Place-Based Learning

Using Field Trips to Enliven Local History Classes

These ideas for high school field trips teach students about the history of their community in ways that connect to the curriculum.

November 21, 2023
Marc Dufresne / iStock

The internet and social media allow classrooms to follow newsworthy events around the world, often in real time. Sometimes, however, educators get so wrapped up in teaching about events thousands of miles away, we forget about our own backyards.

We need to remember it’s critically important for young people to be aware of, and make meaningful connections in, their own towns and cities. Here are some field trips that I’ve found connect students to their neighbors, community, and hometown.  

Bus tours in the local area

If you don’t have a whole lot of time, plan for a bus tour around the vicinity of your school during one or two class periods. A colleague developed a historical bus tour of our township and area immediately around our school. We reserved buses and took our local history classes to several key places in our area to discuss the history behind the sites.

These were short trips, but they were packed with information. The teacher-guide pointed out facts about our area, including the story behind street names and important structures we unthinkingly pass every day.

Such a bus trip requires research and preparation, but it can be an engaging way of showing students the abundant history right outside the doors of the school. In truth, your school itself can be a key part of the tour (when it was built, by whom, the changes it has undergone). 


It’s easy to think about the big, important historical sites in your region, like battlefields, for instance. However, try to go beyond the most obvious destinations. One place that might hold promise is a cemetery.

Indeed, one of the most successful field trips my colleagues and I organized was a trip to the oldest cemetery in our city. We reached out to the Cemetery Association, and a representative arranged for a tour with a knowledgeable guide, who took us on a walk around the grounds. She relayed the history of the cemetery and shared colorful stories about the major figures buried there. She deftly tied the history of the cemetery in with contemporaneous events in the nation’s history. This allowed us to open up conversations with students about the “bigger picture,” national and global occurrences that impacted our local community.

The guide showed our class a hundred-year-old headstone for an unknown child who died sweeping the chimney of a local business. The business, though still in existence, remains anonymous. What made the story all the more moving was what the guide told us next: The business inconspicuously maintains the headstone in honor of the child. It was these poignant moments that affected our students. History, humanized by such personal stories, touched them in a deeply meaningful way. 

Colleges and Universities 

Local institutions of higher education represent fonts of important local history. Students can learn about the university’s founder(s), building, and general story.

We took students on a tour of a local university, focusing mainly on history. Furthermore, universities and colleges you may visit likely have a professor who can discuss a local matter. In our case, a retired FBI agent turned professor gave a riveting talk to the students about a prominent local crime case.

Local businesses

The economic well-being of the local community is important for students to understand, and there are plenty of small and large businesses happy to host students. 

We took students to a large, well-known local meat provisions business and a smaller, family-run maple syrup farm. In both cases, the owners described the history of the companies and the impact they have on the community. Ask owners to share with students how they built their business and how they work with the local government regarding permits and laws. 

Touring local businesses is particularly fruitful if you’re examining the economic history of your area or focusing your class on entrepreneurship.

Our students also took an operational tour of an area water park and, on another occasion, an amusement park. These are places that kids in our region frequently visit, but few understood or appreciated the work that goes into running them. Learning about these facilities is also a unique history lesson. For example, our amusement park features “dark rides” built by one of the most famous dark ride designers in the United States.

Nonprofits and civic organizations

There are plenty of enterprising and dedicated people of all ages doing great work in your community. Exposing students to nonprofits and civic or service organizations shows them that the responsibility of improving our communities falls on all of us.

One of the best field trips was taking my kids to our Erie Downtown Development Corporation (EDDC), a nonprofit group dedicated to revitalizing areas of our city’s downtown.

The CEO took us on a walking tour of local businesses the group has purchased to revamp and rebuild. He also visited another one of my classes to talk about the changes his organization is making in the community and to discuss community revitalization and community development in general.

Cognitive bookends 

Field trips can be fun and absorbing events for students. That said, we should remember that the purpose of a field trip is education. Students should ideally do something with the information they’re learning on these excursions. I like to employ what I call “cognitive bookends” when planning a field trip. 

Prepare a lesson about the destination beforehand and ensure some kind of assessment during or after the field trip. For example, before visiting a museum exhibit on immigration to our region, I taught a lesson on the subject. A colleague and I created a scavenger hunt and questionnaire pertaining to the exhibit for students to complete while there. In the following class, students wrapped up the lesson with a final short assignment. Students, therefore, were always working with the material, and I managed to assess them in a variety of ways, particularly before and after the field trip.

Keep in mind that some destinations could be difficult for students, depending on their backgrounds. For example, cemetery visits and other historical sites could hold painful histories for some students. I try to maintain a classroom in which students feel free to talk and express any reservations. 

At the end of the day, place-based learning is about getting kids into the community to meet their neighbors. By doing so, we are helping our students become informed, conscientious, and empathetic residents of their hometowns. 

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  • Place-Based Learning
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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