May 30, 2016

Only Chicago

Two of my students looking taking in the spectacular sunset over the Chicago skyline. The Odyssey dinner cruise, Sunday, May 15, 2016.  Only Chicago offers this particular view.

One of my goals when I came to CAA was to gradually open the minds of my constituents  to what an 8th grade class trip could be. Most 8th grade trips range from a fun day or two at local theme park to a tour of Washington D.C.  I've always felt that 8th grade is the perfect age to take students on a  trip of a lifetime.  I articulated this vision in a blog entry not long after our somewhat controversial class trip to the Bahamas in 2011. Interestingly enough, this year's close-by destination met all my criteria mentioned in the blog post for an unforgettable 8th grade class trip.

And after several years of trips to awesome destinations from Canada to Hawaii to Puerto Rico, it appears I've succeeded.  The epic, exotic 8th grade class trip has come to be the expected norm rather than an oddity.  So when people asked me where my class was going this year, they seemed surprised and a little disappointed that we were only going to Chicago.

But here's the thing. Distance has nothing to do with the quality of the destination, particularly if you've never been there.  If you've spent your entire life two hours from Paris but never visited the city, your visit would be every bit as remarkable as someone visiting from across the Atlantic.  Only one of my students going on the trip had spent time in Chicago, so for most of them Chicago might as well have been Paris.

And Chicago is a truly amazing city.  It's one of my favorite places in the world, and though I've been there many times, I feel like I discovered it all over again on my most recent visit with my students.  Herewith some highlights from the trip that only Chicago could provide.

The Odyssey dinner cruise
Dining in style.  We lucked out and got window tables without paying the extra upgrade to guarantee a window-side table.

The boys and I on the top deck taking in the scenery

The city skyline early in the cruise (above) and later on (below) as the sun set.

Sunday evening, May 15, 2016, we had our first activity of the trip, a luxury dinner cruise on Lake Michigan, with stunning views of the Chicago skyline. It was a great way to kick off our trip.  The kids looked sharp and carried themselves with grace and maturity throughout the evening. One plus to choosing Chicago was that it was close enough to drive rather than fly.  The money we saved on airfare we were able to put into ensuring we had a premium experience.  We stayed in a mid-range hotel, Springhill Suites by Marriott, Downtown Chicago,  but right downtown where we had easy access to the sights, instead of paying less for a hotel in suburbs that would have required a lengthy commute every day to get into the city (and Chicago's traffic is not one of its selling points!).  We were also able to afford the most expensive cruise option, the Odyssey line, rather than the less formal (and less expensive) Spirit of Chicago or Mystic Blue lines).  This was the first class trip I've ever had in 17 years where I didn't worry about the money.  We had enough to meet our generous budget and then some.  While we could have had a similarly plush budget at any one of our fine Ohio cities, only Chicago was close enough to budget our money towards activities rather than travel and still  provide our students that new and exotic experience.

Two of our boys looking debonair, with our cruise ship, the Odyssey II in the background.

The Museum of Science and Industry
I didn't take any pictures, I don't think, while we were there, but I would describe it as COSI (our local science and industry museum) on steroids.  It was an absolutely fantastic experience from the Coal Mine interactive experience to the massive U-boat on display to the Mirror maze (which, incidentally was the site of our one and only mishap during the trip).  We purchased the City Pass for the trip which allowed us access to five top attractions in the city during our stay.  The Museum of Science and Industry was the first attraction we used with our City Pass.  As far as I know, only Chicago has a science museum of this caliber in this part of the country.

Willis Tower
Willis Tower: The view from the ground up

Chicago at dusk as seen from the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower

Willis Tower: The view from the sky down

Monday evening, after a supper of classic Chicago deep dish pizza at the famed Giordanos, we headed next door to the Willis Tower.  For me, it was a point of personal satisfaction to finally make it to the 103rd floor.  The last class trip to Chicago I attended was my own senior class trip way back in 1992.  I, along with three other classmates missed the Sears Tower, as it was then called.  We somehow failed to make our connection with the rest of the group, and ended up abandoned on the steps of the Field Museum for hours in the vain hope that someone would come and pick us up.  We finally realized no one was coming and hailed a cab to take us to the Tower, knowing that was the next stop on our itinerary.  We arrived just as the class was leaving the building.  24 years later, I finally made it to the top.  We got there in time for sunset and spectacular views of the city from dusk to nighttime.  Besides New York City, only Chicago has a building this tall in the Americas.
24 years later, here I am back on the steps of the Field Museum where my classmates and I were left behind, causing us to miss the Willis Tower.  It was a bit warmer than it was the last time I sat on those steps and the wait was much shorter.  I had one of my students snap this photo, as we were on our way to catch a train to Hinsdale, Illinois, Wednesday afternoon, May 18, 2016.

Architectural Paradise
On Tuesday morning, it was time to learn about the architectural treasures that only Chicago holds.  The main group took a boat tour of the city on the Chicago River.  (Ms. Pat led three students who had had their fill of boats after the dinner cruise on a horse-drawn carriage tour of the Gold Coast mansions.  Sadly, we found out after the fact that there was no tour guide for their tour, so it was mainly just a nice quiet ride).  On my senior class trip we also took a boat tour on the Chicago River and what I remember most about it was that we took a lot of pictures of ourselves on that tour.  For my group, I booked with SeaDog, an outfit that includes a speedboat ride on Lake Michigan along with the more sedate tour on the river.
Chicago skyline as seen from our speedboat on Lake Michigan, Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I wish I'd taken more photos of the buildings, but it was very cold and I didn't feel like taking off my gloves and fishing out my camera to take a lot of pictures.  I did get this strategically placed building as we entered the Chicago River.  The guy who built this clearly has a strong instinct for self-promotion.  Any guesses as to who it is? 

