Telling Stories: Place, Space, and Memory in Chicago's Parks

byE.M. Miller


When I leave my house and cross the street, I am confronted with a choice, marked by two equally grand pathways delineated by carefully placed stones that seem to speak to me from an era long gone. To my right is a small garden reminiscent of the time before the park in front of me was a part of the city of a time when Native Americans might have lived in the area; wildflowers and tall grasses abound, and I am surrounded by a different kind of space than I encounter on a daily basis in the urban landscape.1 To my left is a large meadow-- sprawling, inviting me to picnic and play. The park continues and varies in landscape and purpose: an Olympic swimming pool, a stunning fieldhouse, a play area for children, baseball fields, and tennis courts all exist within the 36-acre tract of land between four roads-- Irving Park, Central, Berteau, and Long. I live across the street from Portage Park, located in a neighborhood named for the park nine miles northwest of Chicago’s city center. I join my neighbors in visiting the park; I come daily and often for different purposes.

Until beginning this unit, I hadn't thought much about the space apart from its current use. The Prairie School architecture and the grand Olympic-sized swimming pool seemed to suggest a more complicated narrative that bridged past and present. But, the park's meaning was-- for me-- only linked to my present-day use of it. It was a place where I sought solace from the urban, where I exercised, and where I learned new skills in classes. For many of my students, I imagined, Chicago parks might hold a similar significance-- meaning only situated in the present. So, when I began to design this unit on public history, I wanted to examine the parks that my students used.

My students attend Chicago Academy High School-- located on the border of Chicago's Portage Park and Belmont-Craigin neighborhood areas. I am interested in the stories my students want to tell about their neighborhoods and the public spaces within them. Most of the students I teach at Chicago Academy High School on Chicago’s Northwest Side are from Portage Park-- the same neighborhood in which I live. Portage Park is home to the largest Polish community in the Chicagoland area, but it is also home to a diverse mix of Latino residents and-- in increasing numbers-- Pakistani and Filipino residents.2 While most of my students come from the neighborhood directly around the school, around 30% come from other West Side neighborhoods, specifically from the predominantly-black Austin neighborhood. Some of my students are recent arrivals to Chicago and to the United States; others have deep roots within the city. All of those stories are linked to broader narratives of the development of Chicago and other American cities. And, the development of cities like Chicago cannot be separated from the development of their parks. As historian Donald Miller notes-- citing influential Chicago sociologist Robert Park-- the city is a product of both nature and human nature; and, the city also “reshapes human nature.” Miller continues, “This two-way process of people making Chicago and of Chicago making people is the dominating theme of this urban story.” 3 It is also the dominating theme of this curriculum unit.

Much like Molly Myers’ 2014 National Curriculum Unit “Neighborhood as Palimpsest: An Examination of Chicago’s Back of the Yards Neighborhood through Urban Historical Geography,” this unit is about neighborhood history. As such, it appears to be specific to one city; however, the concepts, teaching strategies, and activities can be easily translated into other teachers’ contexts. In this curriculum unit, I will investigate how teachers can use the methods of public historians to teach students about the past and celebrate the present. I will delve into my own historical research as a means of demonstration. My own process can mirror those of other teachers’ as they attempt to replicate the spirit of this unit with their own students. As a teacher, should one wish to replicate this unit, one’s students will be able to contribute meaningfully to the history of their neighborhoods by creating artifacts-- podcasts-- that can be added to the collections of local historical societies. Students will gain rich reading, writing, and critical thinking skills along the way.


As I stated earlier, my school is diverse. And, with that diversity of student population comes diversity in experiences. Though many of my students do arrive at Chicago Academy from neighborhoods close to the school itself, some travel a considerable distance. In envisioning a unit on public history, I thought about my students, and considered something one of my former 9th grade English literature students said in a freewrite about her neighborhood: “In the park, everyone is equal.” While resources may not be distributed equally across the city-- as will be discussed later in this curriculum unit, there is a certain sense of equal standing one has when one uses the public park spaces in Chicago. Access to resources, such as swimming pools, is seemingly blind to country of origin, race, religion, language spoken, and income; one only needs to have a Chicago address to participate in all that Chicago’s parks have to offer.4

In each of my students’ neighborhoods, they have parks. Many of the parks closest to many of my students’ homes-- including Riis Park in Belmont-Craigin, Portage Park in Portage Park, and Columbus Park in Austin-- are on the National Register of Historic Places. Columbus Park, completed by Prairie School architect Jens Jensen, is also a National Historic Landmark District. And yet, my students do not understand the situatedness of urban parks within the broader history of Chicago. Nor do my students grasp the history of city planning and urban development. 

Part of the power in public history is seeing history as a participatory act-- something in which academics and non-experts alike can engage. And, there is tremendous value in teaching students to think like historians. Close reading and analytical skills are at the heart of such inquiry; and, those are the same skills that are a part of the Common Core State Standards and College Board Standards to which other English teachers in my school and I align our instruction. This unit is designed with my 9th grade English language arts students in mind; however, the concepts and skills in it could be easily transferred to others’ own unique classroom settings.

