“I,Too”: Celebrating Black History Month

I promised back in January to publish a link to a project I have poured much love and devotion into- an experiential learning guide I created that focuses on African American literature and local places of interest that students (or anyone!) can explore with their families. The goal of this project as it relates to my personal field (education) is to foster the school-family-community nexxus that supports learning outcomes for students. The goal as it relates to this blog- to guide you toward some excellent resources for Black History in the DC area in conjunction with a month in which we celebrate this important contribution to our national identity.

I’m an English teacher, and I have a theory that all English teachers have one particular area of literature they love the most. Mine happens to be African American literature, a particularly vibrant yet often overlooked subset of American literature. African American literature provides valuable contribution to what it means to “be American,” and it’s often underutilized in school curriculums. My goal for this project, and in posting it here, is to introduce readers to some of my favorite African American writers and try to bring their voices to life. In the still-relevant words of Langston Hughes, “I, too, am America.”

If you’re interested in exploring this area of literature a bit more, here is the link to the Google slides version of my project: “”I,Too”: Bringing to Life the Voices of African American Writers.” I very much would have liked to include many, many more writers from many, many more eras, but at some point the project became unwieldy and needed to be capped. I have included some of my absolute favorites, including Frederick Douglass (who, contrary to our president’s comments, is NOT alive and has been getting attention for… over 100 years already), Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and my absolute favorite favorite favorite, Zora Neale Hurston. I hope you find something useful in this guide and that it in some small way serves its purpose of honoring these incredible voices.


Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Washington, DC

If your kids are like mine, they likely came home this week telling you that in the days leading up to MLK Jr. Day on January 16 they’ll be learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a parent, I’m thrilled that my first-grade daughter will be learning about Dr. King in school. As a teacher, I’m looking for more opportunities to help her make a connection with Dr. King and the historical events he was pivotal in achieving.

As an English teacher (one semester away from finishing my Masters in Education), I have this theory that all English teachers have one particular area of literature they love more than others. For me, that is African American literature. In honor of Black History Month coming up in February, I’m going to be posting an experiential learning guide I have created that honors the voices of some of my favorite African American writers and then offers suggestions of places to visit in the DC/Northern Virginia region that directly tie to those authors. This project was initially done for a course in my Masters program but the work was so interesting and fulfilling to me that I’m going to build upon it and publish it here to share it with as many people as possible.

That being said, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my favorite writers featured in this publication, and as the only one who has his own national holiday, he earns a bump-out feature of his own. I’d like to share with you some ways to get your kids involved in actively learning about and celebrating the life of this great man on January 16. We are particularly lucky living in this area to have access to so many places that directly relate to Dr. King and can really bring his voice to life for ourselves and our kids. I plan to do this with my own kids as I attempt to introduce them to one of our greatest American figures.

Featured writings:

Everyone knows King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech- or, at least, they know of the snippet in which he declares he has a dream. Try reading the piece in full with your kids, out loud, and then watch a video of King himself delivering this speech at the March on Washington. When I teach my students rhetorical analysis, I love including audio/visual clips when at all possible. So much is conveyed in tone, facial expression, and mannerisms that doesn’t always carry through in writing (or gets distorted or lost during read-alouds because of the different mannerisms or speech patterns of whoever is reading). There is something very powerful about hearing a writer read their own writing as they intended it to be heard and received. King in particular is a gifted orator whose words on the page are powerful but become epic when heard in his own voice.

Although “I Have a Dream” is perhaps King’s best-known piece of writing, he is the author of others that (if I’m being honest) I actually prefer. One of my favorite pieces of writing of all time is King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was written when he was jailed in Birmingham following the 1963 Birmingham protests. In Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer-Prize winning account of King’s Civil Rights career, it’s revealed how personally stressful King found his stints in jail. Being jailed was a not-uncommon occurrence for King in the mid-60s as protests cropped up across the South in which he would either lead or take part. As often as he was jailed, King found each instance emotionally fraught and mentally taxing. During his five-day stint in Birmingham, he released  nervous energy by penning “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” To read his moving words and measured and rational rhetoric, one would never know the great duress he was under at the time. It bears one of the most elegant and haunting closing paragraphs of all time:

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.; Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

It is no secret that we are currently living in a world and society which is troubled and bears the silent rumblings of discord and misunderstanding across groups. I read King’s words from time to time to remind myself of his optimism and vision. I ask my students to consider our present day circumstances and to ruminate on whether we have yet reached the “not too distant tomorrow” in which King envisioned love and brotherhood. Their responses are often surprising in their depth and intellect and sensitivity. I love to hear what they think. Ask your kids the same question. (Ask yourself the same question.)

