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Cathedral Adventures: A Study in Developing a Multi-Visit Program

Imagine seeing Washington National Cathedral for the first time through the eyes of an eight-year-old. After stepping off the school bus, you walk along a curved path through well-manicured grounds towards a great edifice with majestic flying buttresses and soaring towers reaching several hundred feet. Inside, you enter a colossal space filled with massive limestone piers, grand arches, brilliant stained glass windows, and elaborate stone carvings.

Although there is much at the Cathedral that captures the imagination and invites exploration, the immense size and often unfamiliar architecture can leave a child feeling overwhelmed and disoriented. How do you put children at ease in this new and different environment? From an educator’s perspective, with such a variety of teaching opportunities, where do you begin? How do you stimulate interest and arouse curiosity among students without overloading them with information?

One approach adopted by the staff of School & Family Programs at the Cathedral has been to develop a multi-visit program organized around tightly focused themes. Designed for fourth grade students in the District of Columbia public school system, the Cathedral Adventures program offers students a meaningful educational experience outside their classroom. Students visit the Cathedral three times exploring a different topic each visit: art, architecture, and inspiration. During the program’s first year in the 2002-03 school year, nine fourth grade classes from six different schools throughout Washington, DC, participated in the program.

Cathedral Adventures begins with a visit to the students’ classroom by a Cathedral educator to introduce the program. Sharing pictures of the Cathedral with students before their first visit and talking with them about what they will be seeing helps build their enthusiasm for the program and also eases feelings of concern or confusion that children can experience when visiting a new place. Additionally, during this introduction to the program, every student receives a handbook that contains pre-visit activities to be completed before each visit along with pages for students to record their reflections about their experiences at the Cathedral. Appropriate preparation for each visit during the program is key. The more knowledgeable students are about the theme being explored that day, the more they are able to assimilate and participate during their visit. “Art and artisanship” is the focus of the first Cathedral Adventures lesson. Students study three different art forms found at the Cathedral: mosaics, stained glass windows, and stone carvings. The goal for this portion of the program is to teach students how to recognize and appreciate each type of art and to encourage them to share their reactions and thoughts about what they see. Working in small groups, the children are led by adult guides down stone arcades, through an outdoor cloister, and into a crypt chapel to examine Cathedral art. Often the walk from a stained glass window to a gargoyle to a mosaic is as much of an adventure as seeing the art itself. Students relish the opportunity to explore and compare different parts of the building, and it is easier to hold their attention by moving around than remaining in one place for an extended period.

Back in the classroom, students take a moment to write in their handbooks about what they have seen that day. The stained glass windows make them think about fireflies, sunsets, and Christmas lights. Active imaginations wonder whether the stone gargoyles come alive at night when it is dark outside and the city sleeps. The final activity for the day is a craft project. Mimicking the process of a real stained glass artisan, students make their own stained glass window using colored pieces of acetate and adhesive backed leading strips.

The theme of the second Cathedral Adventures lesson is “architecture.” Studying the structural environment with its many complexities can be somewhat daunting for children, particularly when learning about a building as large and elaborate as the Cathedral. Rather than showering students with a barrage of difficult and obscure Gothic terms such as clerestory or triforium, the adult guides emphasize several basic elements of architecture that can be applied to all buildings. This encourages students to relate what they learn at the Cathedral to other buildings with which they are more familiar. By considering such I questions as “What is a building made of”?” and “How does a structure stand up?” students learn how to look at a building through an architect’s eyes. Additionally, the use of hands-on activities to examine different aspects of architecture allows children to take a more active role in the learning process, engaging their interest and exciting their curiosity.

Working in the same small groups as the first visit, students rotate among four “activity stations” throughout the Cathedral with their guide. A different aspect of architecture is considered at each station size, building materials, shapes, and structure. The topic of size is explored by having the students measure the perimeter of different sized piers in the nave. After recording their findings in their handbooks, students discover that the size of a pier is determined by how much weight it has to carry. At the building materials activity station, students make rubbings of some of the materials used to construct and decorate the Cathedral. They also discuss reasons why certain materials were chosen over others. Using a set of colored foam shapes, the children examine three different areas of the building looking for shapes and patterns in the Cathedral’s architecture. Familiar shapes, such as triangles and rectangles, are spotted along with more unusual shapes like octagons and quatrefoils. The hands-on activity relating to structure begins in the classroom where students use building blocks and a wooden model of a flying buttress to explore how the Cathedral supports its own weight. Outside in the shadows of real flying buttresses, the students use their bodies to make a pointed arch supported by two flying buttresses (classmates) on either end.

