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Middle School News & Stories

Project Learning Week: Van Cortlandt Park
Posted 01/21/2015 08:18AM


The Middle School kicked off Project Learning Week yesterday with more than 20 three-day seminars ranging from a winter exploration in the White Mountains of New Hampshire to African drumming and rhythms to product design research at Hain Celestial Company.

Faculty collaborated across disciplines to create the programs, which were intended to give students a chance to work together and explore topics related to nature, ecology, technology, cooking, design, local history, immigration, comedy, music, public speaking, theater, museum curating, civic activism, music, dance, and theater.

Down the hill from the campus, seven 6th and 7th graders spent the day learning about Van Cortlandt Park. Covering more than 1,000 acres, the park includes the country’s first public golf course, the city’s largest fresh-water lake, horse stables, cricket fields, cross-country trails used for high school and college events, and many other recreational features.

Riverdale sports teams use the park, but the students had little idea about the park’s historic significance or the myriad recreational and natural activities that the park provides to the public.

At the mansion built by the Van Cortlandt family in the 1700s on what was then a wheat plantation, the students learned about life in New York during the Dutch and English colonial period.

The history of the Van Cortlandt family in America began with Olof Stevense Van Cortlandt, who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1637. His son, Stephanus Van Cortlandt (1643-1700), was the first native-born mayor of New York. Another son, Jacobus (1658-1709), also served as mayor. It was Jacobus who purchased the land that became the plantation and his son, Frederick, who built the mansion in 1748. The family had connections to the leading figures of the time, including George Washington, who visited the house at least twice during the Revolutionary War. Jacobus’s grandson, John Jay, was the first Chief Justice of the United States.

On Wednesday, the students will tour the horse stables in the park and see a play at the museum about the area’s military history. On Thursday, they will explore the natural diversity of the park with Steve Brill, an authority on edible plants.

"There is a community in the park," said Roberta MacIvor, a coach in the athletics department and co-leader of the activity with Doug McDonald, the head of physical education for the Middle and Upper Schools. "It brings all different kinds of people. It doesn't matter if your have a dollar in your pocket or a hundred dollars. There are a lot of different ways to look at the park."

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