My general ed co-teacher planned a field trip to Pinnacles National Monument, a national park of epic rock formation. I sportingly agreed to be a chaperone, not knowing what I'd signed on for, which brings me to an important point: never agree to chaperone a field trip to a place you know nothing about.
Pinnacles is indeed majestic, beautiful, grandiose, and multiple other adjectives one might use to describe the wonders of nature. Pinnacles is also, um, high. With narrow paths. And loose rocks. It also didn't help that I recently watched the movie 127 Hours.
Now, I've written several drafts of this post. First, I focused on the ins and outs of chaperoning a physically arduous field trip. Then, I changed it to an emphasis on why field trips are so important, especially for rural students with limited life experiences. Then, I rewrote the post as what can only be described as a series of quotes from the Cliffs of Insanity scene in The Princess Bride ("Inconceivable!"). None of them were the best way to describe this trip because the best thing about this trip was not my personal experience, but that of my students and their wondrous imaginations.
Pinnacles Through the Eyes of Children
As we started the hike, two of my students walked alongside me, observing the differentiations in color and shape on the rocks. Because these rocks shift over time, jagged lines cut into them where they break apart from one another. Wind and water give them streaks of coloring. If you look at the picture below, you can see how the jagged shape of this formation has resulted in it casting shadows on itself in certain spots (from our vantage point).
My students, Juan and Jesus*, were discussing these shadowy spots and Juan suggested that they looked like doorways. To this, I responded, "What if it is a doorway? Where do you think it could lead?"
Juan pondered the question, and then said, "Jupiter. Wouldn't it be cool if it went to Jupiter?"
I laughed. "Yes," I said. "Yes, it would."
Moments later, we arrived at the hiking trail map.
See the name, Juniper Canyon Trail? Jesus excitedly pointed at it and exclaimed, "Juan! Look – it says Jupiter!" What I would have given for a thought bubble to his mind at that moment.
The dreamer in me wanted to tell them that there probably was a door that went to Jupiter in the middle of the monolith; instead, I went for the "just the facts" response and pointed out the juniper trees. Jesus took the news well, commenting only that the juniper looked like a Christmas tree.
Our class did not actually hike Juniper Canyon Trail. Rather, we took the Balconies Trail, so named because the view is the kind you would see from a balcony, albeit a balcony without rails of any kind to protect you from a disastrous fall.
My Jupiter students stuck with me for most of the hike, narrating our journey with far more enthusiastic observations than my attempts to point out signs of weathering changes.
"Look! This rock that has a happy face!"
"Whoa! That looks like a dog's head. Or a wolf's head."
"Hey! How does that plant grow directly out of a rock?"
I have no photographs from inside Balconies Cave, on account of how dark it was, but you can imagine the thrill of discovering a slow steady drip of water seeping between two rocks and – drumroll, please – sleeping bats that seemed to multiply before our eyes ("There's one – no, there are two – no, wait, there're three! Four! Six!").
An adult may go to Pinnacles to appreciate the natural scenery and enjoy the invigoration of a hike, but there is something about the child's mind that captures amazement far more compellingly. Perhaps that's why I stopped talking about erosion and seasonal change and focused instead of what the rocks were shaped like. I declared a canyon wall to be a sleeping giant and the dark streaks left behind by seasonal waterfalls was in fact the giant's hair. The boys liked that one.
After we ended the hike, we sat down for lunch and soon after piled onto the bus for the ride back to school. Within school walls, memories of fun on field trips fade fast in favor of multiplication memorizing and spelling strategies. As teachers, we have obligations to our direct administrators, district expectations, state standards, and national requirements to make sure our students learn specific information. But at least on that field trip, I was able to step through my own canyon door and take a break from telling them what to think, so that I could revel in hearing how they thought.
*Names were changed of the adorable students I have the pleasure of working with every day.