School trip uncovers family history

By Jennifer Barrow

Each spring, eighth graders at St. John’s Episcopal School, along with their teachers, enjoy a five-day trip to Washington, D.C. With a very thoughtful plan, organizers and teachers tie in the eighth grade curriculum with this culminating trip of the students’ St. John’s experience. Throughout the week, the group typically walks more than 30 miles while visiting important sites like the Supreme Court of the United States, U.S. Capital, Mount Vernon, Lincoln Memorial and the Newseum.

During their jam-packed tour of our nation’s capital, students have an opportunity to visit more than a dozen memorials, attend an evening prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral, stand in the “bread line” at the FDR monument, and see our first president’s home at Mount Vernon (usually by candlelight). They somberly tour the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, which brings to life to their prior study of Elie Wiesels’ Night. At the National Archives, they view the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, known collectively as the Charters of Freedom. They get to touch a section of the Berlin Wall at the Newseum and have a reflective after-dark visit to the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. This year students saw the newly installed portraits of President and Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

At Arlington Cemetery, students participate in the ceremony of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Prior to the trip, the eighth graders write an essay about this honor and the importance of the tomb. While there this year, one student found the tombstone of his grandfather, whom he had never met. His grandfather had been an Army captain in Vietnam. And with the trolley waiting on him, he was able to locate the tomb of his great grandfather as well.

A day trip to Gettysburg reinforces their month-long study of the Civil War, as they tour the battlefield and learn about a day in the life of a soldier.

At the Lincoln Memorial, students pause at the hallowed setting of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. They envision 250,000 people in attendance at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Students also see an engraving of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which each of them memorizes before the trip. On the final day, the group enjoys a day in Baltimore and tours the National Aquarium and USS Constellation, a ship that pre-dates the Civil War.

Students learn from students. Prior to the trip, students are pre-assigned different research topics. Then they become “tour guides” for their classmates as they individually present their exploration about the significance of the memorials. They also have ongoing dialogue — before, during and after the trip — with the school’s first grade. The younger group shares its knowledge of American symbols, and the eighth graders share their experience in our nation’s capital. Having so much background knowledge before the trip makes the experience more meaningful to the travelers.

The Washington, D.C. trip has taken place for the past 29 years and remains among the fondest memories of St. John’s graduates.

This St. John’s student sought out and found the grave of his grandfather, whom he never met. Photo courtesy of St. John’s