The Bones of the Unit: Enduring Understandings, Essential Questions, Objectives, and Assessments

I started thinking of this unit like I do all others-- with big ideas-- and then I whittled down to the minutia of assessments. The Common Core advises that 70 per cent of a student’s reading be nonfiction in nature. As a teacher of English literature, I recognize that my content is just one fifth of a student’s core subjects; but imperative in the Common Core mandate is the idea that I, too, will teach a student to read nonfiction critically. I like to expand the idea of all things as text. This meshes nicely with the way public historians consider public history: all history is textual and can be looked at through a critical lens. Therefore, one of the most important things my students can understand in an any English class I teach is that all structures, not just the printed word, can be analyzed as texts.

The second enduring understanding underlying this unit and all units I teach is aligned to critical thinking. I want my students to reflect on their educational experiences and, as important as being able to remember any literary term or specific date in history, be able to draw upon those experiences to think critically and participate in our democratic society. Lastly, I want my students to be able to communicate clearly across a variety of mediums and for a variety of purposes-- something they will be able to practice through this unit. My approach to teaching English-- and my interpretation of the Common Core State Standards-- is one that is very much interdisciplinary. Public history, it should be noted, is also an interdisciplinary practice.

Those enduring understandings, in turn, inform the essential questions. What makes a place? is the first question I would like my students to consider. When they think about purpose or intention of a place, they are also examining something easily translatable into their study of English literature. I also want my students to consider these questions: How and why did the space come to be? and What will the space become? In that way, they will think about change over time-- something also translatable to a Common-Core aligned study of literature or nonfiction standards around the integration of knowledge and ideas. Since presentation and communication are components of this unit, students will know how to construct and edit narratives that are both subjective (opinion-based) and objective (fact-based) and how to publish those narratives digitally as podcasts. They will also end up knowing more about their city’s history, urban parks, and the national and international histories of parks.

The final product and summative assessment for this unit is the publishing of student-created podcasts. There will be multiple formative assessments along the way to measure whether or not students are developing the necessary reading, writing, analytical, and technological skills necessary to produce this content.

Public History: An Overview

Public history is a way of engaging the past and the present. In “History in Our Everyday Lives: Collective Memory, Historical Writing, and Public History,” the National Seminar I have been participating in since May, 2015, we have examined the ways in which public historians uncover the “layers of history” that exist. We have understood public history in terms of two truths: 1) “public history projects must be accountable to community audiences;” and 2) “projects should not freeze a moment or a place in time, but continue to be part of living surroundings.” 5 There are varied forms of public history-- from the architectural preservation highlighted in Dolores’ Hayden’s The Power of Place to the oral histories collected by the Baltimore Neighborhood Project that Linda Shopes documents in her essay “Oral History and Community Involvement.” Museums, public art, historical podcasts and other forms of audio storytelling, and historical walking tours can all function as public history, provided they involve or invite community participation. 6

In the National Seminar, we explored the complexity conveyed by public history. The nuances are provided by the public historian’s emphasis on community engagement. That nuance can add a layer of objectivity to a seemingly-subjective genre, but, as my Seminar Leader Mary Lui remarked in one session, “history can feel dry without a human element.” And, like any other constructed narrative, history is also subjective. Historians make conscious choices about which texts to cite, whose stories to illuminate, and how to present them. This can lead to the public history project receiving a greater degree of scrutiny, perhaps such as the critical view author Mabel O. Wilson takes of the National Civil Rights Memorial, than the history project that acts upon instead of with a community.7 A part of teaching students about history in this way, then, must be to encourage them to look for the complexities in all histories, not just the ones that involve community voice. By practicing public history, students will change the ways in which they see their environments. They will become a part of them and gain greater analytical skills than they would from simply reciting facts memorized for an exam. That, in itself, is immensely powerful,

Historical Context: The Development of Landscaped Urban Parks

I began the search for information on Chicago Parks and realized quickly that I needed to get a grasp on the nuanced history of public parks locally and nationally. As we discussed in my seminar, those acting as public historians-- which, for this project, includes my students and me-- need to know the histories they are telling as well as the ways in which they can interpret and use them in their projects. I propose that all teachers attempting this project structure the facilitation of students’ general knowledge acquisition on two levels: 1) the history of parks, specifically landscaped urban parks, and 2) the local context and history of the development of such parks. The history of New York’s Central Park and the community debate that preceded that development establishes a foundation for a discussion of similar development of landscaped parks in Chicago.

Developing New York’s Central Park

Central Park, opened in 1857, was the “first landscaped public park in the United States,” and set the tone for the development of other urban parks in the nation.8 The idea of park space evolved from the time the term “park” found its way into the English language until Central Park’s opening. The term “park” dates back to medieval and early modern England, where parks-- tracts of land owned by the crown-- were enclosed spaces used for hunting. In the 18th century, parks evolved into landscapes with a more scenic purpose. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, parks in England became urban structures designated, increasingly, for public use. In the late 17th and early early 18th centuries in the United States, the concept of town “Commons” permeated New England colonial towns. By 1797, the word “park” was used to describe the New York Commons and then the term made its way into the vernacular after it was landscaped. According to historians Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, by the early 1800s, “governments had begun to establish and landscape parks that represented the romantic ideal of rus in urbe-- country in the city.”

Central Park was a part of bringing the country to the city of New York. The park-- monumental in its proportions-- was a direct descendant of the European landscaped tradition. Frederick Law Olmstead, who was the park’s first director, “said that the public would have to be ‘trained’ to use a park ‘properly so called’ by which he meant a pastoral landscape in the English tradition.” 9 The park was impacted by public use and by technological innovations such as the automobile. It also evolved as did the nation-- weathering wars both civil and international, economic collapse, social strife, and political upheaval.

