McClellan was already excited. “It's going to be great – only 13 more sleeps,” he laughed.

“It'll be a wonderful experience,” said his mother Heather. “I did the same thing when I was his age; the benefits last a lifetime.”

“I hope they answer me in Spanish,” said another student, Shelagh Brown. “As long as they speak slowly, I'll try to talk with them.” Her mother, Brigid, shares the enthusiasm: “What an opportunity to experience a new culture.”

No matter the destination – up the street or around the globe – the principles are the same. Teachers look for excursions that fit curriculum and must then plan the activities, timing, transportation and supervision. Students pay for the trips, get permission and behave or face strict consequences. Parents must grant permission and often help pay.

Everyone must meet the rules and regulations, starting with the Education Act, which states that “a board may provide … activities and programs on or off school premises, including field trips, and exercise jurisdiction over those persons participating therein.”

For teachers, the part about exercising jurisdiction is key. Christopher Usih, Central Co-ordinating Principal of Operations for the Toronto DSB, oversees policies and procedures for excursions. “There are strict regulations – whether it's Grade 2 students walking to the library or secondary students travelling around the world.”

Usih explains the key element of planning a field trip: the excursion form must be set up far ahead of the planned date. It must clearly justify the trip and demonstrate the purposes of the activities, their relevance to the curriculum, the itinerary, method of transportation and supervision plan.

It's a lot of work for teachers to research, organize and travel with students. “But,” says Usih, “it's always worth it for the students to have new experiences and learn in different environments.”

The permission form is crucial. Students over 18 may sign their own forms but the vast majority of students must get parental permission. “Failure to get informed consent,” notes Usih, “is the only reason a child would not be allowed to participate in an excursion. If permission is denied then the child must remain behind and is provided with another educational opportunity within the school.”

Day tripping

The equity policies of school boards specify that no child can be excluded from curricular school trips – either because of poor behaviour or for financial reasons.

If a child's poor behaviour causes concern, then extra supervision will be arranged. “Another teacher or a parent will accompany the classroom teacher,” Usih explains. “It's always helpful to have an extra set of adult eyes and parents are welcome to participate.”

As for financial constraints, there are also resources: principals have discretionary funds to pay for a child's bus trip and zoo or museum ticket, for example. Fundraising activities at the school may be undertaken. Charitable and community organizations may also provide funding for school trips.

Christine Conversano teaches at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School in the Wellington Catholic DSB. In June, she and four supervisors took 50 Grade 4 students to Medieval Times in downtown Toronto. It was Conversano's first time taking students outside Guelph.


Grade 4 students from St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School visit Medieval Times in Toronto.

“We have three students with special needs going,” said Conversano prior to the trip. “Although we are excited and a bit anxious, we are confident they will be able to adjust to the change in their routine.”

To prepare, Conversano assigned each student a buddy. She checked the menu against food allergies, double-checked the day's schedule, reminded students to bring snacks and water for the bus trip and arranged for them to be picked up at 4:30, when the bus was due to return to the school.

The vice-principal, David Marcoccia, explains St. Francis's excursion procedure: teachers use an electronic database to enter proposals including trip details and curriculum links. The database can confirm whether the trip fits within the transportation budget, which is made up from the school's budget allocations and fundraising efforts. Then, when the principal approves the trip, a secretary books the buses and teachers can begin preparing the students and getting permission forms signed.

Teachers also complete a follow-up report on how a trip went and how students benefitted, how it met curriculum expectations and whether colleagues should go next year. “We structure excursions to anticipate and overcome obstacles and ensure that students both have a good time and learn something,” Marcoccia explains.

So what did Conversano think?

“It was a perfect culminating activity for our unit on medieval times,” she says. “The kids loved the knights, the horses and the costumes and there were no problems at all.”

Wider travels

Spanish teacher Maria Garcia organized Gordon Graydon's May 2006 trip to Spain. She began working on it in April 2005. Two days before departure Garcia had only one concern: “the unexpected.”

Although Garcia has participated in international excursions before, this was her first time as lead teacher and she acknowledged that it was a lot of work.

But as it turned out, “the trip was fantastic,” says French teacher Nancy Lucas. “The students were civilized and pleasant travel companions. It was a perfect learning experience for them.” The worst thing was that we had to take a student to the hospital because of an eye infection.

“The language and cultural benefits are tremendous,” says Garcia. “Students who have spent so much time learning and practising a language in the classroom, finally have a chance to really use it – to order food, shop, get what they need. Trips like this bring the language, the culture and the history to life.”


Today's museums, like the Science Centre in Toronto, provide lots of hands-on opportunities for young learners.

Most visits to other cities and countries are extracurricular rather than class field trips, which means that preparations are both similar and different.

