My classroom buzzed this afternoon with curiosity, excitement, and anticipation. The kids were excited to started learning about one of our nearby neighborhoods in Chicago: the neighborhood of Uptown.

Our third-grade social studies curriculum is almost entirely centered around the city of Chicago. In the second quarter, when we studied the history of Chicago, our intentions focused on how Chicago came to its current form. And now, in the third quarter, our goal is to study present-day Chicago.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t just a passion project of ours. We see our city as a classroom, and one of our goals this year has been to take advantage of all the real-world lessons that come along with it. It’s also important to know that we recognize that our study of this topic does not exist in a vacuum. We recognize how critical it is to link these real-world experiences to transferrable skills, which why we’ve aligned the unit to third-grade social studies standards, as well as to components of the Teaching Tolerance framework. While it is important to us to build engaging units and study the world around us, it’s also important to us to align on what we feel third-graders should know and be able to do.

IMG_4018.JPGBreaking Down Stigma

In order to introduce Uptown, we created QR codes correlated with specific locations in Uptown so the children could “walk around” the neighborhood and explore on Google Maps. We also collected a series of pictures from the neighborhood, showcasing its many strengths and attractions, like statues, parks, and restaurants. The pictures were grouped with a QR code, all of which were posted on a handful of large post-its around the classroom, allowing the children to circulate through each location.

It was especially important to showcase all of these wonderful parts of Uptown because, as native Chicagoans know, Uptown too often gets a bad rap that it doesn’t deserve. It’s situated on the north side of the city, and as you may or may not already know, it’s been historically a low-income area. As you also may know, historically low-income areas come with a stigma: they are too often known as exponentially more dangerous than surrounding, affluent neighborhoods, when in reality, they don’t necessarily deserve this distinction.

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 5.48.21 PM.pngTo the right, you will see the a map from Trulia referring to crime on the north side of Chicago. Lakeview, Uptown’s neighbor to the south, is often revered for its restaurants and bars, nice homes, and good families, but when examined only in the context of criminal behavior, Trulia rates many areas of Lakeview just as unsafe as areas in Uptown. The key difference between the two? The demographics shift immensely, with low-income residents and people of color making up a greater proportion of the population in Uptown.

Our intention with this unit on neighborhoods is not only to help our children see the strengths in the diversity of our city, to learn what’s important in neighborhoods, and to identify issues facing communities in Chicago; it’s also to break the stigma surrounding low-income communities and/or communities of color.

Making Thinking Visible

In true fashion, my kids surprised me today. We began the activity, and the children digitally jumped into Uptown, walking the streets and examining the pictures we’d chosen.

“Wait, this is Uptown?” one kid said. “It looks a lot like Lakeview.”

He was referring to the very neighborhood I compared before, in shock and awe that a neighborhood he’d undoubtedly heard was dangerous turned out to look a lot less intimidating than he thought.

Among the other things they noticed? They noticed the variety of “Asian” restaurants, the number of “fields”–referring to the parks in the neighborhood–and adorably, they noticed all of the “colors” on the windows on Argyle street, wondering if they meant anything. And while they noticed other parts of Uptown like dog beaches, “lots of buildings,” and other more benign things like streetlights and recycling bins, their interpretation of the population data sat with me the most.

I included the population data to highlight the diversity of Uptown. As you can see in one of the images I included in today’s activity (below, Credit: Radical Cartography), it joins its northern neighbors in its mixture of racial self-identification, with lots of “different colored dots,” as the kids noticed, as opposed to the primarily pink dots in the neighborhoods to the south, which happens to be Lakeview.


Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 9.32.04 AM
Uptown is the one with the hook on it, in case you’re wondering. It almost looks like Massachusetts.

But I also included other information that I felt was critical to understanding the community, like median income and population over time, pictured below.


It took them little time to notice the trends. They noticed that minority populations were decreasing and that the white population was increasing. They also noticed the striking differences between median household income in Uptown. As a part of the activity, the children were required to do a See-Think-Wonder at each station, one of the most popular thinking routines from Project Zero. After seeing this data, one group, in particular, wrote this:


So astute, for mere children to make these connections. Or perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it’s so obvious that it’s actually sad how remarkable it is when children note the seemingly obvious injustices in the world around them.

I walked away from the group, humbled and inspired by their work. The word “woke” immediately came to mind, as it’s become so popular lately, and I was tempted to even use it with my students in that context. But I remembered an important lesson I learned recently while attending a workshop with Dr. Derrick Gay, an education consultant who specializes in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

He mentioned the word “woke” and how, by using it, we often imply that some of us “are woke”–that some of us “have arrived.” This might be why I was tempted to use it with my kids. I was floored that perhaps they “had arrived” so early in their education.

But he also mentioned that calling some people “woke” implies that others are “not woke.” While I know there are many people out there that embody the antithesis of woke-ism, I’m certain there’s more nuance there than a simple dichotomy of woke and non-woke people. By claiming that some of us are “woke” and others “are not,” it implies that some of us–those who “have arrived”–can stop engaging in the hard work of peeling back the layers of our own identities, acknowledging our biases, and advocating for the many other souls that occupy the world we live in.

But we can’t stop. Because there will always be more to discover.

Our world needs less divisions and more pathways for unity. Today, I saw one of those pathways. Referring to any of my students as “woke” would have enforced an implicit dichotomy that I do not want to create in my classroom. Instead, I want to create a space where we are constantly discovering the world around us, and by proxy, continuously engaging in self-discovery. I want to create spaces where it’s safe to observe these differences and not take it (too) personally, while still motivating children to make meaningful change.

Seeing this through the eyes of a child reinforced this lesson from Dr. Gay. It was fascinating to me how they didn’t take these seemingly self-evident truths offensively. Instead, they saw them as points to ponder.

Kids are remarkable in this way. I was hoping to teach them something today, but through watching them, I learned something more about myself and the words that permeate the adult world. It helped me see that none of us are really “woke”–that we all still have work to do, that we will always have work to do on ourselves, and that we can engage in it meaningfully at any age.

I’m looking forward to continuing my work with my kids.

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