BELEN, N.M. (AP) - A group of Madison Middle School students from Albuquerque stands atop a windy mesa south of Belen, amid the ruins of an ancient pueblo village overlooking the Rio Grande.
In the distance, the youths see the Sierra Ladrones, named for bandits who would sweep down from the hills to raid farmers and travelers on the Camino Real during the 1700s and 1800s. Under the late winter sun, they search for pottery shards and arrowheads, study maps to locate kivas, dwellings and plazas, and listen as a local guide explains the ancient culture.
Suddenly, the New Mexico history about which they have been reading and writing becomes something they can touch, see, smell and hear.
On the hourlong bus ride to La Joya, teacher Nick LaRue says when students can get their hands dirty and literally dig in to the things they are learning, they gain knowledge and understanding that goes beyond the ability to write a report.
"We're losing our connection to history, to community," LaRue says. "We need to build that back."
LaRue says he chose La Joya, also known as La Joya de Sevilleta, or the jewel of little Sevilla, because it has so many remnants of New Mexico history - pueblo ruins and the Spanish fort built on top, the Camino Real, acequias and an 80-year-old Catholic church rehabilitated by dedicated townspeople.
The trip was a reward for LaRue's sixth- through eighth-grade students, who were tops in a contest among his classes to see who could put together the best New Mexico history projects.
Jennifer Macdonald, social studies curriculum coordinator for Albuquerque Public Schools, says hands-on learning and field trips are uniquely valuable to students who sit in class all day.
"The benefits are absolutely phenomenal," she says. "It's applying what they learn in the classroom."
The field trip takes the entire school day for LaRue's students. After exploring the mesa and the pueblo ruins, they check out a rocky path that rises from the valley floor to the mesa - the actual Camino Real, the road from Mexico City to Santa Fe used mostly by the Spanish as a trade route, LaRue tells them. Then it's off to La Joya, where the kids get a tour of the town from 82-year-old resident Mary Rivera.
Rivera gives a firsthand account of how she and her family helped resuscitate the town in the 1970s as it was dying from neglect. They renovated Our Lady of Sorrows church and painted a fresco on the wall behind the altar.
"It was a lot of hard work," she tells the kids.
She appears to make an impression.
"I don't think I've ever worked that hard," says 13-year-old Bethany Rivera, no relation.
Mary Rivera also shows them how raw wool is turned into yarn for clothing and art.
Later, the students get an architecture lesson as they wander through an abandoned house made from terrones, or mud and straw bricks. LaRue points out that the straw still is visible in the bricks, and he shows them the remaining latillas, or stripped saplings laid in either perpendicular or herringbone patterns between the vigas of a roof.
"I liked the history of the town, but it made me kind of sad that people lived like that," 12-year-old Julia Hawton said.
They also visit the site of the old town school, now just a ruin with the foundations outlined in the ground beside the new school.
Macdonald said field trips are more difficult than ever to plan and execute due to the myriad permission forms, liability waivers and, of course, finding a way to pay for transportation. LaRue said teachers usually have to handle those details and raise money themselves.
"I think it's become difficult to get kids out of school and on a field trip. I would hope that more could do that, but sometimes there are so many hurdles and challenges, it may not be worth it for the teacher, timewise and resourcewise," Macdonald said. "But I think whenever there is that opportunity to go on a field trip, we need to do it."
For students such as Kaitlyn Young, 13, LaRue's field trip provided more than an opportunity to see some old stuff. It offered a chance to reflect on what they'd learned in school, place it in a historical context and draw connections to their own lives.
"I think that it's really interesting that they had to build a house themselves, when we just move into one," Young says. "It seems like we have it a lot easier than they did back then."