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Cover Story: Lessons on a city, on writing and life

Wed, Jan 29, 2014

Chicago Bears founder George Halas narrowly missed the deadliest event in the city’s history because he was late to the dock where the Eastland excursion boat had slipped onto its side, killing 844 people on their way to a Western Electric company picnic in Indiana in 1915.

If you knew that bit of Chicago trivia, did you also recall that Chicago’s Dick Biondi was the first American DJ to play a Beatles’ record (“Please, Please Me”) in the 1960s and that WCFL Radio’s Jim Stagg covered three of the British rock group’s concerts?

Bozo's Circus

Bozo’s Circus is one of the 40 vignettes in “Write Through Chicago,” a new book that uses history to teach 11 Common Core writing and reading skills to junior high school and high school students. Chicago’s golden age of children’s television extended from the 1940s through the mid-70s, the lesson notes. It asks the kids to write an essay on whether the show would be popular today — or dated. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

The Eastland and the Beatles’ concert at Comiskey Park are among 40 vignettes in Write Through Chicago, (Amika Press) a new book by Mark Henry Larson and Dr. Robert S. Boone that uses historic city events to help 7th through 12th grade students develop skills in writing, speaking and listening, reading and language. The authors have more than 80 years of teaching experience between them but say the book’s audience can be an English teacher or a social studies teacher looking for a writing opportunity, a tutor looking for a one-on-one exercise, a parent looking for a non-electronic way to engage with their child or a Chicago history buff.

From Chicago’s first settler, Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable in 1790, to Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Write Through Chicago covers 40 headline events. Some are obvious, such as Oct. 8 1871: ‘Fire Rages Through Chicago!’ or Oct. 9, 1893: ‘World’s Fair Draws Record Crowd.’

Others are more obscure: Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession on May 3, 1865 and raising the levels of the city’s streets in 1855 (even while buildings remained occupied). There’s also discussion of Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas near what is now 31st and Cottage Grove and the Haymarket labor disturbance of May 4, 1886.

“Bob tended to be the historical moments while I tended to be pop culture for lack of a better word,” Larson said. He pushed for quirkier entries such as the opening of the first McDonald’s in 1955; ‘The Chess Brothers Release Maybellene,” also in 1955; the last night at Riverview Park in 1967; the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s and the Beatles concert, because he remembers hearing about it from his older sister.

Each five-page historic event features a headline and photo, followed by a 150-word summary and then a “Remember” prompt. Boone, who used the book in the East Village Youth Program in Logan Square, said his students most enjoyed the Remember prompt focused on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: “a world with an almost overpowering personality – a chaotic, dangerous, exciting, degrading, bloody place.” Although the students had never worked at a slaughterhouse, they were told to draw on their recollection of someplace with a strong personality – “lonely,” “religious,” “inspiring” or “futuristic” – and escort their readers through it.

Mark Henry Larson and Dr. Robert Boone

Mark Henry Larson, left, and Dr. Robert Boone have more than 80 years of teaching experience between them. Write Through Chicago uses Chicago history to teach a variety of writing skills by helping kids relate to the city in which they live. (Suzanne Hanney photo)

Each headline event also has research-oriented “Discover” and “Decide” prompts. The product of the former could be a paper, a PowerPoint presentation, a poem or a performance; the latter more resembles an argumentative essay.

The final prompt is “Imagine,” where the student gets to use creative writing to write a new version of history. Why would they be attending Lincoln’s funeral if they were a mother who lost a son in the war, or a former slave, or a 13-year-old who has lived on the streets most of her life?

There’s also a link to online research on the Write Through America website. Larson and Boone checked for sufficient web resources before choosing topics and will add student writing samples. As a result, the book is able to supplement school libraries and facilitate classroom research.

Larson has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern University and retired in 2012 after teaching for 33 years, the last 30 of them at Highland Park High School. He was an athletics coach and also co-authored the Creative Writing Handbook.

Boone has a bachelor’s and PhD from Northwestern and a master’s from Columbia Teacher’s College. He began teaching in 1964 and has taught in Staten Island, Germany, Highland Park and at Oakton Community College. In 1977 he started the Glencoe Study Center, where he remains active. He has worked as a creative writing consultant at Hubbard High School in Chicago and the CYCLE Cabrini Green social service agency and as an ACT/SAT coordinator at Dunbar High School in Chicago. He has also written textbooks, a sports biography, a memoir and a collection of short stories.

Dr. Robert Boone receiving award

Dr. Robert Boone is the founder of Young Chicago Authors and received a Coming Up Taller Award from Michelle Obama on behalf of YCA at the White House in 2008. Lacresia Birts, 18, was one of the YCA students (Submitted Photo)

In 1991 Boone founded Young Chicago Authors, which directly serves 4,500 teens annually through workshops, performances and publications as well as another 5,500 readers and audience members. He received an award at the White House from Michelle Obama from the Coming Up Taller Leadership Enhancement Conference on behalf of Young Chicago Authors.

