ATA Magazine

A night at the zoo

A most memorable lesson

A hippo wearing a nightcap

Choosing uncertainty over routine leads to memorable adventure

The Challenge

How to minimize blowups while providing a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to a group of challenging students.

In my third year of teaching, I found myself leading a specialized class of students at Gibbons School. Aged nine to 12, these were incredible, spirited students with unique challenges that included severe behavioural difficulties.

Our four-person teaching team was dedicated to venturing beyond the classroom, through practical experiences like grocery shopping, public transportation and banking. These excursions were rarely smooth and although our patience was sometimes tested, we persisted, determined to provide a holistic education and help the students grow and realize their true potential.

As year-end drew near, an idea sprouted: an overnight field trip, an opportunity for these students, often excluded from typical social events, to taste some adventure. Although routines were our lifeline with these students, we purposely chose uncertainty, and on the appointed day, we embarked on a four-hour school bus trip to the Calgary Zoo.

Upon arriving, we spent an hour exploring, then headed to the Africa building for a live demonstration of tribal drumming and dancing. I was waiting for one or more of the students to lose control, but even the most challenging students laughed, danced and engaged in ways I had never seen before.

I barely slept, worried about meltdowns or someone wandering off."

The unexpected hit us at bedtime. We moved to the building that had been designated as our sleeping quarters. Strangely, it was the same huge hangar that housed the giraffes and hippopotamuses. As we lingered in the hippo viewing area, with the acrid smell of animal feces filling our nostrils, workers began to set up cots, and it dawned on us that we’d be sleeping here in the dark, dank hippo-dome.

We settled in for the night, which echoed with animal grunting and tiny feet scurrying. I barely slept, worried about meltdowns or someone wandering off. All night I roamed, checking on each student. Some slept peacefully. Others lay with eyes wide open ... all night long.

As morning neared, I began to feel a sense of accomplishment rising within me. We had weathered the night and had etched an adventure into the lives of these students, many of whom would never experience a trip like this again.

After morning broke, we packed our memories into garbage bags, ready to journey home. The bus ride buzzed with animated chatter and kids reliving moments. When we finally met up with parents, the parking lot was abuzz with storytelling.

Seeing all this unfold, I felt immense fulfillment, grateful for having helped create these memories for the students, but also for myself.