It would be irresponsible to consider the story of Central Park’s position in history without acknowledging the controversy surrounding it from its onset. For, the area had to be cleared of its inhabitants before it could be developed, displacing many in the process. This act of removal and exclusion was a part of the park’s history and the histories of others like it. Furthermore, in this era of park development, there was a prevailing idea that somehow parks could “purify” unclean and crowded cities. Central Park’s development and the ebb and flow of its declines and revitalizations can serve as a microcosm for studying other parks in the United States.

Urbs in Horto: Park Development in Chicago

Most discussions of Chicago’s park system reference the motto the city developed in the late 1830s: Urbs in horto-- city in a garden.10 And, inevitably, said discussions go on to remark on the irony of that motto, given the city’s deficit of formally-designated park space at the time the motto was adopted. The area we now know as Chicago was-- before European settlement-- a mix of swampland and prairie; and eventually, the development of industrial and commercial spaces all but erased the idea of Chicago’s position as a city in a garden. The intent of those who adopted the motto wasn’t to comment on the presence of the garden in the city, but rather the city located inside of the prairie lands of the Midwest.

Two park spaces were dedicated along Lake Michigan early in Chicago’s history-- the now-nonexistent Dearborn Park in 1839, and Lake Park (which is, today, part of Grant Park) in 1840. More parks developed near the city’s central business district and south sides throughout the 1840s. There was, as architect Daniel Burnham notes in his 1909 Plan of Chicago, an idealized vision of connecting these parks via a system of roadways (one conceived in 1849 by businessman John S. Wright). That idea never fully came into fruition; however, the eventual development of the city’s boulevard system to link parks does have its origins in that vision.

The city’s most ambitious park to date in the mid 1860s, Lincoln Park, actually began as a cemetery. As a result of environmental studies linking the waterlogged burial ground to the spread of disease, Chicago Dr. John H. Rauch successfully campaigned to transform it into parkland. It, too, was called Lake Park but eventually-- to memorialize Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated in 1865-- transformed into Lincoln Park. Grander yet was the South Park system, designed by architect of Central Park Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux-- present-day Jackson and Washington parks and the Midway Plaisance. Those lands developed with the 1893 World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition, of which Daniel Burnham was also a part. The anticipation of Chicago’s time in the world’s spotlight was the impetus behind widening the city’s boundaries, including the annexation of Jefferson Township, as noted in this paper’s introduction.

By the time Daniel Burnham published the Plan of Chicago, much of the area developed for the 1893 World’s Fair had burned and was transformed into park space, forming the majestic swath of green space separating the city from Lake Michigan. In Burnham’s vision for the city, he called for an expanded, robust park system that included what he referred to as “playgrounds” and evoked the systems of cities of grand proportions: London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Boston. He also addressed the continued development of Chicago’s shoreline and set the tone for what would eventually become Cook County’s forest preserve system. And, as in the case of Central Park, the development of parks throughout the city’s neighborhoods was seen as an issue to address concerns around morality and sanitation. By the turn of the century, Chicago’s parks system was one of world class propositions-- one worthy of reworking the motto into “garden in a city.”

But, like New York’s Central Park, Chicago’s parks had their eras of decline. Originally, Chicago was divided into three park districts (North, South, and West); and, with the annexation of land, independent park commissions (such as the Old Portage Park District) were established. In Chicago’s West Park District during the early 1900s, conditions were poor. Jens Jensen, Prairie School architect, became the head of that district in 1905 and transformed the parks within that district, adding “fieldhouses, boathouses, refectories, music courts, pergolas, and in Douglas Park, a Flower Hall”. Jensen was also responsible for Garfield Park, which is to this day one of the largest greenhouses in the United States.11 Jensen’s design influenced the development of other parks that shared in the Prairie School aesthetic, including Clarence Hetzfield’s Portage Park.

A History of Portage Park

To understand the present state of Portage Park-- one with many uses and users-- one must understand the history of the neighborhood that takes its name. The neighborhood itself was carved out of pieces of the Dunning, Irving Park, and Grayland subdivisions—two of which still exist today. And, naming the area after Portage Park—now one of 77 officially designated areas within the city of Chicago—didn’t happen around until after the park district was started in 1912. As the Native American peoples used it, prior to European settlement, it was a part of the portage-- a place where canoes traversed between rivers, in this case the Chicago and Des Plaines River.12 Irving Park Road, the Park's southern boundary, was some of the higher ground in the area that allowed easier travel through the waterlogged land. This usage continued until Native American tribes were driven west of the Mississippi River as a result of the 1832 Black Hawk War and subsequent (1833) Indian removal of the Potawatomi Indians. 

Then, Europeans began to settle the land that eventually became known as Jefferson Township. In 1841, a businessman by the name of E.B. Sutherland established a tavern. It was later acquired by a Chester Dickinson, who also inherited the job of postmaster of the post office built in 1845. In 1850, Jefferson Township-- a 37 square-mile area--was born, and it centered on Dickinson Tavern. The area known now as Portage Park, just 0.8 miles west of Dickinson’s Tavern, grew out of the township center. The current park space was originally used for farming, in spite of being marshy, and it attracted settlers looking to build lives away from the congestion of Chicago’s downtown area but with the benefit of proximity to the city for trade.

