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What We Learned in the Gardens

Nathalie Miraval Reflects on Programming for Second-Graders and Cultivating a Sense of Wonder

Posted on May 10, 2017 03:05 PM by Nathalie Miraval |
What We Learned in the Gardens

“You know, they aren’t that bad when you look at them up close.”

“They look like gummy worms!”

“I want to take them home, and take care of them as pets.”

To the parents and guardians of second-graders at Hyde-Addison Elementary School: My apologies if maggots crept their way into your living room.

First, a little background: In October 2016, Dumbarton Oaks launched a pilot garden program for Hyde-Addison’s two second-grade classes as part of a growing long-term partnership with the local school. The visits to the gardens were designed to supplement students’ science education with hands-on activities related to concepts they’d engaged with in the classroom.

I had the privilege of designing the programming, with the help of a number of other Dumbarton Oaks staff and fellows, and when it came time to implement the lesson plans, I personally led the sessions, creating a mobile classroom in the gardens. Over the course of six sessions, I watched as students observed, touched, smelled, picked, planted, dug, and drew their way through the gardens’ numerous rooms. Ever curious, the students inquired about Japanese maples (does Dumbarton Oaks have them?), hawks (where do they sleep?), leaf miners (do they only live in boxwood leaves?), rabies (how and why?), and the gift shop (can we visit?). At the same time, their perpetual questioning started to rub off on me; I began to reflect on nature and my relationship to it. I began to wonder when it became a relationship at all—when nature became something, a substance separate from myself.

Our programming was designed with this sense of separation in mind. We wanted students to interact closely and physically with dirt and pollen, leaves and flowers, insects and fungi. During their first visit, students got to uproot whole zinnias and touch their roots, stems, leaves, and flowers. Then, as an experiment in observation, the students drew their own sketches. To learn about pollination in our second session, they watched as bees and butterflies transferred pollen among the asters and dahlias in the Herbaceous Borders. Our final fall visit focused on photosynthesis; with the help of greenhouse specialist Melissa Brizer, students planted zinnia seeds in Dixie cups and took them back to their science classroom to observe as they grew.

Like the bulbs resting beneath the garden, our programming lay dormant during the winter months. Once the gelid air gave way to the warmer breezes of March, however, the students resumed their visits. They sat under the garden’s cherry blossom trees as Tyler Fellow Deirdre Moore and I taught them about producers, consumers, and decomposers. Strangely, I noticed that the students were less excited by the bursts of pink and white petals above them than they were by the more banal producer that surrounded them where they sat—the grass. I was baffled. Over one million visitors descend on the nation’s capital every year to see the blossoms at peak bloom, and these students had some of the best seats in the house. But, I realized, you can’t roll around in a cherry tree, and as their science teacher Adam Severs reminded me, lawns aren’t a given in the District. 

I think it was this moment that led me to reflect on my own childhood, and, by extension, the nature of our mission at Dumbarton Oaks, and the ways in which we’re able to serve our community. I grew up in Colorado, where purple mountain majesties mark the West, and cornfields and cornfields and cornfields stretch away to the East. As humans are wont to do with what they don’t yet recognize as beautiful, I took my exposure to nature—to rivers and reservoirs, to arid summers and their ochre plains filled with coteries of prairie dogs—for granted. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined a home without grass, drives without the front range, summers without fishing or foraging, capturing and climbing.

Moving to the East Coast for college undid my indifference to the mundane beauty that had surrounded me. As I arrived in Cambridge, the thrill of the new consumed me. I ogled the neo-Georgian architecture in awe, and found the green baths of elms, birches, oaks, and maples invigorating. Part of me even thought this new space was better, that between the crenellated red-brick sidewalks and the rich façades of old apartment buildings opportunity happened, developed, thrived. Cambridge had history, intellectualism, character. Colorado had suburban sameness. But, as I came to realize with time, sameness made me different. I began to appreciate the comfort and safety that come with repetition—with the continuous existence of mountains, and the reliable, unending change of plants. 

