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Benson, Minn., teacher not afraid of a few extra miles for additional history lessons

Instructor Barb Schwarz, center, and American history students Cole Vergin, from left, Joshua Bailey, Kaitlyn Knutson and Hannah Hanson look over materials from their recent trip to the nation's capital after talking about their adventure. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)1 / 3
Each year's class from Benson that travels to Washington, D.C., delivers a wreath to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Submitted photo)2 / 3
The annual Benson history trip coincides with the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. Visible are participants in this year's trip Nicole Ascheman, from left, Adam Hoffman, Grace Ricard, Hannah Hanson, Sydney Laumeyer, Katie Samuelson, Hannah Young and Trey Abeyta. (Submitted photo)3 / 3

BENSON -- Some of the best lessons are learned outside of the classroom, and in this case, the farther away the better.

Since 1994, Benson instructor Barb Schwarz has been leading her seventh-grade, American history students on an annual trip to Washington, D.C.

"It is kind of a rite of passage almost in Benson,'' said Superintendent of Schools Lee Westrum. He joined one of the trips years ago as a social studies instructor, and returned as enthusiastic as the students.

"It was a lot of fun,'' said Kaitlyn Knutson, one of the seventh-graders.

It's also a lot of education. During this year's trip, the students saw their history lessons come to life at tours including the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Wall, Korean War Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial, Martin Luther King Memorial and Jefferson Memorial.

They visited Mount Vernon, the Newseum, American History Museum, Air and Space Museum and the Natural History Museum. They also enjoyed a performance of "Sheer Madness'' at the John F. Kennedy Center, according to instructor Schwarz.

This year's trip was March 28 to 31, starting with a red-eye bus ride to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. It included 17 adult chaperones along with 53 students who chose to participate.

Each student who joins the trip is responsible for raising just over $1,000 toward the cost. All get a one-year head start on the fundraising, and parents -- and sometimes grandparents -- often chip in as well. Scholarships are also made available.

Westrum said the community has been very supportive of the annual venture.

Schwarz said the returning students quickly sell the idea to the next year's class, as well as the community. "I don't really have to promote it,'' she said. "I just let them do their job and talk about it.''

She likes to talk about the fact that the trip is about much more than just making history real for her young students.

The trip is also an opportunity for life lessons, in everything from managing their own money to getting along with other sleep-deprived travelers. For many students, it's also the first time to fly in a commercial airliner, ride a large city metro system, or experience life in a large city so far from home.

Best of all, Schwarz said that the students "get it'' when it comes to the lessons to be learned about history and our country. She finds that her young students often absorb more from the exhibits and tours than do many adults.

Westrum said the credit belongs to Schwarz, who launched this tradition and keeps it going through lots of hard work.

Schwarz said her rewards are many. The opportunity to see her students outside of the classroom and the relationships that develop on the trip all contribute to a much better learning environment back in the classroom.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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