NEH workshop: Teachers get history lesson at Sunnyside


Friday, 7/12/2013 12:26pm

Washington Irving’s Sunnyside served as a classroom recently for 40 elementary and secondary teachers from around the country. The educators visited the author’s home as part of a workshop focusing on the Hudson River and modernization in 19th-century America. The weeklong workshop and a second one later this month are presented by Ramapo College in Mahway, N.J., and funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). 

Sunnyside was the third stop on the workshop’s itinerary, which follows the river upstream, from New York Harbor to Yonkers and, after Sunnyside, the Hudson Highlands.

In the 1800s, the river was a commercial thoroughfare, a tourist destination and the scene of dramatic technological, industrial, and environmental changes. Stephen Rice, one of two Ramapo College professors leading the group, explained that during this time, people began seeking a respite from the rapid industrialization occurring in New York City by heading upriver to the Hudson Valley. The resulting boom in tourism was good for the region’s economy, but it had a negative impact on the environment. 

“Sunnyside is the perfect spot for that discussion,’’ Rice said. He pointed to the Metro-North passenger railroad line that runs between the house and the river as a concrete example of how modernization conflicted with the natural environment that Irving loved and worked so hard to create in the home’s landscape.

The railroad opened in 1849, 10 years after Irving settled there. While the author appreciated its convenience as a mode of transportation, he bemoaned the impact progress had on his beloved Hudson River. He wrote, “If the Garden of Eden were now on earth, someone would try to put a railroad through it.’’

Workshop participants were also drawn to Sunnyside because of its connection to Irving, America’s first internationally known author. “Teachers use Washington Irving in their classrooms,’’ explained Rice, “and every student knows ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ ”

For the teachers, touring the home and its grounds gave them a clear picture of 19th-century life, as well as insight into Irving’s character. “I loved hearing how they (the Irvings) were so excited about children, even the servants’ kids,” said one of the workshop participants.

Another is looking forward to sharing stories she heard on the tour with her students. “When you can make history feel real, kids can relate to that,’’ she said.

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