The development of the Northwest Plank Road around 1849-- the precursor to the modern-day Milwaukee Avenue-- allowed travel to happen more efficiently to downtown. Northwestern Railroad built a route through the neighborhood that further enhanced residents’ ability to travel to the Loop. With the developments in travel combined with the population explosion Chicago experienced at the end of the Civil War, the neighborhood was primed for suburban development as farmland turned into subdivisions. Jefferson Township was short-lived; in 1889, it was annexed by the City of Chicago to complete an acquisition of land that made it the second most-populous city in the United States at the time. The access to transportation increased with the neighborhood’s official entry into the city; and, with it, land development exploded.

As the rural became the urban, the parkland began to take more formal shape. Originally purchased by Swedish Lutherans, the current 36-acre park space was a part of 80 acres set aside as the Martin Luther College subdivision. The plan included homes as well as a college, and-- for a brief time after its 1893 purchase-- the plan was actualized. The still-pastoral landscape was a tranquil respite from the hurried life in Chicago, and people left the city center to live in the new subdivision. Eventually, the college moved out of Jefferson Township, and the plot of land in which Martin Luther College was situated became the current park space.13 A developer named Arthur W. Dickinson and a man named George F. Koester convinced the residents of the area in 1912 to name the new park district The Old Portage Park District as a nod to the Native American portage, in 1913 construction began, and in 1917 the park became a formal part of the neighborhood.

The park has a history of centering people in the neighborhood. Chicago historians Daniel Pogorzelski and John Maloof write that, between the Civil War and World War I, "Portage Park was one of those areas where immigrants and their children who had grown up in these ethnic enclaves [Polish Downtown, Little Italy, and the Bohemian South Side neighborhood of Pilsen] came to take part in the timeless American Dream.” 14 The migration of immigrants and their children to Portage Park often began with the establishment of a church. For example, Polish migration away from Polish Downtown occurred when Saint Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church (itself a church established to alleviate overcrowding in a parish in Polish Downtown) established what is now known as Saint Ladislaus Parish. This happened in 1913, the same year the Old Portage Park District was established.

The park, then, became a gathering place for these otherwise ethnically-separate groups of individuals. Nearly 70 per cent of the neighborhood’s residents in 1930 were either foreign-born or native-born of foreign parentage, according to census data.15 And, it was not uncommon for tens of thousands of those residents to gather in the park space to celebrate national events such as Independence Day or to commemorate war dead as was done after the First World War and during World War II. In fact, not long after the park opened, it hosted Independence Day celebrations that were some of the grandest in the city.16 Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Portage Park fireworks displays grew-- coming to a halt only after a 1938 explosion injured seventeen. But, on that day, attendance was at least 50,000.17 As a point of modern comparison, the Chicago Cubs 2015 attendance hovered at around 35,000 as of the end of July 2017. The park, then, drew crowds that equaled more than half of the population of the neighborhood at the time of the 1930 census.18

The presence of fireworks displays during Independence Day celebrations throughout major events in US history reflects the sense of stability the park was able to offer the community in spite of social and economic instability occurring throughout the city, nation, and world. The park was constructed, after all, during World War I; and, it weathered the subsequent economic collapse of 1929. Though the stock market crash caused the Chicago Parks District to fall on hard times, the Great Depression led to the consolidation of 19 independent park districts (including Old Portage Park) and the three major city park districts. This was possible because of New Deal Funding, which also led to jobs creation efforts of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the late 1930s. The WPA rehabilitated parks throughout the Northwest side of Chicago in 1937, including Portage Park. It was then that the park district (via WPA efforts) replaced the sand-bottomed swimming area that had existed since the park’s opening. The New Deal also made programming possible-- programming that provided residents a much-needed outlet for recreation and introspection. According to Pogorzelski and Maloof, historian Ellen Skerrett “maintains that during the height of the Depression few urban or suburban parks could equal the wealth of activities held here at Portage. Games [...] created a sense of community, bridging across ethnic and religious lines to foster a sense of a common American identity.” 19

The residents of the neighborhood continued to use the park as a gathering place, but the development of the neighborhood reached a plateau as population varied little between 1930 and 1960.20 Similarly, the park changed little in terms of usage: it continued to provide opportunities for recreation (in particular, outdoor swimming in the summer and indoor in the winter-- noted by Chicago Tribune articles from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s) and community celebration (including a less explosive version of Independence Day festivities, which by the 1950s had morphed into simpler parades and gatherings). The next major development occurred in 1950, when the city hosted the Pan-American Games. A third iteration of the outdoor swimming pool was constructed; the WPA-era pool was replaced by an Olympic-sized swimming pool and diving area, which is still in use today. The games drew significant crowds, and Portage Park residents were engaged both economically and recreationally, resulting in a renewed appreciation for the park. The pool was used again in 1972 as the park played host to the United States Olympic swimming trials.

In some ways, the current state of Portage Park presents historical artifacts in situ-- the third-generation pool, the Prairie School field house and natatorium, and the stone entrances all remain largely untouched by time.21 But, some additions have been made that remind the park user that the space evolves with the city around it. Portage Park, one of northwest side’s largest landscaped parks, is lucky. It has not fallen into disrepair as others may have done; but at the same time, it lacks the sense of modernity that originally lured its users to revel in its pools and picnic in its grass. Now, park programming consists largely around youth sports and does not engage the neighborhood’s adult residents in the ways that the earlier offerings-- from woodworking to Czech language classes-- did.

