Big Piney eighth-graders sit on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during their February Trip.
WASHINGTON D.C. – Big Piney Middle School social studies teacher Greg Bell hit a milestone in early February, when he took a group of eighth-grade students to Washington, D.C.
Bell took over the annual trips when he joined the Big Piney School District 25 years ago and the February trip is his 25th consecutive trek to D.C. with Piney students.
Throughout the years, not a ton has changed from what students see and experience while in D.C., but Bell notes the biggest change he’s witnessed is beefier security since the 9/11 terrorism attacks back in 2001.
“We used to park right in front of the Capitol and walk right in,” Bell said. “Now there is so much security.”
New monuments and museums have also popped up over the years, bringing more for students to enjoy. Bell says one of the new museums he hopes to bring students to in the future is the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Bell estimates that he has taken approximately 850 students to the nation’s Capitol over the years. He typically takes a group of 30 students with him, but has taken a group as large as 42 before.
“It has become a right of passage for Big Piney Middle School kids,” Bell said. “For half of them, this is their first flight and visit to a big city. They start as amateurs and come home seasoned travelers.”
Along with visiting some incredible locations around D.C., the educator says a big benefit for the students is cultural immersion.
“It’s good for them to get out there and see and interact with different people,” he said. “Half of the importance of the trip is getting out in the world and seeing different things.”
Bell used to take students on the trip in the spring, but heading to the big city at that time of the year often brought big crowds.
Around 17 years ago, Bell received a tip from a travel agency to not go in spring, but in February. The tip was invaluable for the annual trips, and they’ve been going in February ever since.
“The town is ours,” Bell said. “We walk into a museum and it’s just us and a handful of other people.”
This year’s trip departed from Big Piney on Tuesday, Feb. 14, and returned on Sunday, Feb. 19. The trip featured 33 eighth-grade students, whom Bell says had a great experience.
“It was exceptional,” he noted. “First of all, the kids were outstanding.”
Highlights Bell heard from students this year included visiting the U.S. Capitol, Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the International Spy Museum, among other locations. While at Arlington National Cemetery, students heard three 21-gun salutes, along with witnessing three families lay their loved one to rest during the visit.
“The kids always love Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Solider,” Bell said. “That touches the kids. I am proud of the reverence and respect they displayed at the cemetery. The kids had a great time at the spy museum. It was good for them to just be kids and run around using different listening devices.”
One exciting moment from the trip came when students Joseph Kindopp and Maggie Allmon found their grandfather’s grave in Arlington. The pair took photos beside Joseph Francis Covella’s tombstone to share the moment upon their return to Big Piney.
“That was exciting,” Bell said.
Overall, the educator said the trip was a big success as usual.
“They had a fabulous time; they are all excited and loved their tour guide,” Bell said.
The group had Jodi Stafford-Hawkins and school nurse Tonia Hoffman join the group as chaperones this year. For Hoffman, this was her third year going. Having her come along has allowed additional students with medical issues, Bell said.
“Three students for three years in a row have been able to go because of her, so we’re grateful for that,” he mentioned.
As for if the streak will continue for a 26th year, Bell anticipates he will continue leading the group to the nation’s Capitol.
“Yeah, I’m sure I’ll continue,” he laughed. “The seventh-graders are already talking about it, so I guess I have to.”
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