The final piece of King literature I’d like you to read is King’s haunting and eerily prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. One again, King’s delivery of this speech is mandatory viewing, as his emotional state really comes through via spoken word. If you don’t have 43 minutes to spare, please do at least spend two minutes to watch the final words of his speech, when he really ramps up and appears to be on the verge of tears.

It really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land.

I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He would be shot dead the following day at his Memphis hotel. I promise you, it is impossible to watch him deliver these words and not feel the impact. What thoughts lie behind them? What fears were he nurturing?

Where to visit:

Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the man and his words, you have the option of visiting many places in this area to deepen the connection. Here are my suggestions:

Starting with the most obvious, a stop at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Monument is a must. As it’s part of the National Park Service system, it’s free and open to the public 24 hours a day, year-round. Kids can get a Junior Ranger Booklet to complete for a badge (I’ve written here about the wonderful Junior Ranger program and highly recommend it for kids).

mlk-portraitimage via NPS

From there, visit the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the March on Washington, a coordinated protest aimed at pressuring government to pursue legislation that would ensure equality in the workforce for African Americans, creating more/better job opportunities for them and securing the right to equal pay.


image via

Of note is exactly why the march culminated with King’s speech being delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington took place in 1963- the centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The location was a specific rebuke against the fact that much of what the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence promised had not been delivered to African Americans- or as King put it, “it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.””

And just where did King write this era-defining speech? Right here in Washington, DC at The Willard Intercontinental, where he was staying as a guest. In the lobby of The Willard, King and his advisers made the final revisions and edits to this speech just before he delivered it at the March. Pop into the hotel and show your kids where history was made.

intercontinental-washington-2532396389-2x1image via

The Civil Rights display at Library of Congress

Before entering the room where Thomas Jefferson’s book collection is housed and displayed, the Library of Congress has erected a wonderfully informative walk-through presentation about the Civil Rights movement and its pinnacle in 1964 of achieving the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed equal treatment of African Americans under the law and prohibited discrimination, voter suppression, and other forms of injustice faced by African Americans through the period following the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow.


The display shows the work of many of King’s contemporaries in the movement and the work that led to getting the legislation signed and passed by President Johnson. King’s speech is featured as well as a picture of he and other Civil Right leaders with President Kennedy at the White House following the March on Washington. For anyone who’d like a deeper look into the movement and the Civil Rights Act, this display is a must-see.



note: the Library of Congress website says this exhibition was only on display until January 2, 2016- however, I was just there in mid December, when I took these pictures, and it was up.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Access to this new museum is still mostly limited to highly coveted timed passes (which will go up soon for April) but there are a limited number of same-day passes available each morning at the museum. If you’re able to grab those, do! If you can’t manage a visit in time for MLK, Jr. day, try your best to get in at a later date and make the visit nonetheless. I was lucky enough to get timed passes last September just weeks after the opening date and it was one of my favorite experiences of the year. I consider this museum to be a work of genius- never has the design of any building so informed the experience within.

Starting in the bottom floor of the museum, one begins in the dark days of slavery. Appropriately, this part of the museum is dark, light-less and feels stifling and hot. Moving up through the second and third floors you pass through the Civil War, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and finally you burst into the light-filled center atrium feeling as though you’re gasping for air. The fourth, fifth and sixth floors (the above ground corona) are paeans to achievement in culture. Reaching the top, one feels the heights that have been reached, made all the more poignant when considering the depths in which progress began. The museum’s tagline is “A People’s Journey.” Never has a journey felt so personally rewarding.


In this far back corner of the top-most floor of the NMAAHC I looked out through the bronze lattice-work that ensconces the building and stood face to face with the Capitol building. How I wished all those who had gone before could stand in that same spot to see the view. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that he had been to the mountaintop. He undoubtedly had. But I wish he had been there for this mountaintop as well.

