Thirty-three seventh, eighth and ninth graders, accompanied by Middlebrook social studies teachers John Priest and Andrew Cloutier, went on a four-day trip to the nation's capital through Wilton Continuing Education's new Washington D.C. Excursion program earlier this summer.

After arriving midday on Tuesday, June 28, Priest said, the group “hit the ground running.”

“We visited the White House, the Museum of American History, and the Air and Space Museum, then it was to the hotel for check-in and pizza dinner,” said Priest.

“The next three days were filled with visits to Ford's Theater, the Holocaust Museum, Newseum, Arlington Cemetery, the Capitol, a duck boat tour of D.C., two visits to a local water park, an evening tour of memorials, and more.”

The students also completed a scavenger hunt to learn about many places in the nation’s capital, examined historical documents, explored interactive websites and participated in cooperative activities.

A trip like the Washington, D.C. Excursion is not new for Priest and Cloutier, who have been friends and colleagues for at least 20 years.

Before teaching in Wilton, the duo started a summer camp in New Milford called Hands on History LLC, which now runs activities through Wilton Continuing Education, said Priest.

“Our company offered history-related classes like Knights and Nobles: Medieval Times, Wars of the 20th Century, and Digging Up Bones: Archaeology for six to 16 years old,” said Priest.

Every Hands on History class went on at least “one cool trip” a week, said Priest, including the Medieval Times Arena in New Jersey and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.

Priest said he and Cloutier eventually started offering overnight trips to Boston during spring breaks.

“As we both began teaching in Wilton, we focused on middle school students and added in trips to Colonial Williamsburg and Washington D.C.,” said Priest. “At this point, we have done about a dozen of these trips.”

Priest said he and Cloutier prepare for trips the same way they prepare to teach.

“We begin conceptually with an area, or areas, that have significance and interest levels to engage students,” he said.

“As we map out a possible itinerary, we keep in mind the energy level of the students, places of historical importance, good food, and access to pools or some water activity.”

Summer trip planning usually begins in the fall “with discussions about possible locations for the trip, need for advertising and posting announcements for parents, and contacting sites that may require reservations and security checks,” said Priest.

“We look ahead for activities, festivals, special performances, museum openings, and exhibits that might be timed with possible visitation dates.”

Priest said his favorite part of the Washington, D.C. Excursion was visiting Arlington National Cemetery on the morning of the last full day in Washington, D.C.

“Our group arrived at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers precisely when the changing of the guard began,” he said. “It was incredibly moving.”

While at Arlington, a student in the group named Jake Somer received a text message from his father with the name and location of his great uncle’s grave site. While the other students went to see more of the cemetery, Priest went with Jake to find the grave.

“Our walk through Arlington included a great conversation about who his great uncle was, his service in World War II, and eventually locating his site,” said Priest.

“Just as Jake finished visiting, we paused and across the field, a 21-gun salute was fired during a burial ceremony. It doesn't get any better than that — honoring our military just a few days before Independence Day.”

Overall, Priest said, the Washington, D.C. Excursion went “wonderfully.”

“Andy and I know that we are with 33 middle school kids, away on an overnight trip and they are excited,” he said.

Some students may misbehave in their room or run through a museum, said Priest, but he and Cloutier are able to talk to them about respect, such as “not even sending a text of an image to their parent when they are visiting the Holocaust Museum because it looks like they are disengaged.”

“We really enjoy kids this age,” said Priest, “so combining it with our love of history and travel makes these teachable moments easy.”

Wilton Continuing Education offers seasonal classes and enrichment programs for children and adults, as well as extended-day and before- and after-school programs for students through Wilton Public Schools. To learn more, visit wiltoncontinuinged.org.