An important part of each student’s experience at Morgan Park Academy is tied to our mission to prepare the global leaders of tomorrow and our belief that learning can and should take place outside the classroom. This comes to life most vividly in our school-wide Global Week each March, our immersive world languages program with optional international trips — and most recently, our travel opportunity for middle school students each summer.
This summer, a dozen sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders joined my fellow Humanities teacher Sandra Burgess and me to explore the Grand Canyon and the wondrous state and national parks of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada.
We experienced so much in five days! As Ms. Burgess put it, “You know you’re on a great trip when every day your students say, ‘I changed my mind; today has been my favorite day.'”
Somehow, though, we managed to pick five experiences that stood out as the top highlights from our trip!
1. Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Our students explored, navigated, and climbed all over sedimentary rock formations that formed more than 500 million years ago. Here they were introduced to the flora and fauna of the American Southwest and began a competition to identify as many different species as possible over the course of the week.
2. Zion National Park, Utah
We saw Checkerboard Mesa, looked up at Canyon climbers on the White Throne, drove through the Mount Carmel Tunnel, hiked the Narrows trail, and spent the afternoon in the Virgin River, swimming, sunning, and investigating the natural world around us. We laughed at the friendly squirrels who hustled us for our lunches and marveled at Maanav’s luck as his shoe, thought to be lost for good to the forces of the river, made its way back through the remarkable kindness of a fellow traveler!
3. Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Utah
Every activity on this trip was better than the one before! These ever-changing beautiful sand hills were a pleasant surprise and are definitely an underrated treasure in Utah. Standing alone at the top of these amazing dunes, our guide pointed out the north rim of the Grand Canyon and as the sun set, explained to students the geologic formation of this remarkable natural wonder. Students spent the twilight racing and rolling up and down these unique formations.
4. Boat Ride around Horseshoe Bend, Arizona
Horseshoe Bend is a 270-degree turn on the Colorado River. After doing the traditional and impressive “tourist stop” where we took our photos, we entered a high security gate at Glen Canyon Dam Reserve and drove through a two-mile tunnel! This alone was totally wild as we were in a completely restricted area protected by the U.S. government. Once at the bottom of the dam, we met up with our river guide, who took us on an amazing, three-hour boat ride up the Colorado River through the canyon that eventually turns into the Grand Canyon. Tourists standing at the top of the Canyon, where we had been an hour earlier, looked like ants to us! On our boat ride, we saw ancient petroglyphs more than 10,000 years old and learned how archaeologists think early humans used the land. We also glimpsed big horned goats, blue herons, and wild horses drinking from the river. It was so much fun, especially when our guide turned up the speed and we all went flying!
5. The Grand Canyon, Arizona
The week kept getting even better with our Grand Canyon visit! We boarded a restored and refurbished train from the the early 20th century and rode in a renovated Pullman car to the South Rim of the canyon. The 65-mile train ride felt like a trip back in time as musicians strolled the aisles and we flipped our seats around for conversation, enjoying the breeze — and view! — through open windows and a few delicious root beer floats. After we disembarked, we made our way to the lodge at the rim, and with our guides’ careful assistance, walked blindfolded together to the rim. We simultaneously experienced the culmination of the week’s worth of natural wonders as we opened our eyes and literally gasped at the beauty below us. It truly was breathtaking!
And that’s without mentioning all of the other parts of the trip, like Las Vegas, Pluto’s observatory, the weird sheep park, indoor rock climbing, outdoor exploring, and more.
What I love most about our MPA tradition of taking learning outside the classroom is being guiding and witnessing the metamorphosis that happens as students become more confident travelers, which I think is crucial to their independence and self-confidence in other areas of their lives. With travel, they change.
Away from their parents for the week, they are responsible for managing themselves, their belongings, their time, their group, etc. They can safely practice independence and whether they say it aloud or not, they are really quite impressed at that they can do on their own. They learn they can climb that hill, and that one, and the super tall rock formation too! They learn they can face their fears, make a rare and difficult hike, or scale a rock face like a lizard!
The other thing I love about the outdoor classroom is how travel also humbles people. In the face of natural wonders we are reminded of our size. Obstacles arise that humble us or a more prosaic level: You get stopped in the security line and hold up the group, or you lose your hat and learn a lesson about humility, or lose your shoe and learn a lesson about kindness when a stranger goes completely above and beyond to help you retrieve it.
These things remind us that we’re simultaneously alone and connected, that our parents won’t always be there and it’s important to learn how to figure things out on our own. We learn that, while we can amaze ourselves with what we can do on our own, ultimately we need each other and to get the most out of our experience, we have to help each other through this trip and this life.
Want to join us next summer? Keep your ears open for our upcoming announcements about next year’s middle school summer trip, scheduled for the week of June 11-15, 2018, and open to MPA students who are in grades 6-8 this school year. To learn more about this trip or any of our global opportunities at MPA, please send me an email.
By Colleen Amberg
Mrs. Amberg teaches sixth-grade English and social studies and is our curriculum leader for social studies. She also is director of MPA’s middle school global program.