Garcia advises teachers to begin recruiting a year ahead. Students have to plan and budget and most have to earn and save money. And they must learn to be responsible for themselves. Many parents fear their teenagers aren't responsible enough.

“Some parents wanted us to carry the passports,” laughs Garcia. “ No way!” She has seen that, given independence and opportunity, students usually shine. “There's always tremendous personal growth. It goes far beyond using the language they are learning.”

Like most teachers who travel abroad with students, Garcia worked with an educational tour company. This time she worked with Explorica, although she has also worked with EF Educational Tours.

Carolyn Lutgens, program director at Explorica Canada, says, “We help teachers enhance their curriculum and open their students' eyes via travel.”

Barb Hayhurst, director of sales for EF Educational Tours and a member of the College, says that while teachers affect students' lives every day in the classroom, “what they experience when they see places they have studied is incredible. Imagine being with students the first time they see the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum or the pyramids.”

Tour companies like Explorica and EF assist with logistics – arranging flights, accommodation, transportation, meals, tours and, if requested, providing a 24/7 tour director and translator.

“We take care of all the details so teachers can do what they do best – teach,” says Hayhurst.

Tour companies may also offer web-based booking, money collection and advice on what to pack and expect. Most tour companies require one teacher or adult chaperone for every six students travelling abroad, and these chaperones travel free – meaning the cost is covered in the fees charged to the students. The web sites also provide advertising posters, sample sign-up sheets, parent and student handouts, DVDs that show destinations and explain the trip, lists of topics to cover in meetings, answers to common questions, fundraising ideas and more.

“Trips like this bring the language, the culture and the history to life.”

“Teachers worried about the hassle of collecting thousands of dollars on deadline from sometimes-forgetful teenagers can relax,” Lutgens explains. Most large tour companies look after money collection and structure payments into manageable time periods. “It's difficult enough for teachers to prepare for travel with groups of teens while carrying out their regular responsibilities. We do as much as possible to alleviate the stress so everyone can enjoy themselves.”

One of the extra things that teachers must consider when planning an excursion is coverage. Usually just one class of a teacher's timetable is involved in an excursion, which means that remaining classes require coverage. It's rare for students' payments for an excursion to include the cost of supply teachers. More commonly, teachers provide on-call coverage for absent colleagues.

Graydon's teachers all booked their supply teachers in September when the school's bank of supply days was full.

“You need to think of everything and plan way ahead for things to come together properly,” says Sue Somerset, a supervisor on the Spain trip. “There was no way we were going to ask our colleagues to cover our classes for a full week while we were away.”


“We wanted students to have a good time, but more importantly, we wanted everyone to be safe and to come home safely,” says Graydon principal Kent Armstrong, who believes the key is planning and supervision. Behavioural expectations and the overall schedule, including curfews, must be clear.

“If participants and their parents are informed ahead of time, we eliminate problems and help ensure that everyone has a good time,” says Armstrong.

Secondary teachers and students aren't the only ones who get to enjoy overnight travel. Chris Keating heads Keating Educational Tours, an Ontario-based company that focuses on busing Grade 8 teachers and students to some of the most popular North American educational destinations, including Montréal, Québec City, Ottawa, New York, Boston and Washington. Keating created the company in 1963 with the idea of introducing students to the wonders of Québec culture and Canadian history.


Gordon Graydon Memorial SS students Shelagh Browne, Kulajiika Kulasegaran and Andrew McClellan in Toledo, May 2006

School Voyageurs is another company that offers bus tours for elementary students travelling to Québec City, Montréal, Ottawa and Niagara Falls. Both companies require one adult for every 10 students. Some companies offer supervisors who can patrol hallways from 10 PM to 6 AM to ensure that students “stay in their rooms and get a good night's sleep to prepare for an upcoming day jam-packed with fun,” says Keating.

No doubt the accompanying teacher-supervisors appreciate the assistance, not to mention the sleep.

School Voyageurs also organizes secondary school tours throughout North and Central America and Europe around themes such as Music and the Arts, International Travel, and History and Social Science. The company also has a global outreach program in partnership with Leaders Today. Founded in 1999 by international spokespeople for change Craig and Marc Kielburger, Leaders Today is known worldwide for its leadership education.

Team travel

School theatre troupes, bands and sports teams are among the other frequent extracurricular travellers.

The Timmins High and Vocational School basketball team in the Ontario North East DSB has a rich touring history.

The school's former head of physical education, Hugh Meyer, was a legend in Ontario high school basketball circles. According to the current coach and department head, Darrell Sokoloski, “Meyer organized the school's first teams and quickly turned them into winners.”

Sokoloski was a pupil and team player at the time and now proudly carries on Meyer's tradition. Timmins is the only school in the province to have been crowned AA provincial champion five times and in 1999 it was the Reebok National Champion.

