Conventional digital age wisdom says that the chestnut about the might of pens, i.e. swords, should be amended to specify keyboard strokes, as paper is now passé. Likewise, in an era when Chicago's public education crisis seems to be at an apex, with school closings and tensions between City Hall and the teachers at their worst, one would expect young activists to seek out 21st century solutions to these perennial problems. But a visit to Uptown's Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce Resource Center might convince you otherwise. A revolution in education is on the horizon, they'll assure you, and it will be fought with some of the oldest weapons in the book. Or to be more specific, it will be fought with the words in a new generation of books, starting with the organization's recently published classroom textbook "Urban Renewal or Urban Removal? A Grassroots Look at Chicago's Land Grabs and the Struggle for Home and Community."
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Anton Miglietta, a high school dropout, is one of the primary editors of the high school textbook, which might seem ironic until you consider that instead of attending classes during his days at Whitney Young in the late '80s he focused on organizing protests against the school system's Eurocentric curriculum, culminating in a student walkout. Over the next quarter-century (he received his GED, then degrees from Northeastern Illinois and Chicago State universities) the Uptown native, now 40, became a motivated education activist, teaching at alternative schools, working with grassroots reform organizations and participating in countless community meetings tasked with improving Chicago's troubled schools. He and his colleagues ultimately concluded that one of the system's fundamental faults was the disconnect between Chicago's students and their lessons. More troubling to Miglietta was the subsequent refusal to address that problem.
"Organizers were once eager to challenge school curriculum," Miglietta says. "Campaigns to add Afrocentric content go back to Carter G. Woodson's days, and in the 1960s ethnic studies were pushed. But in the last 40 years there's been very little activism, even though we know through research that students are checking out and dropping out because of one word: boredom."
Seven years ago, Miglietta and a group of master's candidates at CSU hit upon an idea to temper that boredom. All had attended Chicago public schools, but none had ever been taught anything about the Chicago they navigated every day, a subject they would have been eager to learn about. That group eventually evolved into the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce, an organization that aims to bring together educators, activists, parents and students to fill this hole in Chicago's students' studies.
Last December they published "Urban Renewal or Urban Removal?" a textbook and accompanying workbook that tells the history of Chicago through stories of housing issues and displacement, from Native Americans forced out by settlers through Englewood's post-subprime mortgage crisis. Though housing might seem a narrow lens through which to view Chicago's long, dynamic story, it's amazing how many of Chicago's defining moments are covered, from the post-Great Chicago Fire restructuring to segregation that helped define the city's distinct neighborhoods as well as the political machinations that resulted in the construction and destruction of massive public housing projects. While this subject matter may be well known outside of the classrooms, the task force believes it will be revolutionary inside of them.
"This paints a different picture of Chicago history than anything else available to students," says Isaura Pulido, an assistant professor from the NEIU Department of Educational Inquiry and Curriculum Studies who reviewed and edited material for the textbook. "Not only does it tell the story of displacement within a larger narrative, but it speaks for people who don't usually have a say as to what goes in a textbook."
Miglietta did not write "Urban Renewal or Urban Removal?" although some of the classroom lessons he developed made it into the workbook. Instead, he organized forums and focus groups to decide what should be included, raised funds (some from relatives' donations), compiled dozens of essays and studies by contributors, checked facts and assembled it, offering a final edit that gives the book a coherent voice. Contributors included University of Illinois Associate Professor David Stovall, educator Nzinga Hill, parent organizer Kesh Tiara Ross, retired Ald. Helen Shiller and Antonio Lopez of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
Although the resulting publication is not flawless (some minor editing blunders, some hard-to-read charts), overall it presents a cohesive, easy-to-follow narrative that is proud of its biases toward marginalized voices and working-class Chicagoans — and argues for those biases with data and primary source material. Students and other young voices were included in the form of poetry, some scathing political cartoons and a supplemental rap CD; while these expressive pieces may not fit the proper tone of a textbook, they never compromise the integrity of the central body of text.
"This builds upon work that has come before it," says Christine Sleeter, professor emerita at California State University-Monterey Bay and immediate past president of the National Association for Multicultural Education. Her 2011 National Education Association research review "The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies" surveyed numerous studies that overwhelmingly concluded that curricula limited to "Euro-American" perspectives disengages students of color. It further found that well-designed ethnic studies programs benefit both white and non-white students.
"Though there are other groups doing important work," Sleeter says, "by creating this textbook (the CGCT is) presenting these ideas in ways that fit with today's concept of 'the common core.'"
Miglietta says four high schools (and two college programs, DePaul's Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies Program and the University of Chicago's Urban Teacher Education Program) bought full classroom sets last year. But at least 10 other schools taught the book. In those cases, instructors bought a single copy and photocopied the lessons, which the CGCT encourages if budget constraints make classroom set purchases impossible.
At workshops CGCT held, a handful of teachers expressed concern with what they perceive as an anti-authoritarian tone, but many educators were excited by its promise. Adam Heenan, a teacher at Curie Metropolitan High School on Chicago's Southwest Side, introduced the program in his contemporary American history course for juniors and seniors last school year.
"It was the first time my students really connected with a history text," he says. "Because of the way it spoke to them, they ended up producing the best writing I saw from them all year. Historical writing by young people usually presents its subjects and ideas as abstract, but what they were writing about came off as very, very tangible. These were not (advanced placement) students. … These were regular students producing AP quality work."
Pulido says the program can be successful in classrooms because it combines familiar and unfamiliar elements for students.
"It takes material and histories that might be available and familiar to members of different groups and it puts them together to show patterns," she says. "It brings together communities by showing how displaced indigenous people — Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, poor whites and others — are part of a comprehensive narrative."
Teachers at 15 schools have approached their principals about adding the program in 2013-14, but only one new high school (Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood) has been able to purchase a full classroom set so far. Each textbook, workbook and CD package costs $40; with discounts, a full classroom set runs less than $1,000. In response to CPS budget constraints, CGCT says it will, in some cases, donate books — or barter them in exchange for student feedback.
Plans are also underway for future textbooks. Eight volumes have been proposed, including "Criminalization, Street Law and the Criminal Justice System"; a grammar school textbook called "From Africa to Chicago"; and "Chicago School and Education Struggles." With the support of CPS' Global Citizen Initiative, the task force is rolling out a parallel project called the Grassroots Community Tour Program, which trains students to research and compile oral histories to construct cultural tours of their communities, which would be offered to teachers and students visiting from other neighborhoods.
Becky Carroll, chief communications officer for Chicago Public Schools, wrote in an email statement that the district collaborates with the task force "to develop a greater understanding of communities and the social movements that helped shape the city. By educating our students on the movements and communities that built Chicago, CPS hopes to make our students more active participants in their schools, neighborhoods and Chicago."
The task force plans to schedule more community forums to expand its model for grassroots education efforts.
"We're trying to build a model where thousands of people — students, parents, community members, elders, academics, organizers, regular folk — can all have a seat at the table to decide what and how students learn," Miglietta says.
Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine and co-author of "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop." He lives in Chicago. Jeremy Mikula contributed.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun