The 8th Grade Spring Trip: Preparing for the Larger World Beyond the Classroom

Edited by Nick Love, Communications Manager

Hear from Mike Madgiak, one of our head teachers in junior high here at Near North, with over a decade of experience co-leading the spring junior high trip at our school. Mr. Madgiak, with us since February 2008, was initially hired to teach a sketch comedy class for May Mayhem. He joined us full-time as an assistant teacher and was sent to Montessori training only one year later. He is a member of the Humanities team and co-facilitator of AWARE (Alliance of White Anti-racists Everywhere), which includes both parents and teachers. When not at school, Mike goes on long walks with his dog, Ding Dong, attends small-venue concerts, and participates in several book clubs.

What is the 8th-grade spring trip all about, and how does it tie into curriculum?

We recently changed back to our original model for the trip – Washington DC and then New York, spending two and a half days in each city. We were traveling to participate in the Montessori Model United Nations for a while. But with COVID, that ended. However, with a new Chicago chapter, this has the potential to become a voluntary activity moving forward.

As far as the curriculum and the connection with DC: we study the American Revolution and Constitution, so we want our students to see the seat of our democracy. 

We tour the US Capitol Building, the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, the National Archives, the Jefferson, FDR, and MLK monuments, and WWII, Vietnam, and Korean War monuments.

While visiting the Arlington National Cemetery this year, we participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

8th grade students stand solemnly as they participate as part of a wreath-laying ceremony

The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and The Holocaust Memorial Museum are two of our big anchor museums in DC. Both tie nicely into our curriculum, where we focus on the legislation of white supremacy, slavery, and the struggle for the civil rights of African Americans. And we talk about the Holocaust within the context of WWII – focusing on scapegoating, persecution, and upstanders and bystanders.

In New York, we visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the Tenement Museum, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island, where some students look up ancestors who came through. 

We have an independent flex trip with teachers – I usually take students on a bike ride through Central Park, but others travel the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge, or other iconic neighborhoods.

While DC is the political capital of our country, NYC is the financial and cultural capital. So we see a Broadway play, and we visit Wall Street and the remains of the African American burial ground that it was built upon.

With all these experiences, students learn about all the different ways to live in cities and gain an appreciation that not every city is like Chicago.

Can you talk more about student independence on this trip and why it’s essential for adolescent development?

Dr. Maria Montessori writes about the need for adolescents to be away from their parents and their instructors as part of identity formation. So we stress independence. This is, more or less, our Flex Friday final (a Near North junior high program where students learn from the city as a primary document or their “prepared environment.”)

Practicing independence is a big work of the adolescent. It’s about freedom, responsibility, and socialization – meaning learning how they will fit into adult society, with self-awareness and grace and courtesy guiding them through it.

Budgeting comes into play on the trip, where for most meals we give students cash to get themselves something healthy and tasty.

8th grade students sit together at a table outside

And we also have a strike system. If students make a big mistake, they get a strike. And three strikes gets someone sent home. So being late, going outside of the boundaries, or doing unsafe things means a strike. First is a warning. The second strike means having to call home and tell your parents why you are in danger of returning early from the trip. Strike three, which has to be pretty severe, means parents have to fly in and take their children home.

Can you talk about the social aspects of the trip?

Students are always worried about who they sit next to on the plane. It’s usually alphabetical. Then they fill out note cards with the names of other students, and that helps us assign rooms, so they at least have one close friend in their hotel room.

We keep their phones away except at night to check in with their parents – this helps keep them in the moment. And adults make sure to take lots of photos so they don’t lose out on those memories.

When we are touring monuments or museums, we split into our airport travel groups that include chaperoning adults who provide students with boundaries to explore – stay in this room or on this floor.

8th grade students sit together during a boat tour.

It’s sweet and cute to see our students branching out and being inclusive, spending time with others who they usually don’t spend time with.

Why is this trip meaningful for you as a teacher?

This trip is a button at the end of the year for our 8th graders. It’s a celebration of all their years together. But, it’s also a culmination of academics where they see the reality beyond our lessons in the classroom.

Those moments of “Oh, wait. Now I get it!” are real concrete connections to curriculum where students realize the extent of the larger world that exists beyond the vacuum of the classroom.