Learning by Going

By Jillian S. Jarrett
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008

It wasn't exactly a hard decision, but it wasn't an easy one, either. After years of attending graduate and law school, practicing law and working in international relations, Matthew Wheelock made a decision: He was going to become a teacher in the D.C. public school system.

The notion didn't come overnight. After all, he had tutored and mentored students since he was a college freshman. Plus, his parents were firm believers in public education -- his mother taught in the school system for more than 20 years. Wheelock believed it was important work.

As a teacher at Walker-Jones Elementary School in Northwest, he sought ways to inspire his students while teaching core academic skills. He incorporated field trips as part of his lesson plan to reinforce the concepts being studied in the classroom. They went to the Capitol while studying the three branches of government, and to the planetarium at Rock Creek Park while studying the solar system. The methodology behind his nonprofit organization came about during his teaching years.

"I was stunned by the impact of each of these trips. My students' level of excitement and engagement was palpable, and the trips invariably remained the subject of conversation for months," said Wheelock, 37, who has a law degree from Stanford University and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University.

In 2005, he founded Live It Learn It, a program that uses the District's history and landmarks to teach public school students from across the city. Wheelock and his staff of one part-time and three full-time educators partner with public schools in the city to teach fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.

Over the course of a school year, students participate in trips in three core content areas: history and government, science and nature, and art and culture. Each field trip is supplemented by two classroom sessions. A pre-trip lesson provides students with background knowledge of the historic site they are visiting. A "brain builder booklet," full of keywords, maps and fill-in-the-blank and matching exercises, is given to each student. A post-trip lesson helps reinforce the concepts learned.

The staff approaches school principals and administrators to get permission to conduct the program. Partnerships with other nonprofit groups, such as the Hattie M. Strong Foundation, and other philanthropists and supporters help bring the program to classrooms for free.

A recent field trip was teacher Chy McGhee's second go-round with the program. A teacher for five years, she said her students were excited about their trip to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

"The kids love it. It actually taught me how to 'correctly' do a field trip," McGhee said. "It helps to build a background, that way kids connect the trip to what's going on in the classroom."

As snow fell, the students blew into their hands and huddled tightly, standing in an orderly line waiting for the National Park Service's tour guide to open the door to Douglass's former home. Once inside, the students looked around in awe at the house, decorated with gold-trim wallpaper, fur rugs, family portraits and antique furniture.

"It makes me feel so excited to be here. I'm seeing all the things he had while he was alive," said Shay'quan Pinkett, 12.

Ricky Cole, 10, said he would love to live in the house, which sits on a hill in Southeast with panoramic views of the city. "I like looking at all the old stuff. You can see back in history," he said.

The guide led the class through the many rooms of the house, telling stories of Douglass's life. The students seemed amused by a vintage iron, which the guide said Douglass's wife didn't much like because although it made clothes crisp, it left an unpleasant odor.

Although the other students were dressed in typical school gear, Joseph Chase, 11, wore a white collared, button-up shirt, a black-and-blue diamond-checkered vest, a tie and black dress shoes. "I wanted to dress right for Frederick Douglass," he said.

Even the tour guide was impressed when he asked whether anyone knew who Douglass's second wife was. "Helen Pitts," the students said matter-of-factly. McGhee and the Live It Learn It crew smiled.

Mission accomplished.

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