How did it get so good? Well, lots of practice, of course, and by travelling great distances to find strong competition. Coach Sokoloski – like Meyer before him – is also the team's bus driver. He has an E class – school purposes – bus licence that allows him to transport up to 24 passengers.

Fundraising by Meyer's basketball team helped purchase the first bus many years ago and since then a second one has been purchased. The buses are used throughout the school, not just by the basketball team.

In 2005–06 the team travelled to Sudbury, Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie, Burlington and Toronto to play in tournaments. It won 36 of 53 games and made the provincial finals but was eliminated by the eventual champs. “The bus is certainly part of the Timmins High and Vocational School winning tradition,” Sokoloski happily affirms.

Living history

This fall and winter will see final preparations for what may be the most ambitious field trip ever. And there's still room to join if you're interested, but you'd better act soon.

Dave Robinson heads the Canada and World Studies department at Port Perry High School in the Durham district. A strong believer in the value of excursions as “experiential learning,” the history teacher has taken students to China, England, France, Italy, Greece and New York City.

In 2005 he led over 200 students and 50 adults on a tour to Hong Kong to commemorate the Canadian veterans who died there in 1941. At the time it was the largest civilian tour group ever in China.


Laying wreaths for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Canadian POWs from Japanese camps in the Battle of Hong Kong, Sai Wan War Cemetery, Hong Kong, December 2005

Next April, Robinson will lead a Canadian contingent of over 3,600 secondary students, 200 parents, a pipe band and 360 supervisors to England, Belgium and France. They will retrace the steps taken by Canadian soldiers during World War I and will play an instrumental part in the 90th anniversary of the Vimy Ridge remembrance celebrations.

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is undergoing a $20-million refurbishing and the Canadian government will hold a televised re-dedication ceremony on April 9, 2007. Dignitaries scheduled to participate include Queen Elizabeth II, the prime ministers of Canada and England, the president of France and our 3,600 students.

Robinson is working closely with Veterans Affairs to plan the event and is co-ordinating the trip with the help of Explorica.

“This experience will be fantastic for students,” says Janice Summerby of Veterans Affairs. “The Vimy Memorial is such a compelling reminder of how Canadians helped other nations in times of need, and this trip will bring that to life. We need these students to pick up, carry and pass the torch of remembrance. It's our heritage and it's vital we remember.”

Safety and supervision

Cheryl Petherick teaches at Courtice Secondary School in the Kawartha Pine Ridge DSB. She and colleagues Mike Strahl and Jacleen Attersley escorted 25 students to China with Robinson in 2005 and took 36 students on his D-Day trip in 2004.

Strahl is organizing the Courtice contingent for the Vimy trip next year. Although Robinson is doing much of the planning for this mammoth adventure, the Courtice teachers still have many things to worry about themselves.

“There was nothing like witnessing kids' reactions at their first sight of the Great Wall of China.”

Petherick, like most teachers, is concerned about student safety. “Teachers have to put themselves in the shoes of mom or dad and realize that they are responsible for someone's child. This idea must always remain front and centre.”

Since the 2005 London bombings, her school board has discouraged its international travellers from taking public transit, especially as a whole group. Petherick and her colleagues will now group students in pods of six or seven and assign a teacher or parent volunteer to each group. That way, heads can be counted quickly and students can be tracked more easily than if they were part of a larger group. Each small group will travel separately so that the movement of the group as a whole can be safer and more efficient.

Types and tips

When asked about the ideal personality for a teacher supervisor travelling with teenagers, Petherick says, “You can't be laissez-faire. You need to be a Type-A personality but you must also be able to stay calm. If you are worried about something the last thing you want to do is worry your students.”

“You need to be firm and drill the rules into the students long before you leave,” she says. “But you must also be able to relax and have fun with the students. Remember – it's their trip, not yours.”

Petherick encourages teachers to select good students and to thoroughly prepare them, their parents and all supervisors before departure. She has a few suggestions:

  • Everyone must carry the name and address of the hotel. Students are instructed to take a taxi back to the hotel immediately if they are separated from the group.
  • Give all supervising teachers walkie-talkies and cell phones, if possible.
  • Make sure the lead teacher always carries a binder with students' medical information, copies of passports and photo ID.
  • Give students structured free time, such as in the hotel before bedtime.
  • Do nightly bed checks and don't take someone's word that everyone is present; go in and make sure.
  • Decide which of your colleagues is the lead teacher and then respect roles. There can only be one boss.

“After the first few days of being tough with the rules, you can start to relax because the students know what to do,” she says. The rewards are great: “There was nothing like witnessing kids' reactions at their first sight of the Great Wall of China – something they had studied and seen in pictures. It was fantastic and worth every grey hair.”


Port Perry HS students watch Chinese dancers at a special key to the city ceremony held in X'ian, 2005.