These were the changes I wanted the children to see. Over the course of their visits, as the gardens underwent alterations both subtle and sweeping, I tried to draw their eyes to the Forsythia Dell, for instance, as it leapt from static brown into vibrant yellow and then calm green; to the tulips rising like wands where zinnias had once been in the Herbaceous Borders; to the wave of blossoming that overtook Crabapple Hill.

Beside these changes, I wanted them to notice small, particular things. When we learned about pests and decomposers and their role in the food chain, Marc Vedder, a pest-control manager at Dumbarton Oaks, helped the children to tear open boxwood leaves, revealing the glowing orange maggots that lived inside. Leaf miner larvae are shut-ins; they feed on the upper and lower surfaces of leaves before pupating and transforming into flies. (I should also point out, for the sake of any concerned parents, that without its snug leafy home the maggot dies.) Enthralled, the students suddenly transformed into proprietors and staked their claims to these pests: “Mine is wiggly!”—“Mine is sleeping!”

Microscope

The more closely you look at things, the more familiar they become. Yet every now and then, you’ll find a secret strangeness in a thing’s details. Inside the Gardeners’ Lodge, the second-graders examined their new orange friends under a microscope. One student exclaimed that the magnified pests didn’t look so much like nauseating vermin anymore—instead they resembled confectionery treats, bright and bulbous. The students also confronted one of their greatest fears: the bumblebee. Beneath the enlarging gaze of the microscope, the pollen hidden in a bumblebee’s fur suddenly becomes visible—when you look at them up close, they really aren’t that bad.

Being close to nature should involve learning how to care for it, and also recognizing our own impact, known or not, on the world around us. Our last session focused on composting, learning how good soil takes care of plants, their insect helpers, and gardens in general. Students learned what can and cannot go into a compost pile. Cardboard, yes; pizza, no—because, as one astute student observed, “pizza is junk food, and we want to give our plants healthy food, just like we need.”

Using compost from our Kitchen Gardens, the students planted their own sunflowers. Horticulturalist Luis Marmol and I showed the students a print by Basilius Besler and asked them to look closer and closer at the helianthus (that is, the sunflower) until they noticed that the center, surrounded by bright yellow petals, consisted of hundreds of florets. Sunflowers, we explained to little sounds of wonder, are actually clusters of flowers.

Luis Marmol teaching with sunflower

All gardens take work to maintain, but Dumbarton Oaks’ gardeners work harder than most to protect the historical fabric of the landscape, while also adapting to climatic and technological changes. I wanted the students to see how much care the gardeners put into making the garden beautiful, and how beautiful it is to take care of a garden, of a sunflower. It’s valuable for the students to understand how photosynthesis and good soil help a sunflower grow. But I secretly hope that having one of their own might help them understand the values of responsibility that underlie our interactions with the natural world.

Environmental issues can sometimes be tricky to grasp, because they’re so large, because they’re everywhere, because they always appear to be happening elsewhere. I want to believe that the earth isn’t meant to die, ever. But I recently visited Colorado and saw, with quivering concern, that the reservoirs were smaller, the rivers thinner, the prairie dogs fewer. When you’re literally grounded in the study of gardens, and the earth, and the actual soil, I like to think that these issues become a little more real and maybe a little more personal.

I know these are issues that are important to me. As someone absorbed in the humanities, I think a lot about big concepts like Truth and Reality and Meaning. For instance: I cannot say if the world is for us. I have trouble seeing it as an object of consumption, even though I engage in, and benefit from, its objectification and consumption. At the same time, I believe in our responsibility to care for our surroundings, if only because our survival is deeply connected to the space in which we live. We are not apart from the world, but a part of it. We depend on pollination, decomposition, and photosynthesis for the food we eat and the air we breathe. But beyond this, beyond the tangible things that insects and plants do for us, I believe we should respect all the members of our lived community, no matter how small or different, invisible or inane their presence. Maybe that’s an obvious truth, but that just means it’s more easily forgotten.

What will these eight-year olds remember of the gardens when they are twenty-five?  I hope that fond memories—or even just their remnants—of learning among the chrysanthemums and wisteria, alongside worms and not-so-scary-after-all bees, linger throughout their lives. Above all, I hope they retain their sense of wonder. Because, in my mind, wonder, knowledge, and action are inextricably linked, and though it’s true that wonder can come from the grand, sweeping beauty of a lovely view, I know that often the sharpest sense of awe, the memory that sticks with us, comes from discovering the particular—touching the worm, seeing the roots, planting the flower.