The Present and Future of Chicago Parks

As Jeff Hubner writes, Chicago’s parks continued to be impacted after World War II by “urban development, the accommodation of the automobile, the need to include various sports fields and facilities, vandalism, lack of funding, fear of crime, and general neglect.” However, he continues, much of the elements of Chicago’s parks created by visionaries such as Frederick Law Olmsted and Jens Jensen remain intact and, today, are the subjects of restorative efforts. So, as Chicago and its social climate change, so does park space. For example, there was a case in 1982 where the United States Justice Department charged the Chicago Park District with deliberately isolating communities made up of people of color and poverty. Hubner continues, “That case was settled a year later, when the Park District agreed to a court order to spend more money in minority, largely low-income neighborhoods.”22

The question over equity continues to be present when the city makes the decision to build large, architecturally-stunning parks in areas with heavy tourist traffic such as Millennium Park, opened in 2005, and Maggie Daley Park, opened in 2015. Meanwhile, parks in the city’s poorer neighborhoods-- disproportionately populated by people of color-- languish, often caught up in gang turf wars.23 Chicago author and Crain’s Chicago Business commentator Kathleen Rooney says, in her criticism of Maggie Daley Park, that “It works and reworks the same small space—downtown, near the lake—where privilege resides, leaving the rest of the city to figure out how to grow on its own.”24 But, similar criticism exists when parks are built in some of the same neighborhoods noted earlier as being historically-underserved. This is the case with the newly-developed Bloomingdale Trail and Park—known locally by its nickname, the 606— a park created across 2.7 miles of what was an abandoned railway that connects some of Chicago’s west side neighborhoods, from Logan Square to Humboldt Park.25 Then, the criticism is framed in the conversation of gentrification.

There is also the matter of the future. In the spirit of the Plan of Chicago, The Commercial Club of Chicago (which also published Burnham’s original plan) published a revised vision for the city’s future in 2001. This text, written by project director and Commercial Club member Elmer W. Johnson, entitled Chicago Metropolis 2020, addresses what the author and the club saw as the primary needs and concerns of the city at the time of its proposal. It is a plan that is a part of Chicago’s efforts to revitalize the city beyond the central business district. The plan places social issues ahead of infrastructure; whereas, Burnham’s plan reverses the emphasis. It is also important to note that the discussion of parks in the Metropolis 2020 plan prioritizes natural rather than landscaped parks, but Johnson does emphasize that the vision presented in the text-- one for untouched green space they call Greenways. It builds on Burnham’s original plan for forest preserves-- one that paved the way for the City Beautiful movement of revitalization that began in 1913 and is, perhaps, inspiring today’s public space renaissance. However, Metropolis 2020 does not discuss recreation in the form of playgrounds, sports facilities, or park space; the plan’s only discussion of social issues impacting youth is in its heavy emphasis on school reform and teacher quality.

So, what will be the future of Chicago’s parks; and, why has there been an effort to return to and build on Burnham’s original plan? These will be interesting matters for student historians to weigh in on, basing their predictions on historical fact and patterns they notice in the historical record. In the activities section of this unit, I will describe how students will use both the Burnham and Metropolis 2020 plans to think about Chicago’s past, present and future.

Different Parks, Different Cities

The history of urban park development in the United States-- especially the story of New York’s Central Park can be useful for any teacher in any city or small town because of its significance. Beyond looking into the resources mentioned in the notes section of this unit, I would recommend that individuals begin their searches for information about public parks by first searching their local libraries. Teachers can check local historical societies for information, too. In large cities, it is likely that small neighborhoods have their own historical societies in addition to the larger historical societies that exist as representative of the entire city. If there are colleges or universities where one lives, one can seek the assistance of their special collections or archival libraries. Lastly, parks departments may maintain some of their own histories; it is the case with the Chicago Park District, which has its own historian.

Aural Storytelling and Podcasts

There are exciting opportunities accorded to the modern historian or student of history thanks to advances in technology and the ubiquity of personal computing devices (including smartphones). As such, we can tap into them to celebrate, share, and archive histories that may otherwise fade. I am not suggesting that we create a fixed, immovable history. But, the opportunities the average person has to contribute to the historical record are vast and grow exponentially with the passage of time. I think of stories now accessible, on-demand-- that wouldn’t otherwise gain traction or that can benefit from the medium of audio storytelling or “aural” history. As this is a key component of the final assessment for this unit, it is necessary to discuss the opportunities that separate an aural story from the printed word or other forms of historical documentation.

For the National Seminar, we listened to the story of Seattle’s Edith Macefield, a “holdout” who, in 1995, refused to sell the house she’d owned for 50 years to corporate developers in Ballard.26 So, the developers built around her, continually offering her more money for the house as time passed. They assumed she would sell; but she did not. Macefield’s story was about a physical space, and yet we didn’t need to actually see the place to know it. The story-- which incorporated an overview of Macefield’s life through her death in 2008-- came alive through rich sensory details, including an audio track that heightened the placement of a small house in the midst of urban sprawl. In the end, I was more satisfied as a listener of Macefield’s story than I was when I watched a CBS news piece on the same topic. There is immense power in audio storytelling.

