The idea came after professional development sessions for teachers in the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) on facilitating positive home-school communication. “The KDT! Ithaca Advisory Committee considered ways we could better connect our trips to students’ families,” said Randi Beckmann, Teacher Liaison for KDT! Ithaca. “We came up with the idea of ‘chat packs’, later called Trail Talks, which would be sent home on the day of the trip to prompt family communication about their KDT! experiences.”
KDT! Ithaca is a collaboration between the Ithaca Public Education Initiative (IPEI), the ICSD, and the Discovery Trail (DT). It gives every district student the opportunity to visit a DT site each year during elementary school. The curriculum-based field trips provide experiential learning activities with the DT educators, such as building wind turbines at the Sciencenter and fossil identification at the Museum of the Earth.
The addition of Trail Talks helps students share KDT! experiences with their families more easily. “The questions were constructed to let the parents know the kinds of activities that were happening at each site,” said Janie Clark, a retired ICSD teacher and consultant to KDT! Ithaca, who helped design the fliers along with DT educators and classroom teachers. “Data shows that there is an increase in motivation and success in school when parents reinforce their child’s learning.”
There is a Trail Talks flier for every grade level, Pre-K-Grade 5, with a summary about the KDT! activities and four or five relevant questions. For example, the fifth-grade handout about experiences with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology includes these conversation starters for parents: “I hear you were a ‘Citizen Scientist’ at the Lab. Tell me how you collected data. Tell me something you discovered in any of the four habitats.”
First-grade families receive questions specific to their Museum of the Earth trip, including: “I hear you saw some real fossils. What can you tell me about fossils?” and “What did you discover about rocks during your visit?
Most of the handouts include a question about the “Buddy” component of the program. KDT! Ithaca pairs students with “buddies” from another school, in an effort to foster familiar relationships through mutual experiences during elementary school and before middle school. The buddies share bus rides to the sites, eat lunch together, and participate in structured field trip activities and open-ended exploration together.
The Trail Talks are sent home the day of the field trip while the day’s activities are fresh in students’ minds. “Conversation is really the goal,” according to Clark. “It gives the kids an opportunity to synthesize what they’ve done and offers parents a way to hear something really specific and meaningful about this very unique program.”
Parents report they have been utilizing the Trail Talks. Anna Bartel, parent of a Belle Sherman first grader who recently attended the Museum of the Earth KDT! trip, said she used the handout at dinner to spark conversation. “It was nice to have a structured way to unpack the experience with him and help him go beyond the basic message that it was fun,” she said.
Bartel, who is also an educator, remarked, “It sends the message to students and parents that experiences matter for learning as well as fun, and that shared experiences are about the people we share with as well as the things we see and do. It’s also a fun way to chat at the table about how our kid spent his time, centering him as the storyteller.”
Stephanie Kaplan, another first-grade parent, said: “It was nice to have something to prompt discussion with my child. I wasn’t able to go along on the field trip, but this was the next best thing.”
Bartel added that while she was already a fan of KDT!, the new Trail Talks have already improved her level of engagement with the program. “The idea of the work and attention that went into the flier, and the sharing it encouraged, helped it all feel more grounded in our family conversation and thinking,” she said.
By Heather Zimar, ICSD parent and IPEI PR Committee member