I find myself wondering about my wonder: When did worms stop being interesting? When did insects become scary? When did I forget that I was made of the sun?

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Building the Invisible

Mellon Outreach Activates Teens’ Humanistic Imaginations

Building the Invisible

You pass by the same park every day. It seems unmoving, unchanging, as if it has been there forever. How do you learn to see not what it is—what you know it has always been—but what it was in the past and what it might be? How do you teach others to appreciate its history and to imagine it in a more ambitious, innovative, and creative way?

Over the past two years, Jeanne Haffner, Mellon postdoctoral fellow in urban landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, has been building collaborative initiatives that foster humanistically grounded design skills in teenagers from Washington, D.C. Haffner’s programs connect Dumbarton Oaks’ resources in Garden and Landscape Studies (GLS) to two other educational institutions in the District: Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School and the National Building Museum’s Design Apprenticeship Program. Phelps High School is a public magnet school with strengths in math and science education; Dumbarton Oaks works with its architecture and landscape classes on a set of design challenges and field trips over the year. The National Building Museum’s apprentice program teaches thirty teenagers design fundamentals and tool skills while developing real-world projects over the course of nine five-hour Saturday sessions per semester; Haffner participates in select sessions as a teacher, mentor, and design critic.

She explains that the students in both programs often have strong technical abilities and practical intuitions, but thinking about design as a humanistic and artistic activity breaks new ground with them. For example, in late September 2016, Phelps High School students visited Dumbarton Oaks to learn about hydrology in its gardens, culminating with an activity: how would you redesign the irrigation in the Ellipse, with its double-ring of thirsty hornbeam trees? Haffner and the students discussed how climate change has caused problems with the irrigation system: because storms have grown heavier, rains don’t permeate the soil as much as they used to. “They had great questions—very logical questions about the trees, their needs, the pipes,” she recalls. “But they tend to think more like engineers than like landscape designers.” To point out the wide range of ways the space has been imagined over the decades, she showed them Farrand’s very different original design for the Ellipse, which led to a discussion about design history and how the use of different types of trees and other vegetation can give an area a completely different feeling.

Dumbarton Oaks, as a research center in the humanities, has the ability to complement the school’s curriculum by teaching the students how to see beyond the expectations and assumptions that the present time and culture have imparted. Haffner wants to help them see that “landscape design has an aesthetic component and is informed by ideas and techniques that have histories. They obviously have a strong science background. So I try to balance this important perspective with other, more humanistic, concerns. My aim is to make them aware that their own designs, like all designs, are subjective and tied to values. Far from being objective and scientific, their designs reflect cultural expectations about how humans should interact with nature, and these ideas about naturalness are historically rooted.”

In the 2015–16 school year, Haffner launched programming with a number of one-time workshops; in 2016–17, she is steering the initiative toward a more sustained, yearlong curriculum built around multiple workshops and field trips. In addition to Phelps High School’s workshop at Dumbarton Oaks, GLS facilitated a tour of the National Zoo with its landscape architect, Jennifer Daniels, and is working with the students on a monthly basis from February to May to redesign a community garden in northeast D.C.’s Kingman Park. Haffner explains that the project is an ambitious conceptual challenge: “How do you include a toolshed, stormwater management, plantings—on a hillside? The soil at the site is also toxic, meaning you need to use raised plant beds.” Haffner, along with John Beardsley, director of GLS, and Jane Padelford, GLS program coordinator, are participating in midterm and final design reviews with the school, lending professional expertise to the school’s curriculum.

At the National Building Museum, GLS is also helping highlight the historical and cultural facets of landscape design by focusing on the city the students know best—Washington itself—and showing not just what it is, but also what it might have been. As a complement to a current exhibition on the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, Haffner created a tour of the show that highlighted the contrast between Halprin’s unrealized plan for the Anacostia riverfront in the 1960s, the current reality of the riverfront, and plans for how modern architects would like to transform the area in years to come. “The Anacostia riverfront worked well as an example because many of the students reside there. It made Halprin’s work feel closer to home.”  