People who create audio stories, as historian Charles Hardy III writes, must “learn to think in sound.” 27 Hardy contends that “the spoken word is only one element in effective sound communication” and highlights Dmae Roberts ‘docuplay,’ Mei Mei: A Daughter’s Story as an example. This story, produced for radio, used spoken word interwoven with complementary music that served to move the narrative forward. Furthermore, the post-production opportunities the author was able to use via editing enhanced the story. The medium can only succeed when the authors, that is-- the creators, make use of the opportunities. All historians-- amateur and professional-- can take advantage of this accessible and visceral technology.

There is also power in giving individual voice to stories, which is what students participating in this unit will have the ability to do. Again, most students have easy access to technology via cell phones, even students of poverty. And, if not every student has access, it is possible to team students so that technology is evenly distributed. Put simply, if the student has access to something with a microphone and an app store, he or she can be in business to create a rudimentary podcast. With greater access to technology, some even more produced aural stories can be created; but one should not mistake a stylized narrative for a substantive one.

Teaching Strategies

I believe in setting up democratic classroom spaces that focus more on teacher-facilitated, student-centered learning. I like to allow students to learn through inquiry and discovery rather than through didactic instruction. As an instructor, I am seeking a “dialogic” experience; that is, I am in search of one where my students and I share authority with one another and with the community as we write the histories in question. This approach is in the spirit of public history and public history practitioners such as Michael H. Frisch and Linda Shopes. That said, I think there are some core strategies that can lead students to that place of readiness to take the intellectual risks necessary for inquiry-based learning, specifically close reading, visual thinking, and seminar-style discussion. Ideally, in this unit, all three strategies would be used more than once (on a weekly basis if possible) to allow students several at-bats think deeply and critically about the history that surrounds them.

Close Reading

Having students do multiple readings of texts that are appropriately challenging is at the heart of what I do as an English teacher. There is one strategy I use for close reading that tends to be successful with challenging texts like the ones I will want my students to grapple with before they can tell the stories of their parks-- texts like Burnham’s Plan of Chicago.

First, the teacher must select a text or an excerpt of text that is manageable in length (no more than one printed page). After that, students read through the document in question once independently, and they note any words or phrases that are confusing or unknown. Thereafter, the teacher reads the text aloud, and students call “stop!” when they want to collectively define a particular word or phrase. With challenging documents, this can be a laborious process, something teachers should consider before selecting textual excerpts. This process repeats until all words are defined.

Then, students answer questions pre-planned by the teacher as a model for thinking deeper about the text. The questions should run the gamut of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and can help teachers assess in the moment the extent to which students comprehend and are able to apply what they read. The teacher-facilitator should make sure that students refer to the text when they answer and, if possible, should use visual representations that mirror the places in the texts students are discussing. One way to achieve that is for instructors to make use of document cameras and LCD projectors when possible.

Next, students ask their own questions of the text and take a stab at interpretation. If they have closely read the text, then they have the evidence to answer the next two questions: “What does it mean?” and “Why does it matter?” This can be done whole-class or in small groups. I like introducing this strategy to students at the beginning of the year and then allowing students to rotate into the “teacher” role as a way of ensuring a classroom space focused on collective rather than singular authority.

Visual Thinking

Strategies for close reading of printed texts lend themselves nicely to other mediums. And, as the reader will likely notice, there are similarities between the close reading strategy discussed above and the visual thinking strategy I am about to describe. This strategy can be used with paintings, photographs, or any non-print text, and can even be used to examine the park spaces as texts, provided educators instruct students to focus themselves around a particular place or space. There are three key questions to keep in mind with visual thinking: 1) What’s going on in _______? What do you see, and how would you describe it? 2) What makes you say that? What evidence do you see that made you reach that conclusion? 3) What more can we find? In other words-- what else is there? The process becomes cyclical, as the “what more” question can bring students the discussion to the beginning.

Just as with the close reading strategy, the teacher facilitating this close visual analysis of a non-print text should encourage the use of evidence. The teacher should point or make use of technology to highlight particular areas being discussed. Furthermore, the teacher should paraphrase using the stem “What I hear you saying is…” as a means of reinforcing and eliciting more information from the students if possible. As facilitators, teachers should make the discussion a communal one rather than a two-way one. So, if students aren’t already doing so, teachers need to connect students’ ideas and model stems such as “I heard _____ say ____, and ______ agreed,” and “__________ said ___________, but ____________ said _____________. Can we hear a third viewpoint on the matter?” Again, this is an activity that students can easily facilitate with some modeling.

At the suggestion of my Seminar Leader, I intend to explore using these same visual thinking strategies applied to aural texts. Both are, after all, nonprint texts. And, it could be interesting to analyze a podcast or other method of oral storytelling using the same methods of inquiry used to analyze photographs and maps. I will ask students: 1) What’s going on in ________? What do you hear and how would you describe it? 2) What makes you say that? What evidence do you hear that made you reach that conclusion? 3) What more do we hear?

Seminar-Style Discussion

As I wrote in my 2013 National Curriculum Unit, “Interpreting the Urban Landscape,” seminar-style discussion according to the methods described in The Paideia Classroom. Since then, I have evolved in my use of classroom discussions to adopt elements of the Harkness Table model used at Phillips Exeter Academy.28 The discussion is successful because it is democratic in nature and in physical set-up. The structure encourages students to question, discover, and make meaning by collaborating with others.

