Spring in Washington, D.C., is famous for its bountiful Japanese cherry blossoms; but one thing you may not know is that in the springtime D.C. positively blossoms with eighth graders as well. One day the city’s museums and monuments are quiet, resting in the deep of winter, and the next day middle-schoolers and flowers are popping up all over.
This being my first spring in D.C., I was a little bit surprised by the unique signs of spring, though I probably shouldn’t have been. Since most American students study U.S. history in the eighth grade, it has become a longstanding tradition in many schools across the country to offer a spring break pilgrimage to the nation’s capital. In fact, sixteen years ago I myself was an eighth grader from the middle of the country on a school trip to Washington, D.C. I suspect that at one time, many of you were as well.
Over the last few weeks I have observed some of these students in our museum, and while it often seems as though the escalators have some sort of magnetic pull that only thirteen and fourteen year olds feel, I see indications every day that suggest the kids will remember more than just an escalator joy ride from their visit. When I observe closely I see subtle signs of learning, like taking silly pictures of themselves in front of the ruby slippers or the statue of George Washington, or calling a friend over to the Huey helicopter in The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibition while explaining how the helicopters helped evacuate over 400,000 wounded soldiers from battle zones in Vietnam. Sometimes they even come right out and say things like, “It was cool to see that big flag. I didn’t know the national anthem was written about a real flag,” or, in reference to Invention at Play, “If that was our science class, science would be a lot more fun!”
It’s not always easy to tell what a teenager will take home from their visit, but one way to help students focus their energy while in the museum is to download age-appropriate Discover! Guides from our Web site. These guides allow students to explore selected artifacts on their own and prompt them to think about what they see by asking them to answer relevant questions. Sometimes all these kids need is a little bit of prompting.
I remember a lot of random things about my eighth grade trip, like the name of the elevator operator who took us to the top of the Washington Monument, but I also remember seeing the Star-Spangled Banner and George Washington’s uniform, and the way I felt looking at objects that represented profound moments in our nation’s history. I’m pretty confident that sixteen years later, these kids will remember some of the important things too.
Elisabeth Johnson is a special assistant for public programs at the National Museum of American History.