Haffner hopes that the Dumbarton Oaks and Mellon Foundation initiatives will help change students’ sense of what architecture and design aim to do as disciplines, and broaden their conceptions of what they’re doing from the very beginning. “It’s difficult to teach both the technical and social aspects of design simultaneously. They’re beginners. So they need a simple model,” she acknowledges. “But I think the social, cultural, and historical aspects of landscape can and should be integrated into design pedagogy from the start, right up front—not added in at the end.”

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Teaching a Younger Crowd

Teaching Fellows’ Day Invites Undergraduates to Consider Byzantium Anew

Posted on Mar 02, 2017 11:15 AM by Bailey Trela |
Teaching a Younger Crowd

For a Saturday morning, the Oak Room was surprisingly chockablock. Seats, set in rows that stretched the full length of the space, bore a crowd of nearly one hundred people. The attendees hailed from a variety of D.C. institutions.

On February 25, Dumbarton Oaks held its seventh annual Teaching Fellows’ Day. The event, which is organized by Dumbarton Oaks’ postdoctoral teaching fellows in Byzantine studies, invites students from D.C.-area universities to introduce them to research and resources at Dumbarton Oaks through scholarly presentations and gallery tours.

This year, the day took as its theme the nature of capital cities and their place at the center of the artistic, political, and administrative life of empires. “At the Center of Empire” examined these matters through the lens of Constantinople, while at the same time foregrounding Dumbarton Oaks’ own resources, collections, and contributions to the field of Byzantine studies.

In his opening remarks, Director Jan Ziolkowski contrasted the “huffing and puffing of empty manipulation” that frequently characterized the Byzantine bureaucracy with the abundance of “real people with real passion and talent” working at Dumbarton Oaks, and in the field at large. Elena Boeck, director of Byzantine Studies, followed suit in her remarks, adjuring “potential future Byzantinists” in the audience “to come to the good side.”

The morning was given over to a series of three talks that focused on the relationship between the capital city of Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire. In “Reflections of a Capital City,” Elizabeth Dospel Williams, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Byzantine art history at Dumbarton Oaks and George Washington University, began the scholarly proceedings by attempting to provide a “vivid vision of early Constantinople—its monuments, its arts, and its culture.”

The difficulty in reconstructing the past in a convincing, even realistic manner, as Williams asserted, is that we can only access the past through its fragments. “And the thing is, very few artifacts can be linked with absolute certainty to production in Constantinople,” she explained. “Almost all our objects and evidence have been found outside” of the capital. She went on to examine commercial interactions between Byzantium and Europe through the lens of silks and their production, in the process utilizing objects from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection.

In his paper, Jonathan Shea, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Byzantine history at George Washington University and Dumbarton Oaks, analyzed the Byzantine bureaucracy and conflicts between the urban and provincial parts of the empire. Shea described the eleventh and twelfth centuries as “a little odd,” a time when “the first grumblings of the system of government being broken began to emerge.”

Shea described a reckless granting of titles that eventually snowballed out of control. As more and more titles, each with their attendant payment of gold, were granted, the government was forced to devalue its money, at which point people began to demand newer, grander titles (with grander payments of gold). Throughout his talk, though especially in his discussion of titles, Shea utilized the collection of Byzantine seals at Dumbarton Oaks, tracking the appearance of new titles and descriptions in the seals to determine large-scale shifts in administrative power.

Nathanael Aschenbrenner, a Tyler Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks and PhD candidate in the history department at Harvard, delivered the final talk of the morning, “From Imperial City to Urban Empire.” He brought the day’s theme to a very literal conclusion, examining how, in the fifteenth century, Constantinople slowly morphed from the capital of the Byzantine Empire to the empire itself. As the empire lost large swaths of territory and saw its political influence in the region shrink accordingly, it was forced to redefine what “empire” meant, not only in the political sense, but also ideologically and metaphysically.

The event itself attracted a variety of students at different stages in their academic careers, each of them seeking to get something different out of the day. Marcellino Velasquez, for instance, a freshman at George Washington University, was excited to engage with those resources and aspects of the institution that might typically be more difficult to access: “It’s a unique opportunity—I knew we’d be able to see things we wouldn’t usually be able to see.”