Other events and activities:

Washington, DC

Dr. King preschool storytime at the MLK branch of the DC Library.
King mural discussion at the MLK branch of the DC Library
Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, Anacostia (January 16, 2017, 11 am)

Northern Virginia

25th Annual Martin Luther King March and Celebration– beginning with prayer at 10:15 at the Leesburg Courthouse, the march honoring King will then proceed to the former Douglass School.
Loudoun Chorale presents “Lift Every Voice” a festival of choirs and inspirational speakers in honor of Dr. King. Leesburg Community Church (January 15, 2017, 4-6 pm)

This is it. Don’t get scared now.

It’s hard to believe but the Christmas season has crested the hump and it’s a downhill slide to Christmas day. With Christmas coming in just 11 days (!!!), there’s still lots to do, but very little time in which to do it.

It’s time to rally. There’s still so much to see and do before the season is over.

Head to Downtown Purcellville: 

I’ve written before about how Purcellville is my favorite little small town in Northern Virginia. You simply must make a trip there before the holidays are over. Main Street Purcellville is currently a real-life version of those cute little Christmas villages that people set up on tables in their homes.



This is the curious and delightful Christmas Shop located in the Purcellville Marketplace- a labyrinth of Christmas-themed rooms filled with all manner of holiday decor.


9ad0e011-712f-4dda-b4fd-32541c5e5798_zpsgxdov7zbWe popped into Catoctin Creek Distillery on Sunday afternoon to do some Christmas shopping- a stunning bottle of their Distiller’s Reserve 92-proof Roundstone Rye. The crew has created a menu of festive holiday cocktails to enjoy while you’re there!

Write your Christmas cards, for crying out loud:

And then send me one because I’ve so far only received three this year so far! I finally got around to doing mine this weekend, with my usual glass of wine, which I find keeps things interesting. The first cards in the stack are your usual “Our fondest wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year” and then somewhere toward the middle they get little more exuberant, with pledges of undying affection and vague promises to do family vacations together each summer.


Host a cookie decorating party for 13 children:


Or, if you treasure peace, quiet, and orderliness, don’t!

Find a Gingerbread House done by people who aren’t terrible at them like you and I are:

The Gingerbread Village at the Hyatt in Reston Town Center- Every year, the Hyatt Regency Reston puts on a gingerbread village display that is free for all to come and visit (it is not necessary to be staying at the hotel to pop in and peek at the gingerbread village!). Grab a Peppermint Mocha from the lobby Starbucks and head down to the Ice Skating Pavilion, where you can either rent a pair of skates and take a spin, or, if you’re from the south and are not designed to participate in activities involving ice (ahem), stand off to the side and watch everyone else glide around effortlessly. The pavilion is lit with Christmas lights and it all feels so festive and traditional in a very Norman Rockwell way. And we need all the Christmas spirit boosters we can get this year since it is currently warmer in Northern Virginia than it is in Los Angeles.


Sweetz Bakery in Leesburg currently has a gingerbread village on display as well that is so intricate, so detailed, so excruciatingly perfect that your innate feelings of gingerbread inadequacy will bloom and then wither in its presence. Oh, is that a pretzel twist balcony railing? A peppermint swizzle stick colonnade? A porch topiary made of icing? My daughter felt it necessary to point out to me, as if I didn’t already know, “None of our gingerbread houses ever look like that.” Yeah, well, we’re not magicians, are we?


Go see the Nutcracker:

My oldest and I will be dressing up in fancy dresses and taking in the 2:30 viewing of Loudoun Ballet Company’s Nutcracker at Dominion High School this Saturday, 12/19. Tickets are still on sale through the website until December 16; after that, they will be available for purchase at a higher price at the door before showtime. My BFF’s at Certifikid (can I call them that? They don’t know me…) have several deals right now for local Nutcracker performances including the “Nutracker in a Nutshell,” for small children and husbands, Nutcracker at the Warner Theater, and the Nutcracker presented by the Maryland Youth Ballet.

Visit Santa: 

Santa is everywhere. I have heard that the Mazza Gallerie and Tyson’s Corner Center Santa setups are particularly nice. We found him at a Frozen-themed setup last year (what WASN’T Frozen-themed last year?) at Fair Oaks Mall, and he pops up here and there for breakfasts and brunches all the time, with the next Breakfast with Santa being held at Whole Foods Ashburn this Saturday, 12/19, from 9 am to 11 am (pre-registration required and found here).

