Fun with facts

U.S. Supreme Court, with the Library of Congress While tourism to Washington is a year-round phenomenon, visitor numbers always spike dramatically and very noticeably as the city explodes into the exuberance of spring. It is no surprise that people want to visit Washington in spring—the city is simply gorgeous now, with splashes of colour reemerging everywhere after the drab monotones of winter.

At any time of year, visitors to Washington head to the National Mall to experience the nation’s treasured monuments, memorials, statues, and museums. In spring, visitors especially flock to the Tidal Basin to exult in the luxurious blossoms of the cherry trees famously encircling it. Even cynical Washington hacks and jaded longtime residents can surely not help but be stirred by the magnificence of these scores of trees in their glorious, annual bloom.

Those who live in the Washington metro area do become blasé about their proximity to the many world-famous attractions. Those who grow up here can be particularly nonchalant about the renowned sights or symbols of U.S. power in their midst.

So how would one excite a bunch of local, middle-class school children about a field trip to Capitol Hill? More likely than not, most would probably have been there before, and many perhaps a few times. Some would have parents or other family members working there, so they may be especially familiar with the place. How could one inspire such students for this school trip? Well, one could turn the trip into a treasure hunt, that’s how!

A four-hour “scavenger” or treasure hunt was the novel formula that my daughter’s school used earlier this month to experience the grandeur and history of some Washington institutions. The hunt was part of the students’ U.S. civics class. And what a fun way to engage with the civics curriculum! Dozens of parent volunteers were sought to escort the students in small groups for the hunt, and I stepped forward too to help.

This scavenger hunt was not a race to complete the pages-long questionnaire given to each small group. The questionnaire provided the context for interacting with our surroundings. It was the means through which to enjoy the experience, rather than the questionnaire’s completion being the end itself. Indeed, it would not have been possible to fill it all in the allotted four hours. Looking for the details suggested by the questions led to observing minutiae about the various buildings and appreciating aspects of their architecture and history. The constitutional roles of the institutions had clearly been deliberated in class in the preceding months.

The questionnaire sent groups to the U.S. Supreme Court, the office buildings of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Capitol and its visitors’ center, the Library of Congress, as well as a nearby park and some statues. With the exception of a suggested time slot for the U.S. Capitol Visitors’ Center (for crowd control purposes), each group could tailor its own experience and explore the particular interests of its members.

The questions were sufficiently detailed that one wouldn’t realistically know most of the answers without physically going to that specific location. For example, the section on Virginia’s two senators asked questions about items hanging on the walls of their offices. Without going to his actual office, how would one possibly know what is portrayed on at least one of the two Virginia maps in Senator Tim Kaine’s office?* Or with which British Royal family member he is photographed?** His office staff was fabulously good-natured and friendly when the group I was chaperoning stopped by. I imagine they were that way with all the other troops of teenagers who traipsed through their office that morning. But it must have been testing and disruptive too. This dynamic was repeated across the offices of many Virginia legislators on Capitol Hill that day.

There were, of course, security checkpoints to enter each building, which slowed the pace a bit. Students were forewarned to avoid wearing belts and jewelry that day to facilitate passage through these chokepoints. Overall though, I was surprised by the ease with which we could move from building to building. American politicians do have to be accessible to their constituents.

Our group passed by the U.S. Senate as a cluster of Democratic senators was holding a press event on the Senate’s steps to support President Barack Obama’s efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from its present $7.25. Security personnel prevented us from getting too close to the gathering, but it was an unexpected thrill for the students to see this event.

And we came upon this scene on the Senate steps right after the showstopper of the day—watching the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in session. It was breathtaking that members of the public could walk off the street into the Court, like we did, for three hallowed minutes to experience the aura of the Court. Admittedly, we waited in line for well over an hour and went through a few rounds of security to get in. It was a controversial day too for the Court, as they offered their 5-4 verdict in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the new campaign finance decision whereby aggregate limits are lifted on individual donors. What an exhilarating civics class!