Barb Hayhurst from EF Tours acknowledges that travelling with students is a lot of work, but she knows that the rewards are tremendous.

“For many students an educational tour will be their first time on a plane, out of the country, experiencing new places and meeting people with very different backgrounds from their own,” she says.

For the best experience she advises that teachers introduce students ahead of time to the cultures they will be visiting.

“Teach some basic vocabulary and useful phrases and talk about what students should expect that might be different from what they are used to at home. This will make for a richer travel experience with fewer surprises and disappointments.”

Yes, there's lots of work to do when planning to take students on an excursion – be it around the corner or around the world.

Obtain the necessary approvals, do your planning, get students and parents on board and know that there are invaluable learning opportunities beyond the classroom.

For information on the 2007 Vimy trip visit returntovimyridge.ca.


Daytrippers Children's Charity makes class excursions a reality for students in lower-income and isolated schools. This past year Daytrippers assisted more than 6,500 students from 54 schools to visit recognized educational and cultural institutions.

The organization allocates the majority of its funding to transportation costs – with students in Grades 4 to 8 being the principal recipients of support.

Applications for funding and information are available online at www.daytrippers.org or call 416-830-9966.

Timelines and to-dos

We asked Maria Garcia and her Graydon colleagues to share their tips for planning to travel abroad.

One year (plus) ahead

The trip

  • Choose your destination, excursion and tour company with interested colleagues.
  • Get permission from your principal and superintendent of schools. There's lots of paperwork to complete, starting with the excursion form.
  • Promote the trip. Have colleagues talk it up in their classes, hang posters, make catchy announcements, use your school's web site.

The students and parents

  • Run a student meeting to share information such as itinerary, timing and costs. Collect students' names and keep in touch with them. Record their questions so you can address concerns.
  • Select students with good attendance and academic records who do not have behaviour problems. Speak to teachers and guidance counsellors and choose carefully.
  • Run a parent-and-student meeting to solidify interest and ensure parental support.
  • Collect contact information to use later when you need to communicate with parents.
  • Explain the process and role of the tour company.
  • Set an enrolment deadline to control numbers and costs.
  • Have interested students apply for passports, birth certificates and any other necessary travel documentation and get required vaccinations.
  • Encourage students to get summer jobs and start saving money.


  • Consider fundraising with students. It's a lot of work but helps ensure that all kids can participate, not just those whose parents can afford it.


  • Try to firm up numbers by the end of June.
  • Over recruit, as a few students may drop out. The biggest challenge is converting interested students into paying participants.

Fall and winter

  • Hold a student meeting in September:
    • Share information and generate excitement.
    • Review the rules and behaviour expectations.
    • Plan for emergencies and problems.
    • Confirm participation and get students enrolled with the tour company.
  • Explain the payment process and begin having students make payments. Most companies want all monies paid about three months before departure and will charge late fees, so make students and parents aware of payment deadlines.

Two months to go

  • Numbers firm and students should have paid all fees.
  • Host another parent-and-student meeting.
    • Introduce teacher supervisors and have your principal attend to review behaviour expectations.
    • Encourage students to get local currency, money belts and other travel necessities.

Two weeks to go

  • Host a final parent-and-student meeting.
  • Arrange a meeting place at the airport, review hotel and flight information, offer packing tips – for example, what to take in carry-on bags.
  • Remind students to inform other teachers of their upcoming absence and to complete all school work before they leave.
  • Confirm coverage for your remaining classes.
Choosing a travel company

Veteran teacher/tour organizer Dave Robinson offers this advice for choosing your trip and travel company.

  • Ensure that excursions are doable. Many trips look attractive because they offer multiple stops. Can they be done realistically in the allotted time? Be advised that a 500-km drive may take longer in Europe than it does in Canada. It may not be doable in one day. There are no refunds for cancelled side trips.
  • Pace yourself. The lure of visiting multiple cities over the course of a week may be compelling, but will it mean that students spend too much of their time on buses instead of visiting sites?
  • Read the fine print regarding reward points or bonus offers. Don't choose a company for its bonus points.
  • Weigh lifetime membership fees, which some companies charge students, in the balance. (Most students will travel only once during high school.)
  • Low prices may mean lower standards, such as poor accommodations, food or excursions. Consider value for money.
  • Get to know your tour company personnel. Interview a few before you choose. Look for honesty, trustworthiness and someone you want to work with.
  • Ensure that your company is fully insured to operate in Ontario.
Global Citizen Awards

EF Educational Tours has an annual essay contest that encourages high school students to think about their roles in local and global communities and how their actions affect people around them and people around the world.

Twelve students from the United States and two from Canada are chosen to travel together to Europe during the summer to experience global citizenship first-hand.

More information may be found at www.eftours.ca/globalcitizen.