Write Through Chicago is Larson’s and Boone’s third collaboration. It uses a format they developed in their writing books, Moe’s Café and Joe’s Junkshop.

“Imagine you are in the worst café you have ever been in,” Boone said. “Tell me about the floor, the waitress, the menu, the dog in the corner. Before you know it, you have all these notes on paper. I will give you half an hour. Think about a letter to your friend.”

Using this Socratic method, he was able to glean enough material from the students that they suddenly had material for a story, Boone said. The tight timeframe eases the pressure because the best students are in the same boat with the average ones, Larson said.

“I think you tap into your writing voice more quickly because you don’t have time to waste,” Boone said. “That’s why I use the letter format, you share it with a friend.”

The idea of writing a history book using the Moe’s Café format evolved as Boone discovered that Young Chicago Authors were writing about events in their neighborhoods. Larson, meanwhile, spent his last five years at Highland Park High School in a combined freshman seminar with a history teacher.

Larson had coached kids through research papers on hip hop culture, the Middle East and immigration, the Odyssey and Charles Dickens. “I used to tell my classes and my colleagues that you could probably scrape away all I did and it was about exploring the human condition: what does it mean to be walking around the planet? You still get hungry, get angry, have hopes and dreams.”

Chicago history hooks students into exploring the human condition because it touches their lives, Larson said. “This is your town. You will walk on this street, which used to be six feet lower until it was raised. This river used to go in the other direction. The Bulls are your team; this is how it compares to other sports dynasties.”

“Most things are relevant if you know how to ask good questions,” Boone said. “The teacher’s job is to get inside students and make them want to learn.” The student is motivated when the material resonates.

Thus, questions on historic topics have one foot in the 21st century. A “Decide” prompt on the Chicago White Sox convicted of throwing the World Series in 1921 asks if professional athletes have a responsibility to serve as role models. And an “Imagine” prompt asks a student to imagine a gambler making them an offer. Using flashback, they are supposed to tell how they resisted temptation. How do fans treat them? What personal and financial problems make the offer tempting? How do they say no? And what happens afterward?

Another “Decide” question related to Chess Records asks students to consider whether the 1950s practice of white musicians re-recording songs originally sung by black artists was an opportunity for black musicians – or exploitation.

Then, an “Imagine” question asks them to consider that they are good at helping other high school kids develop their talents – like the Chess Brothers. How would they help the hopelessly shy drummer? The artist who doesn’t want to sell her portraits? The children’s author whose work was once panned?

For the last night at Riverview, the “Remember” prompt has kids ask older adults to recall their first views of the former amusement park at Belmont and Western Avenues. How do they picture the people who worked there, the scary and not-so-scary stuff, the noise, the sounds, the food? This work can be overlaid with the “Imagine” prompt. The kids will get into a fight with other kids on the Water Bug ride. And as in Ernest Hemingway’s The End of Something, they will decide if they want to continue steady dating.

Larson said that as he and Boone were writing the book, they realized they were coaching teachers too, because they had already complied with their publisher’s advice to align the material with Common Core Standards, in addition to those of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). There are 11 core standards for writing: argument; exposition; narrative; clarity and coherence; planning, revising and rewriting; technology; research projects; multiple print and digital sources; literary and informational texts; single sitting writing and extended writing.

These standards are what the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association say students across the U.S. should learn so the nation can remain globally competitive. Common Core Standards have been adopted by 46 states (including Illinois), and incentivized under the Obama Administration by federal Race to the Top Department of Education grants.

Peter Kahn is an English teacher and spoken word educator at Oak Park River Forest High School who says Write Through Chicago is “good pedagogy,” especially for disengaged kids, because it gets them to share stories from their own lives. As a result, they feel more connected to the academic subjects and inclined to dig deeper. The book is also “user-friendly” for the teacher, Kahn said, because humanities, natural sciences and social studies are all connected to Common Core Standards.

“There’s pressure from above to align everything to these standards, so if the book is doing that for the teacher, the teacher can get to the heart of what they are teaching,” Kahn said.

Kahn has worked with graduate students in spoken word poetry at Concordia College and been a featured speaker with the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE). He said the book is accessible for 7th graders through high school students. Their teachers can determine their level of complexity.

As an example, he used a vignette about Gwendolyn Brooks winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. The book provides about 100 words of “Background” on Brooks, then a “Remember” prompt based on her poem, We Real Cool. Students are asked to recall a decision they made that they thought would make life better. They are then given 10 questions, including: How old were they at the time? Who were the most important influences in their lives? What difficult choice did they have to make? What did they learn from the situation?

An “Imagine” prompt lets students use the structure of “We Real Cool” to create their own poem about people whom they think are unrealistically “super cool.” These people could be other high school students or business people. The book asks the students to visualize the cool people’s body language, and to write about their verbal expressions, their dress and what will happen to them if they keep acting the way they do.

The students aren’t just learning about Chicago history. They are learning about life.

View more photos click here.

Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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