As the deluge of tourists continues these weeks, I wonder if those shepherding school groups from around the United States through Washington’s many attractions will also be conducting scavenger hunts. The treasure hunt I experienced was an exemplary, creative, and inspiring way to examine aspects of U.S. federal institutions in this era of stalemated, cynical politics, especially for Washington teenagers. Similar treasure hunts would undoubtedly capture the imaginations of any student groups visiting Washington, this spring and beyond. Yet for many, merely being in Washington and seeing its sights in person is thrilling enough.

* One was of Virginia’s canals, the other of Virginia’s roadways.
** Queen Elizabeth


4 responses to “Fun with facts

  1. Thank you for another fascinating post, Micheline. What a wonderful treasure hunt!

  2. Do you have a link or copy of the hunt? We are planning a trip and that sounds perfect.

    • Hello there:

      Surprisingly, I was able to find the questionnaire that my daughter’s school prepared for the hunt (it did happen a while ago!) Except I scribbled all over it…so I won’t scan or post it for you here. But I will share some of the questions:

      For the U.S. Supreme Court:
      1) What is engraved on the top of the building?
      2) To the left of the steps leading to the main entrance is The Contemplation of Justice by James Earle Fraser. In this sculpture, a seated female figure is holding something in her right hand. Describe what it is.
      3) How long did it take for the Supreme Court to be completed? (You will find this in the entrance lobby!) Do the math!
      4) There is a statue on the “main floor” downstairs. Who is it?
      5) What is the significance of this person?
      6) Find the envelope announcing that Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in. What is the postmarked date?
      7) Fill in this quote from the wall of quotes behind the John Marshall statue–“The people made the Constitution and the people can unmake it. It is the ………………………………………………………….” (Cohens vs. Virginia 1821).
      8) While on this floor, find the “special” spiral staircase. What is unique about this?
      9) Find the small statutes of the Warren Court 1964 (near the spiral staircase). Name all of the justices.
      10) Go upstairs to the first floor and walk over to the courtroom (it will be roped off). Draw a picture of what you see.

      For the Library of Congress:
      1) Write a haiku about the fountain in front of the Library of Congress:
      ……………………………………………….. (5 syllables)
      ………………………………………………….(7 syllables)
      ……………………………………………….. (5 syllables)
      2) Find the Gutenberg Bible and list two things that are unique about this Bible:
      3) On the second floor, find and complete the following quote: “The history of the world is the ……………………….”
      4) On the second floor, find and complete the following quote: “Science is ………………………….”
      5. Name the countries that are labeled on the domed ceiling inside the main reading room (must view from the observation deck on the top floor).

      Jefferson Library (inside the Library of Congress):
      1) Why was there the need to reconstruct this library?
      2) Who paid for the reconstruction?
      3) Study the books in the library. Name one title of a book that has not been replaced. ……………………………………
      How did your group identify that book?…………………………………………

      For the U.S. Capitol Visitors’ Center:
      Emancipation Hall
      1) Find the statue of King Kamehameha I. What is so unique about this statue?
      2) There is a statue of an Apollo XIII astronaut who was also a congressman. Find the statue and write his name.
      3) Find the Statue of Freedom. Describe the headdress worn by the figure.
      4) How tall is this statue?

      Exhibition Hall
      1) Find the FDA poster by the Ohio Works Preservation Administration Art Program. Explain what the poster warned against.
      2) The original draft of a bill for the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1905 is on display in this hall. What is its title?
      3) Who laid the Capitol building’s cornerstone? What was the date?
      4) Who was the last President who lay in state and honour in the Capitol Rotunda?
      Find the exhibit for the Senate and answer the following questions:
      1) On what side of the Senate chamber do the Republicans sit? And the Democrats?
      2) How many rings inform the senators of a quorum call?
      3. Give three commonly used phrases in the Senate chamber.
      Find the exhibit for the House of Representatives and answer the following questions:
      1) How many rings are used in the House chamber for a quorum call?
      2) What is a quorum in the House chamber?
      3) Give three commonly used phrases in the House chamber.
      4) What is the first procedure in the legislative day?

      I don’t know what state you live in. So for visiting the office buildings housing the Members of Congress, I suggest focusing on finding the offices of the representatives from your state and jotting down observations of what is on the walls in the respective offices. You will invariably find fabulous historical artifacts and photographs.

      Good luck and have great fun!

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