During the third and final lesson of Cathedral Adventures, students explore the notion of “inspiration.” Building upon their experiences during the first two visits, the children contemplate how the Cathedral’s art, architecture, and grounds make it a place of inspiration. The objective for this visit is for students to gain an appreciation for the inspiration it took to build the Cathedral, the ways in which people who visit the Cathedral are often inspired, and the meaning of being inspired themselves.

Similar to the second lesson about architecture, the students rotate in small groups among four “inspirational” places at the Cathedral with their guides. One of the highlights of this visit is seeing different views of the Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden, the West Balcony, the Observation Gallery in the south tower, and a crypt chapel. The guide begins at each place by having the students sit and remain quiet for an entire minute, allowing them time to look around and to think about the space that surrounds them. Beyond encouraging students to be reflective, this moment of quiet also helps settle rowdy children by having them focus their energy on practicing good observation skills. After the minute is over, students share thoughts and feelings that the space evoked in them. Additionally, the group discusses what aspects of the space make it a place of inspiration, such as its height, its aesthetics, its silence, or the presence of nature.

During the culminating activity for this lesson, students make an inspiration box. Each child decorates his or her box with drawings, writings, and a photograph of the Cathedral. Then as a group, the class brainstorms different uses for the boxes. One suggestion made by the program leader is for students to write down their goals, dreams, and happy thoughts to put in their boxes. Then, in times of frustration or disappointment, students can look in their boxes for encouragement and comfort.

Designed to enrich the educational experiences of DC Public School children, the Cathedral Adventures program introduces students to the wonder of the Cathedral and its grounds. From the program’s earliest stages of development through its first year of implementation, several key aspects have contributed to the program’s success:

clearly defined learning objectives supported by tightly focused activities comprehensive pre-visit materials and the cooperation of teachers to fully prepare their students before each visit a similar format for each of the three Cathedral visits inquiry-based teaching methods.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of designing Cathedral Adventures was the difficulty of selecting information to share with students. Local curriculum standards and teacher comments on evaluation forms were helpful for providing ideas for appropriate program themes. Once the themes for each visit were identified, the next step was to establish clearly defined learning objectives. Specific activities for each visit were then developed to help support each learning objective. Excessive information can easily confuse, distract, or bore a child.

Cathedral educators found that lesson plan focused around several major concepts gave children a framework for receiving and understanding information without being overwhelmed. A concerted effort was made to avoid inundating students with too much information. Throughout ongoing training for the Cathedral Adventures, guides have been discouraged from showing children aspects of the Cathedral that are unrelated to the program’s learning objectives. Excessive information can easily confuse, distract, or bore a child.

Cathedral educators also learned that a multi-visit program requires a significant commitment from the classroom teacher. Students who have completed the pre-visit activities before each visit gain a lot more from the program than those who have not. Ensuring that students are prepared for each visit is largely the responsibility of their teacher. It helps to work with teachers who are fully committed to the program.

Further, to provide continuity between visits the format for all visits are similar. Each Cathedral experience begins with an introductory session before the children are divided into their small groups. Students are kept in the same small groups for each of their three visits led by the same adult guide. This allows both the guide and the students to get to know each other better. At the end of each visit, the entire class gathers back together for a group review of what was learned that day.

Finally, all Cathedral Adventures guides are trained to use inquiry-based teaching methods while leading children around the Cathedral. Students are encouraged to answer questions and to think for themselves instead of being lectured, allowing them a more active role in the learning process. Likewise, children are also encouraged to explore how different works of art and different views of the Cathedral make them feel. More emphasis is put on learning how to respond to art and architecture rather than merely learning a series of facts about these topics.

By the end of the Cathedral Adventures program, most students feel a personal connection to the Cathedral. Most understand the building’s purpose and why so many people come to visit every year. Some have new dreams of growing up to be architects or stained glass window artisans. Moreover, what had once looked like a combination of giant stone structures has now become recognizable parts of a building. Ultimately, Cathedral Adventures encourages not only an understanding of the Cathedral’s art, architecture, and history, but also an appreciation for exploring the visual world around us.

Mary Carolyn Voght is the coordinator Of School & Family programs at Washington National Cathedral Ms. Voght graduated from the College of William and Mary with a bachelors degree in history and English. She received her master’s degree in Public History with a concentration in Museum Studies from the University ofSouth Carolina.

Voght, Mary Carolyn. “Cathedral Adventures: A Study in Developing a Multi-Visit Program,” The Docent Educator 13.1 (Autumn 2003): 10-13.

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