Hang out with Aladdin: 

The story goes that in 1787, George Washington had a camel visit Mount Vernon for Christmas, and so now Mount Vernon makes sure Aladdin the Camel is there at Christmas in the spirit of tradition. Tickets to Christmas at Mount Vernon include a house tour, access to the grounds, a visit with Aladdin, and if you’re there this Friday or Saturday, a fireworks show over the Potomac River.

ICE! At Gaylord National Harbor

Where: 201 Waterfront St, Oxon Hill, MD
When: Open daily until January 3, 2016; hours vary depending on day/week. Tickets during peak times (weekends and the two weeks closest to Christmas) are $35 for adults, $28 for kids 3-12, and kids under 3 are free.

ICE! is cold. Should this seem obvious? I mean, I don’t know how to explain it (perhaps because the language on the website says the temperature is kept at, and I quote, “a chilly 9 degrees”), but we did not quite realize *just how cold* ICE! was going to be. I believe we were conjuring visions of a brisk coolness, a pleasant sort of “I can see my breath in this building!” chill. Oh no. You feel 9 degrees down in your bones. Down in the deepest part of your heart that can only be touched by things like when Thomas Jay dies looking for Veda’s ring in My Girl. In that place- you will feel those 9 degrees.

Luckily, ICE! is so darn impressive you won’t much mind.

This was our first year attending ICE!- in 2013 we had a newborn, and last year she was only just one, so far too young to go, but this year, with a 6 year old a 2 year old, we thought it was time to give ICE! a go. The great thing about ICE! is that you could do it every year because the theme changes- last year was Frosty the Snowman if I recall correctly, and this year’s theme was Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, featuring characters and scenes from the 1970 Rankin-Bass Christmas special Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. (If they ever do a Home Alone themed ICE! I am going to die on the spot- praying over a Stouffer’s Mac and Cheese for that happen right now.)

If you’ve seen the movie, all the characters and scenes will be familiar to you. In fact, you should watch it before you go, just to freshen up. It will probably be on ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas about 32 times this month, along with my eternal personal favorite, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Upon entering, you are instructed in stern tones not to lick, touch, or sit on the ice. I had to forcibly desist from indulging the urge to touch it because they told me not to touch it.


Baby Claus being delivered to Mr. and Mrs. Kringle


Sombertown, ruled by Burgermeister Meisterburger, toyless, with Kris Kringle giving Miss Jessica a china doll


Kris Kringle and the Winter Warlock

Once you’ve made your way through the seven Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town themed rooms, you end up in a massive room with ICE SLIDES. I repeat, ice slides. You walk up and then zip on down like a vodka shooter in an ice luge. Wheeeee!


There’s a lot going on in ICE! If you can stand the cold for very long, like maybe if you’re not from Georgia and find anything under about 40 degrees unbearable, you could easily go through 2-3 times to fully see everything.

At the end of the display, just before you emerge from the frozen indoor tundra, there is the most beautiful and serene Nativity scene, carved from crystal clear ice, with an illumination and narration show taking place. It was such an unexpected surprise after all the color and whimsy of the main ICE! display. Somehow, I don’t know how, maybe because everyone else is back in Santa’s Toy Factory ping -ponging down ice slides, this room is much less crowded than every other room in the exhibit, which gives it a quiet, reverential air. Well, it was something!


Just because you’ve finished ICE! doesn’t mean you’re nearly done with the Christmas on the Potomac experience. Just inside the doors of the Village of the North Pole is a carousel and a gingerbread decorating workshop. Inside the hotel itself is a small train (the Potomac Express) that children can take a ride on, a Santa to visit, and an Elf on the Shelf scavenger hunt. We had to go during the day in order to accommodate our two year old, but if you’re lucky enough to be at the Gaylord in the evening, there’s a nightly light show at 6, 7, 8, and 9 pm every night that features indoor snow and a 65 foot hanging illuminated Christmas tree

Handy tips: 

-Dress warmly! ICE! provides mandatory blue coats that are meant to both keep you warm and keep you dry, but any appendages that will be exposed would do well to be covered, so bring hats and mittens as well.