A Harkness Table set up is one that, if at all possible, should be done in groups no larger than 12-15 students. I often split the class in half if I am in a co-taught classroom; my co-teacher will take one group and I will take the other. However, I have also done an inner circle/outer circle model to describe to students how it works, and then I appoint student leaders to facilitate and move between groups to monitor discussion progress. The important thing is that students, physically, are facing one another in an egalitarian shape-- a circle or oval. This can happen with tables or desks; but, it is necessary that each participant can see all others to engage in conversation.

The other set-up prior to discussion is allowing students to engage with key ideas or texts. In a traditional (non-block) classroom, this can happen by introducing a question on day one and discussing on day two. In a block-schedule school, it is possible to read or brainstorm via writing and then discuss all in one class period. If, for example, students are discussing one of this unit’s essential questions, “What makes a place?” they will have thought deeply about the question and possibly written about or researched ideas on place-making through teacher-curated and provided materials or on their own (as might be possible with more advanced students). In addition to preparing students with the seminar topic, they also need to be familiar with ground rules for democratic discussion-- rules the class can create together or adapt from an existing source.

On the day of discussion, the teacher should take a less active role. The students will discuss the essential question and indicated materials with little intervention. And, until the students attempt this kind of discussion more than once, there may be some uncomfortable silence. That’s okay; it usually takes my students more than two or three times to get used to the flow of discussions. As a teacher, I observe, and I track student participation on a model of the Harkness Table set up which resembles an annotated seating chart, complete with lines to chart directions of conversation. After the discussion is finished, I have students reflect on what and how they learned from the discussion. The what part is about the content or the discussion strategy. And, the how part is where students have an opportunity to reflect on their own contributions--positive, negative, or neutral.

Key Activities

Though teachers may take this curriculum unit and run with it in whichever directions they think are best, I do recommend four activities to ground students’ learning in this unit.

Activity 1: Comparing City Plans, Past and Present

Just as I discussed the Burnham and Chicago Metropolis 2020 Plans in the overview of Chicago history and park development, I will have my students read and analyze key components of those documents. First, we’ll examine the non-print elements of the text excerpts-- maps and architectural drawings-- and then we’ll apply the visual thinking strategies discussed in the Teaching Strategies section. Next, students will read the print versions of the text using the close reading strategy. Then, students will compare features across the texts using a semantic feature analysis-- a type of organizational tool that promotes structured critical thinking. Students will then engage in a seminar-style discussion about the two plans for Chicago, focused on this question: what do the similarities that exist between these plans suggest about the emphasis one should put on developing public space?

Application Beyond Chicago

The 1909 Plan of Chicago and Metropolis 2020 are plans most appropriate for taking a close look at Chicago’s development. I’d recommend looking into planning documents-- both new and old-- that exist for one’s own context. It could be useful for a group of students in a city other than Chicago to begin with the Commercial Club of Chicago documents in the absence of similarly-visually-stunning documents in one’s own city; but, if a class outside of Chicago does begin with Burnham and Metropolis 2020, I’d suggest altering the discussion question to “If such a plan existed for our city, what would it have looked like (in 1909, in 2001, etc.)?”

Activity 2: Creating a Vision of the Future with Google Maps and Drawings

Google’s web-based technology has changed the way I teach. This next activity relies upon two Google applications-- My Maps and Drawings-- to empower students to create their own visions for the future of parks in their neighborhoods.

Google Maps has made it possible to explore areas previously inaccessible to the average school classroom-- from The Grand Canyon to Stonehenge and beyond; but there is much more a teacher can do with Maps. My students will use the Google Maps companion application “My Maps” to examine existing parks in their neighborhoods and pinpoint areas for expansion or redevelopment. The application will allow students to create layers that examine the park’s past, present, and imagined future.

For example, if a student were exploring Portage Park, that student would map out the iterations of Portage Park’s pools and recreation centers by placing “pins” on the electronic map. The layers could be viewed separately or over top of one another. If students feel as if the current park spaces in their neighborhood do not meet the community’s needs, they can use maps to create a new layer that reflects a park they’d propose building in an underutilized public space, such as an abandoned building, defunct railway, or vacant lot.

Then, students will take the future visions of their park plans for the future using Google Drawings. The application is bare bones, but it contains the essentials for creating architectural drawings: lines, shapes, and text boxes. It is also collaborative and cloud-based, which permits students to work with their peers across a variety of operating systems and formats. Once students create the drawings, they will present them to their peers along with a vision statement that explains how the park revision/new creation will meet the needs of the community in question.

Application Beyond Chicago

The tools used in this activity are not dependent upon one’s position in Chicago. And, therefore, this activity is easily adaptable to any location. The only necessity here is access to technology. But, it is important to note, many students will have the latest and greatest Internet-ready software in their hands: mobile phones. Such phones are increasingly-equipped to use more Google apps, including Drawings and My Maps.

Activity 3: Conducting Community Interviews

If the same thing is true for other teachers’ research as was for mine, there may be a lack of primary source documents that address community use and reaction to parks over time. Neither the Chicago History Museum nor the individual historical societies I contacted had much information on individuals’ stories of neighborhood parks over time; key moments in parks’ history-- openings and celebrations such as the Portage Park pool and the Pan-American Games highlight most of the historical record. There are a few photographs here and there-- and there is Chicago Park District historian Julia Bacharach’s significant contribution toward consolidating the history of the city’s parks; but there is little more than a few pages of information on any one individual neighborhood park.

