Experience is the Best Teacher

Live It Learn It turns the city into a classroom

“You know who would have to empty the chamber pots?” asks Christopher Shields, in character as George Washington’s black valet. “The smallest slave!” he cries, pointing to tiny Dariya, who curls up shyly and tries to hide underneath her fuzzy pink hat. “That might have been your job!” The girls rear back in disgust, squealing, but they hang on every word. For forty five minutes, they listen intently, scribble notes, and pepper Shields with questions. Chamber pot talk notwithstanding, the lessons they are absorbing are serious and troubling. They have come to Mount Vernon to learn firsthand about slavery. 

The girls, along with their male classmates who are on a separate tour, are from Ms. Neely’s fourth-grade class at Thomas Elementary School in Northeast Washington. They found their way to Mount Vernon through Live It Learn It (LILI), a Capitol Hill non-profit that offers low-income D.C. public schools students the chance to take academically rigorous field trips to more than two dozen of the area’s most interesting and important sites. 

Founded in 2005, Live It Learn It is the brainchild of Matthew Wheelock, a Sidwell alumnus and former D.C. public school teacher whose parents instilled in him a passion for the city and its treasures — his mother also taught in D.C. public schools and his father is a curator at the National Gallery of Art. While teaching at Walker-Jones Elementary School on New Jersey Avenue, Wheelock regularly defied the test-prep mavens and took his students on excursions outside the classroom. The trips made his students “more confident, more motivated, and more successful in the classroom,” he says, but he knew that few kids, particularly those attending D.C.’s lowest-performing schools, had the opportunity to enjoy such experiential education. So he left the classroom to create an organization devoted to sharing Washington’s world-class resources with the city’s children. Live It Learn It was born.

Since its inaugural pontoon trip down the Anacostia River with 23 students, the organization has expanded to encompass thirty different programs at two dozen different sites across the D.C. area. More than 1700 students from twenty-three D.C. public schools are participating this year. It has quietly grown into what Catalogue for Philanthropy calls one of the city’s “best small charities.” With plans for continued expansion, it may soon burst beyond its cramped third-floor offices in an 8th Street walkup. 

It perhaps may be unfair to characterize what Live It Learn It does as “field trips.” Many in D.C. associate the words “field trip” with images of herds of wild, chatty children in matching t-shirts running loose through our city, their panting chaperones straggling behind them. Indeed, at Mount Vernon on the day the LILI students visited, a bus from Florida disgorged dozens of children, who proceeded to rampage through the place in barely an hour. 

Live It Learn It trips are different. Getting students out of the classroom is not the end in itself; the firsthand experience is a tool to help motivate students to learn more and remember more of what they learn. The trips are the centerpiece of a three-part pedagogical loop. LILI spends considerable time and energy developing rigorous, grade-appropriate curricular materials that are aligned with the school system’s academic learning standards. Before taking students to a site, LILI teachers conduct an intensive classroom lesson that primes students for the trip by providing context, background material, and activities. Then comes the trip itself, an academically focused experience in which teachers guide students through carefully-chosen parts of the site. A day or two after the trip, LILI returns to the classroom for a follow-up lesson in which students reflect on their experiences, share what they thought about the trip, and get assessed on what they have learned. 

Each partnering classroom teacher gets to select three LILI programs to participate in per year. For the fall, Ms. Neely and her students enjoyed the wildly popular exhibit of Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art at the National Gallery of Art. In the spring, they will hop aboard a pontoon boat and drift downriver with the Anacostia Watershed Society. Ms. Neely’s group is one of two dozen classes (more than 500 students) who will come to Mount Vernon with Live It Learn It this school year. 

Ms. Neely is a big fan of the organization. “I love it!” she says, smiling as she negotiates the Mount Vernon cobblestones. The experiential programs help her students achieve more in the classroom, giving them background knowledge and personal experience with the subject matter. She lauds LILI’s experienced educators. “I really like how they handle the kids.” 

Ms. Neely’s students arrive at Mount Vernon prepared to learn about the program theme: slavery. (A separate LILI-sponsored program at Mount Vernon focuses on George Washington and his life.) Armed with clipboards and a detailed activity booklet, they split into two groups (boys and girls, Ms. Neely suggests) and they form moving classrooms, each headed by a LILI teacher. 

The first stop is the women’s slave quarters. A small, dark room with several short panels of text, the slave quarters merit only a brief peep or a quick run-through from most tourists. The LILI students spend thirty minutes. 

“Look around,” suggests LILI teacher Erica Harper. “Tell me what you see.” A Duke graduate with an infectious smile but little tolerance for disruptions, Harper embodies the organization’s emphasis on both academic rigor and fun. In the slave quarters, she asks probing questions and pushes students to see slavery as a complex and profitable (for white slave owners) economic system in which blacks were treated as property. Her enthusiasm and relentless focus on the subject matter keep the standing students from succumbing to the chit-chats, bored stares, and indifference that plague many student tour groups. Students complete written activities in their booklets and discuss food, clothing, work, cash crops, and other features of slave life. “I feel bad for how they used to live,” writes one girl. 

As the girls leave the quarters, they bubble with questions, questions, questions – asking any adult around, including this reporter, about the treatment of slaves, how they survived, and, of particular interest, how they went to the bathroom at night. Abuzz, they meet Washington’s valet, Christopher Shields. 

Shields carefully explains the slave hierarchy and gives students a chance to feel the difference between the coarse clothing worn by field hands and the silky shirts that a valet would wear. He shows them how slaves had to “card” wool using two rectangular paddle brushes, and each student takes a turn scraping feverishly to straighten the springy wool into usable yarn for spinning. “My arms hurt!” exclaims a spindly girl named Frances after spending a minute carding. “Imagine how it felt to do that for ten or twelve hours in a day,” Shields tells her. 

The girls leave the valet and move on to the blacksmith shop, shoe shop, and men’s slave quarters before lunch. It’s been two hours, and they have not even stepped foot in the Big House. Field trips with Live It Learn It-style take a long time.  

Seeing everything with their own eyes has a powerful effect on them. “I was amazed to see how my ancestors lived,” says Dariya. “I was sad to see how they suffered.” It’s a lesson she won’t soon forget. 

Chris Myers Asch is the author of The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer. He is currently at work on a history of race and democracy in the District. 

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