Though he hasn’t decided on a major yet, Velasquez is confident he’ll be choosing between history and architecture, or some combination of the two. To that end, the day offered a chance to engage with a subject that—with its emphasis on basilicas, monumental painting, and the built environment of late antiquity—often straddles the two fields.

“I think Byzantine history is really interesting,” Velasquez said, pinpointing the morning lectures as particularly piquant. “I never knew the dynamics of their politics, how these emperors each came to power and overhauled the system of government, changing it to their own tastes, to work for them, obviously.”

For others, the day was an opportunity to explore established interests. Luke Garoufalis, a sophomore at George Washington currently enrolled in two of Jonathan Shea’s classes, traces his interest in Byzantium to his Greek heritage: “I remember my family always talking a lot about it (they still do), and then I learned about it in church school—so I’ve really always had an interest in Byzantium.”

Several of the talks, seeking a relevance to current political events, drew comparisons between the Byzantine past and the current political climate in America; it was an effort that Garoufalis found intriguing. “To learn about this exclusionary system set up in Byzantium, a system that’s very focused on the capital, and then this feeling of revolt against that setup—I think there are definitely connections there, and perspectives to be gained.”

Erin Haas, a freshman at George Washington, is planning to double major in history and art history. She wants to concentrate her studies on the Middle East, pursuing an interest that she developed in high school. Though Haas had never heard of Dumbarton Oaks before, she was excited to learn about the institution and its own specialties.

The afternoon was given over to a series of gallery tours and informal lectures on various projects currently ongoing at Dumbarton Oaks. Students explored museum storage, visited the special collections, listened to curators, and learned about publication initiatives and educational programming—and, ideally, learned a little bit more about the inner workings of an institution that, though not nearly as complex as the empires it studies, combines a diverse bevy of projects and approaches in the service of scholarship.

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Learning among the Plants

Second-Grade Classes from the Hyde-Addison School Visit the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens

Posted on Nov 30, 2016 04:40 PM by Spencer Lenfield |
Learning among the Plants

Children gaze at the banks of asters and sunflowers that tower above them. “There’s a bird!” one shouts. “I see bees!” chime others. The eyes of a girl in a red coat follow a monarch butterfly as it floats from bloom to bloom among the crimson and gold chrysanthemums. This late October morning, the Herbaceous Border in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens has become that most beautiful of spaces: a classroom.

Two classes of twenty-three second-grade students from the Hyde-Addison School, a public elementary school a short walk away from Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, visited the gardens three times each in the fall in order to supplement their science curriculum. Accompanied by science teacher Adam Severs, parent chaperones, and members of Dumbarton Oaks’ staff, the young students engaged with the basics of plant biology, approaching questions such as: What is a plant? How are they made? How do they grow?

“We created the program so that the second-graders could see things happening in action,” says Nathalie Miraval, public programming and outreach fellow, who designed and taught the curriculum for the new collaboration. While many students may learn about plant science in the abstract from a textbook, “it’s another thing to actually see roots, to water and plant a seed, to see bees on a flower sucking up nectar. It excites the kids, because it exists first in their mind, but then it’s right there in front of them.” Students come away from visits to the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens with a more tangible and memorable experience of concepts and processes like pollination, photosynthesis, and plant germination.

Garden staff, including horticulturalist Luis Mármol and greenhouse specialist Melissa Brizer, offered demonstrations to the classes during their visits, highlighting interesting examples of plants that related to the lessons for the day. Miraval mentions that these moments are some of the most exciting for students, as when Mármol showed the children an ear of multicolored flint corn to explain pigmentation: “Kids are so used to seeing just a single form of corn that they were blown away! Even I was blown away. That was something that they saw and aren’t going to forget. Those are the special moments, the ‘Oh!’ moments, and I hope they carry that wonder with them as long as they can.”

Dumbarton Oaks’ collaboration with the Hyde-Addison School will continue in the spring, when the second-grade classes return for a second set of three visits around the theme “What do plants do for us?”

 

Hyde-Addison visit 3

Hyde-Addison visit 3

Hyde-Addison visit 4

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