People, however, surely have memories of their parks. Relegating the parks’ history to a few snapshots in time, as they exist in the accessible historical record, freezes history in those moments. Thus, one of the ideas of this curriculum unit is for students to record and preserve their own accounts of their memories within the spaces-- spaces including Portage Park along with community memories. Then, these narratives-- archived online-- can become a part of a growing school and community effort to capture residents’ experiences with their neighborhood park spaces and can eventually include other collecting efforts such as photographs or archival materials. My students and I, acting as public historians, will write and tell our own histories to-- as Linda Shopes suggests is possible-- democratize the historical record.

The first way in which we will do this is by collecting stories. First, students will listen to existing aural stories-- such as the “Holdout” episode of the podcast 99% Invisible discussed earlier-- and analyze their features using the adapted visual thinking strategy. Then, they will analyze the stories to imagine the types of questions an interviewer may have had to ask an interviewee to be able to tell the story in an effective manner. Once students have developed criteria for asking questions, they will divide themselves into small groups along neighborhood lines to begin working on their community interviews.

Just as I researched Portage Park, my students will research their own neighborhood areas. They will create interview schedules ahead of time so that they incorporate questions that suggest a sense of historical knowledge while also providing space for interviewees to tell their own accounts of history. They will record these interviews using phones or other digital recording devices and compile them to use in the next activity. Students will begin with one another-- for they are expert users of parks, too-- and branch out into interviewing other community members. It would be ideal if students could interview a variety of individuals across demographics to create a sample of stories representative of the neighborhood’s diversity.

Application Beyond Chicago

It would be great for all teachers using this unit to research their own neighborhoods or community areas before beginning this unit. Then, one could model for their own students just as I will for mine how a great deal of research must be done before one can interview people for a project such as this. Census data is a good starting point. Most current neighborhood demographic data can be accessed via; and, city records offices or libraries can likely shed light on park and neighborhood plans if a local historical society does not have them readily available.

Activity 4: Creating a Podcast

This unit’s culminating activity is the creation of an aural story for the world to hear. Podcasting is something that can be as sophisticated or as simple as an instructor wants it to be. At the most basic level, students and teachers only need a connection to the internet and the ability to upload pre-recorded sounds-- the interviews from Activity 3 plus any diegetic or nondiegetic sounds that one may need to add in to enhance the storytelling. The audio files can be mixed using a cloud-based audio editor or by using software hosted on a computer. (Due to the ever-evolving nature of cloud-based programs, I will not recommend one program over another; good-quality non-cloud-based programs include-- in 2015-- Audacity and Garageband.) Then, the audio files can be uploaded to a class website or to an online storage space like SoundCloud where users from across the world can access and stream the students’ work. This activity engages students as readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers; for, it requires students use discrete skill sets across those domains to successfully create the final product.

Application Beyond Chicago

My school is 1:1, meaning all students and teachers have their own personal computing devices. But, that does not mean a school without 1:1 devices cannot complete this activity. Again-- many students have mobile phones that are “smart.” Those phones can host applications that can edit audio in much the same way as I mentioned above. And, they can publish to websites and hosts like SoundCloud in the same ways.

Common Core Standards

This unit is designed to meet a variety of standards, but is designed in particular with the Common Core Standards in mind. I think it is important to note that Common Core Standards, adopted by 40 states including Illinois, are relatively broad; as such, a teacher in most of the 50 United States as well as its territories and other parts of the world could find it possible to adapt the content of this unit to meet their own unique sets of standards. And, this unit could be easily adapted and scaled up or down for students above or below my own students’ ninth grade level. So, instead of describing the discrete standards this unit addresses, I will list and annotate the anchor standards I believe students will meet upon successful completion of it.

Common Core Anchor Standards for English Language Arts

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

The following are standards that address Key Ideas and Details in a literary or informational text. This is essentially what some have referred to when speaking about Common Core Standards’ emphasis on close reading. This unit definitely addresses them: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1; CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2; and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.3.

Then, there are standards that address reading across texts. These are gathered under the umbrella called Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. The activities where students have to compare old maps and plans to new provide opportunities to engage students in meeting these standards. There are two of the three standards in this strand that this curriculum unit addresses: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.8 and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.9.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

The Common Core allows for rhetorical analysis to be a part of the study of writing just as much as it does allow for the actual assessment of students’ writing products. This unit provides opportunities for such analysis and creation during Activities 3 and 4, when students are examining aural stories and producing podcasts. Students can analyze effectiveness and techniques in their own work as well as in others’ works. Ultimately, this gets at the Text Types and Purposes standards in CCSS, in particular: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2 and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.3.

Though formal writing is absent from this unit, the writing process is an integral part of it. All of the Production and Distribution of Writing standards, especially the portions that deal with editing, are applicable to students’ work in this unit: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.5, and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.6.

And, as students will be conducting significant amounts of research throughout this unit so that they may contribute to the historical record, the standards called Research to Build and Present Knowledge are applicable. These standards are: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.7, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.8, and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.9.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

Students will do a significant amount of speaking and listening in this unit-- among themselves in class discussions, on their own for podcasting, and with relative strangers for the community interviews. In all portions of the process, students will meet standards across both strands of Speaking and Listening Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.3, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.5, and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

Through the reading, speaking and listening, and writing-based activities in this unit, students will have many opportunities to demonstrate mastery in the language standards. Teachers can design mini-lessons around grammar and language usage appropriate to their students’ instructional levels and needs. But, it is likely that the following anchor standards will be met throughout this unit: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.1, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.3, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.4, and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6.

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