Learning in Our Own Backyard

Learning in Our Own Backyard
by Danny Stock

A GDS student will…

…Engage Ethically


Before they graduate, GDS students learn to listen, act with care, and build diverse cohorts committed to improving lives—and the well-being of our planet. And, because all this work is with and for people, they learn to communicate clearly and powerfully across cultures. 

To achieve all this, students and teachers begin at home, learning in, around, and about our local community. 

Not only does Washington, DC offer a wealth of resources—from natural spaces and the seat of government to cultural institutions and places to play—but the city’s rich history makes it ripe for learning more about how we got here and where we are going, all right in GDS’s own backyard. 

The second week of November 2022 turned out to be a strikingly DC-centric five days for GDS students. Teachers guided students through various DC-based learning adventures, beyond campus and inside the classroom (map view). 

On Monday, 8th graders (MS is light green on the map) ventured out into Penn Quarter, Anacostia, Ivy City, Foggy Bottom, and Congress Heights. They met with individuals and organizations related to their GDS Citizen Corps study of eight major issues consistently and vigorously debated in the national discourse, including the Second Amendment, reproductive rights, and immigration*. The excursions connected students to perspectives and lived experiences on their chosen topic.

On Tuesday, 9th grade history students (HS is orange on the map) continued their study of DC neighborhoods in anticipation of an upcoming trip to Mount Pleasant to learn about that neighborhood’s resistance to gentrification. Third graders worked on their immigration projects, featuring GDS faculty and staff who came to Washington, DC from other countries. (Parents visited on November 29 to view the culminating gallery of presentations. Here’s a glimpse >>)

Then, on Wednesday, 1st graders (LS is yellow on the map) designed murals inspired by the Murals DC Project, painted in the style of 20th-century DC-based painter Alma Thomas, and made expressionist watercolor paintings while listening to the music of DC-native Duke Ellington. Each project followed a lesson on the neighborhoods relevant to these stories, including a reading of the Caldecott-winning Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and his Orchestra by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney.

On Thursday, 5th graders met with seniors Brian Chapman, Roshan Natarajan, and Kofi Pobee, who shared memories of classmate Kamal Nashid, who tragically lost his life soon after his Middle School graduation, in preparation for a memorial mural to be created by the 5th grade beside the Kamal Nashid Terrace. The project connects to Green Corps, the 5th grade community engagement and experiential learning curriculum, and their study of sustainable gardening and urban green spaces, specifically in the DC area. Students also learned in and around our new greenhouse, cared for the raised garden beds, and beautified the terrace. In history class, the same 5th graders considered the meaning of political representation—or the absence of it—for DC residents as they studied the impact of the 1765 Stamp Act on the American colonies. It gave new meaning to the phrase "taxation without representation" they’ve seen on license plates!

Finally, on Friday, Miss DC 2022, Alivia Roberts, visited 4th graders to read an excerpt from her book Leaping Into Your Destiny and talk about the importance of believing in your dreams, perseverance, and never giving up. Students shared their own hopes and dreams. Some are excited about—and are hoping to tune in to watch her compete in—Miss America in December. 

Of course, connection to the wider DC community is not reserved for just one week a year. Earlier this fall, 9th graders were taking walking tours through Tenleytown history, learning about Fort Reno’s role in drawing African American families to the larger Tenleytown community. On November 30, they visited Southwest DC, including a stop at the DC Wharf. Some of our oldest Hoppers explored oyster beds on the Anacostia River in their applied research in environmental science field ecology class.

Tenth graders visited the Italian Renaissance and Dutch collections in the National Gallery of Art, building on their classroom study of the art of the Renaissance and Dutch “Golden Age.” High School History teacher Carlos Angulo explained that they considered how the art connected with “other political, social, and intellectual features that defined those time periods.”

Looking ahead, the 9th graders will go on the anticipated walking tour of Mount Pleasant, traveling through Columbia Heights and Shaw to observe the kind of development seen elsewhere in the city. They will meet with documentarian Ellie Walton about her film La Manplesa and plan to practice photography in the neighborhood. High School history teacher Kim Nguyen said, “I believe seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing, and even tasting Washington, DC will be perhaps more valuable than the things we can find online.” On the same day, students in High School genetics and evolutionary biology will visit the Museum of Natural History.

Washington, DC is truly an exceptional learning laboratory, and GDS teachers are taking full advantage. They are preparing students not only to navigate the systems and policies of our communities but to dive in to learn first-hand how to ask important questions, analyze answers, and act with empathy. In short, teachers are working to develop just the ethical leaders we need to envision and work towards better futures for our communities.

*The complete list of Middle School Citizen Corps topics includes Freedom of Speech, the Second Amendment, Reproductive Justice, Environmental Justice, Economic Inequality, Access to Education, Immigration, and Criminal Justice.

Learning in Our Own Backyard
  • High School
  • History
  • Lower School
  • Middle School
  • STEM
  • community
  • neighborhood