Waiting for the locks to fill with water from Lake Michigan before leaving the Chicago River at the end of the tour.  Lake Michigan is clean and is the source of the city's drinking water.  The Chicago River, according to our tour guide has been upgraded from horribly polluted to heavily polluted.  The locks are in place to keep the river water from getting in to the lake. 

On the boat.  You can tell it was pretty cold. Low 50's and windy, in keeping with the city's nickname.  I've just noticed that the same two students have been in almost all my photos.  I actually took 12 kids on the trip, not two. It's just coincidence that these two boys appeared in almost all the photos I picked for this entry.

I found the speedboat ride a little underwhelming.  The steady clip along the shoreline hardly got the adrenaline going.  There were no hard turns or spray splashing on us during the "ride." (Which was just as well, as it was bitterly cold).  The architectural tour on the other hand was fascinating.  Our tour guide was both knowledgeable and entertaining and I think even the students found the tour interesting, as we learned the interesting stories behind the many unique buildings we saw, and the history of this remarkable city.  I'm pretty sure my  eighth graders learned more, and took more pictures of the buildings (and less of themselves) then my classmates and I did as high school seniors.

Millenium Park and Maggie Daley Playground

Two (different!) students in front of "The Bean"

"The Bean" up close

Tuesday afternoon we had intended to go over to the Field Museum, but we lingered too long at Navy Pier after the boat tour and by the time we finally got going we realized we'd really have no time there.  So we went to Millennium Park instead.  We enjoyed the photo ops at the Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as "The Bean." but I think the real treat for the kids was the nearby Maggie Daley playground, an epic playground that only Chicago has.  This group has always simply loved to play, and after days of being mature, dignified, and calm (with the exception of the aforementioned Incident at the Museum of Science and Industry Mirror Maze), I think it was a relief to be freed to go wild for a bit and just do what kids love to do--play.

The Blue Man Group
I found  out after the fact that my students were dreading this portion of the trip.  They had looked up the Blue Man group on Youtube, and I guess the internet doesn't do it justice.  The show looked weird and boring they concluded.  They even went to my principal, Mrs. Arthurs, with their concerns, and I guess she opted to trust that I knew what I was doing.

It turned out to be the highlight of the trip.  The Blue Man Group is like nothing I have ever seen, and impossible to describe (or to capture on video, apparently).  The best I can say is that it was inventive, creative, unique, witty, and often down-right hilarious.  It is family-friendly for sure (though young children might be a little freaked out by the Blue Men who never smile or speak; I know some of the older children in my group were at first).  The show incorporates ingenious percussion, art created on the spot--and often given to audience members to keep, improv, a little bit of science and even a thought provoking look at the impact of technology on our society.  The show is heavily audience interactive, and throughout there was the feeling that literally anything could happen.  One special treat for us, was that one of our group members, Dynell Macklin, the mother of one of our students got randomly picked from the audience to be part of one their onstage bits.  She was fantastic, an absolute hit.  She got right into the spirit of the moment and handled all the unexpected, funny moments with aplomb and class.  Afterwards, I heard people were asking if she was really randomly chosen, or was an audience plant associated with the group.  She was that good! The show ended with a giddy dance party featuring massive inflatable balls bouncing around the theater (trust me, you had to be there).  We left the theater totally amped and talking about all the amazing things we'd just seen.

Some of my students and I,  along with some other theater-goers, and one of the Blue Men after the show.

I highly recommend going to see the Blue Man group if you get the chance.  We paid extra for premium seats near the front, but the venue was so small that anywhere in the house was a great seat.  Indeed I can't see a show like this working in a big arena.  The Group is based in only seven cities in the whole world (though they have gone on tour from time to time), and only Chicago has the Blue Man Group in this part of the country (Las Vegas, New York, Boston, and Orlando are the  only other U.S. venues).

Shedd Aquarium and Go Back Day
We only ended up using three of the five attractions on our City Pass--that was my one big disappointment from the trip (Surprise, surprise it wasn't the Incident as my students would likely have guessed.)  I still think we got our money's worth from the attractions we did see, but I really wanted to get in at least four.  We just didn't have enough time.  On Wednesday, we visited our third and final attraction on the City Pass, the Shedd Aquarium.  The kids spent much of their time at the Aquarium completing a 10 Fun Finds activity sheet that took them on a tour of the entire place.  The activity was part of their final exam for science class so they were quite diligent in completing it.

One of my students snaps a photo of a shark at the Shedd Aquarium, Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A sea lion at the aquatic show at the Shedd Aquarium.

A beautiful view of Lake Michigan from the aquatic show pool at the Shedd Aquarium

In the afternoon Mrs. Arthurs and the other chaperones took the kids on our standard Go Back Day round of events.  The last day of the class trip is Go Back Day when the students have the opportunity to go back to some of the places we visited that we couldn't get enough of the first time around. It's also a last chance for the group to do some shopping before we go back home.  Most of the group headed over to the Hershey Chocolate Factory near the Water Tower and then back down to Navy Pier. In the meantime, I, along with two of the boys who had been most centrally involved in Monday's Incident in the Mirror Maze , took a train out of the city to Hinsdale to pick up the shuttle.It was decided that missing out on the Go Back activities would be part of the consequences for their poor choices in the maze.

By 8:00 P.M. we had picked up our bags from the hotel and the group from Navy Pier and were on our way back home.  It had been an amazing, memorable experience that  could only  happen in Chicago.