-No strollers are allowed inside the ICE! exhibit.

-Visitors to ICE! are eligible for reduced parking at the Gaylord for the event; parking in the self-park lot at the Gaylord is just $13 for four hours and can be purchased in advanced via this link. 

Make a day of it:

There’s tons to do and see down at National Harbor! The weather is really weird this month and it was a balmy 60 degrees or so the day we were there, so we were able to walk around the Harbor and enjoy the day after our visit to ICE!


If coming to National Harbor is a bit of a trek for you, consider taking a ride on the Capital Wheel while you’re visiting! My family did this last summer and it was a big hit with my 5 year old, who had never been in “such a huge Ferris Wheel.”

The Harbor Christmas tree is up right now as well:


Now, if you will, please join me in fervent hope that next year’s ICE! features Kevin McAllister, the Wet Bandits, and Little Nero’s Pizza.

U.S. Botanic Gardens: Season’s Greenings

Where: 100 Maryland Ave. SW, Washington, DC (right near the Capitol)
When: 10 am- 5 pm, daily until January 3, 2016

I just spent a whopping $113.80 on three tickets to Gaylord National Harbor’s ICE! display for this Sunday, so to assuage that nice kick my pocketbook just took, let’s talk about something that’s wonderfully, gloriously FREE to do this holiday season.

This year is the NOVAdventuring family’s fifth Christmas season living in this area, and there are still local Christmas activities we haven’t done yet. There’s so much going on and there’s only so many weekends in which to cram fun things. One Christmas display we had not yet paid a visit to is the U.S. Botanic Garden’s annual Christmas display, Season’s Greenings, which we decided to visit the weekend after Thanksgiving since we had to take my sister back to National for a flight home and would be nearby anyway. The bad part about squeezing in a trip before an airport run: we didn’t have nearly enough time to wait in the long line to see the model train exhibit, Pollination Station. Alas. One to save for our sixth Christmas, I suppose!

Season’s Greenings is a true show in artistry, with all the local beloved monuments and buildings represented in the form of lush vegetation. The Museum of the American Indian was made out of toadstools and other fungi! The Jefferson Monument appeared to be carved from a pumpkin! (Or an apple?)


We loved walking through the displays, recognizing each building and trying to guess from which materials it was created.


My personal favorite, in life and in recreation, is the Washington Monument, so regal and scepter-like:


Not to be outdone, the Capitol has a fountain:


If, like us, you don’t have the time (or the patience, I’m not judging) to wait in the long line for Pollination Station, you’ll still get plenty of holiday enjoyment out of the main Conservatory display.

Tucked into one corner of the desert room is a Bonus Tree! I have these in my house as well, and they’re like fun little surprises- here’s the main tree, beautiful and fancy, perfectly lovely if a little stuffy, and then over here is a Bonus Tree, an extra thing thrown up with fun ornaments. My own Bonus Tree resides in the kitchen, and it’s crammed with homemade ornaments and leans a bit too much to the right. My children infinitely prefer it to the Fancy Tree in the living room covered with German glass ornaments, which they are prohibited from even looking at too hard in case their stare causes something to break. Bonus Trees are the Miss Congeniality to the fancy trees’ Miss America.


There she is- frizzy haired, haphazard, but fun. I strongly identify with this tree.

But of course, Miss America is Miss America for a reason. The U.S. Botanic Garden’s Miss America tree resides in the West Gallery, and is fully botanical themed, with butterflies and hummingbird ornaments:


What a tall drink of water! What a showboat! Perhaps some of you personally identify with this tree. You probably have a nice blowout and long legs.

My currently-train-obsessed two year old loved the Thomas the Train zooming around the base of the tree and we spent oh, maybe twenty minutes in the West Gallery simply waiting for Thomas’ goofy face to make its way around the tree toward us several thousand times.


Make a Day of It:

Since you’re already nearby, a visit to the Capitol Tree and the Museum of the American Indian would nicely round out your visit to the U.S. Botanic Garden. The Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe is actually award-winning with cuisine inspired by Native American foods and has its own website separate from the museum itself.

We parked in the nearby Capital Gallery garage located less than half a mile away at 600 Maryland Avenue SW. A straight line walk gets you right to the U.S. Botanic Garden and Capitol Ellipse, easy as pie.