Lessons from the Past

Mission-driven work in Advanced Topics of the Spanish-Speaking World
In 13th-century Toledo, part of modern-day Spain—stay with me, here—King Alfonso X “the Wise” reorganized the Escuela de Traductores1, making the city a European center of both learning and cultural understanding. He drew Muslim and Jewish scholars into fruitful collaboration with Christian academics. Their work brought classical Latin and Hebrew texts, previously translated into Arabic, to the populace through a revised, contemporary Castilian vernacular. Importantly, their translations covered not only religious texts but also philosophical, scientific, and mathematical ones, increasing accessibility to knowledge during the Middle Ages. Ultimately, Alfonso’s thirst for learning contributed to a period of relative peace on the Iberian Peninsula during an otherwise war-torn eight centuries.

Turn now to 21st-century Washington, DC in which another school of learning—Georgetown Day School, also founded as a collaboration across diverse cultural and religious groups—develops leaders to tackle complex global challenges. For the last two weeks, High School students in Maribel Prieto’s Advanced Topics of the Spanish-Speaking World used lessons from 13th-century Spain to inform their thinking as they considered contemporary conflicts in the Americas and the Middle East. Students discussed the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, emigration/immigration in the Americas, and various ongoing conflicts in Latin America. Their summative assessment consisted of collaborative discussion, individual presentations, and a personal, written reflection—all in Spanish, of course.

Students highlighted los períodos de cooperación e intercambios culturales beneficiosos2 from the Iberian Peninsula. They cited examples de los momentos de convivencia, tolerancia, y colaboración3 between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, including in the Synagogue of Santa María La Blanca in Toledo, the Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba, and the Realejo, the Jewish quarter in Muslim-controlled Albaicín, Granada. What was most striking was the passion with which these students spoke of the necessity for reaching understanding if peaceful solutions and coexistence were ever to be achieved. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that these GDS students espouse the value of culturally diverse communities.

Maribel’s innovative curriculum—each unit explicitly tied to our mission—nurtures young leaders who are more fully equipped to engage on global issues. Maribel explained: “If we want a society that learns from the past, we must teach students how to look at the past and look at historical events from lenses that allow us to better understand—and foresee—conflict.”

Philip Schowitz ’19 said, “I think it’s important to get an in-depth view of a culture different from my own and to study—in a language class—a unique period in history.”

Later this year, students will study the indigenous cultures of the Americas—followed by the genocidal Conquista of the Americas, echoing the eight centuries of Reconquista on the Iberian Peninsula. They’ll research African cultures and religions to understand even more deeply the impact of the slave trade to North America and the Caribbean. During the spring semester, students will explore 19th and 20th-century Spanish and Latin American history, modern-era displacement, independence movements, and close the year with a study of contemporary dictatorships and democracies.

Just as Alfonso X continued the traditions of the 12th-century Escuela de Traductores with a powerful reorganization of their learning center for the new century, so, too, do we continue the traditions of our GDS founding leaders with a strengthened center of learning to tackle the complex challenges of the 21st century.

1 School of Translation
2 periods of cooperation and beneficial cultural exchanges
3 of moments of coexistence, tolerance, and collaboration

Staff writer Danny Stock tells the stories of teaching, learning, competing, creating, and performing at Georgetown Day School. He is a former GDS second grade teacher and current parent.


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Georgetown Day School is a coed, preK-12, non-sectarian private school in Washington, DC with small class sizes and a diverse school community. Our comprehensive, innovative curriculum includes hands-on learning, honors and AP classes, as well as advanced-level math and STEM courses. An education is not just college prep and SAT scores. GDS teachers focus on providing the best education for each child, from elementary grades through high school. The school performing arts program includes theater, dance, and music. The athletics program offers competitive sports for student athletes, including cross-country, track, soccer, lacrosse, and crew/rowing. With our strong commitment to financial aid, an independent school tuition is affordable.