Bringing Chicago's History to Classrooms
By Robert Schroeder
At first glance, Chicago’s lakefront parks and open spaces reveal greenery, museums, concert venues and space for public recreation.
A closer look reveals a secret history.
These hidden chronicles are the focus of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant-funded workshops run by National Louis University’s Costas Spirou, Ph.D. and Mark Newman, Ph.D. Their “Landmarks of America” workshop takes teachers on a walking tour of Chicago’s downtown lakefront from Millennium Park south to Soldier Field, and from Michigan Ave. east to Lake Michigan.
Chicago’s parks hold some of the city’s deepest secrets—some well-kept, some not so. Most Chicagoans and outsiders remember Grant Park hosted the Chicago Bulls’ six championship celebrations in the 1990s and was the site for President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on election night in 2008. However, even the most ingrained locals may struggle to recall that remnants from the Chicago Fire remain along the downtown lakefront to this day, or that Lincoln Park was once the site of covert police spying on protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
As teachers from around the nation soak up Chicago’s past and present, the workshop prepares teachers to develop classroom applications from what they have learned.
“Students need to understand who they are and where they fit into their community,” said Newman, an associate professor in the National College of Education. “It’s the notion that you are a member of the community and that you have that identity that is very important.”
Part of that identity is the shifts in cultural expectations for public space. Newman says Grant Park represents an early 20th century public space, with a few interactive elements but with one central focus that draws people in—Buckingham Fountain. Conversely, 21st-century Millennium Park features a series of interactive elements—the Bean, the Crown Fountains, Pritzker Pavilion, and the Lurie Gardens.
“The whole point is that you’re supposed to have diverse activities and diverse venues for the people to come in and to enjoy,” Newman said. “The lakefront becomes a place for people who live in Chicago but also a destination for people coming to visit Chicago.”
The walking tours communicate to teachers a sense of the evolution of the city, a focus that carries back into their cultural lesson-planning. Newman sees reflection in the changes in Chicago’s downtown lakefront in America’s evolving population base.
“We have a lot of newcomers to the United States and various communities, and they need to get a sense of belonging,” Newman said. “Where are they now, and where are things likely to be headed in the future.”
As the Chicago cityscape continues to evolve, the tour Newman and Spirou offer—and the resulting curricula—figure to evolve right on with it.