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Wednesday, January 8, 2003
a High School in Hyattsville, MD, helping to teach a class on oral history. Our
subject all quarter is the desegregation of the County's public schools. We are
three white teachers and our dozen students are African Americans, Latinos, and
immigrants. (Exactly half of the day's attendees were born in Africa.). The discussions
are good, but often very intense and emotional. We are meeting today in the principal's
windowless conference room to accommodate an elderly visitor who cannot manage
the steps to our usual classroom. The visitor is a retired postal worker and community
activist who attended segregated schools in the county, but her younger brother
was the first African American student at the high school where we are sitting,
and was also part of the first group of Black students at the University of Maryland.
Her sister integrated a local junior high school. Her mother (who had an 8th-grade
education) sent these siblings alone into all-White schools, so I asked whether
her mother was part of a social network of African Americans that favored integration:
"[Shakes her head] It came from her. My mother always thought that our schools
There were not many people in our community who thought
In the long run, in all instances, [desegregation] was not a
better thing." I asked her whether she would have desegregated the schools,
if she had been in charge of the school system back then: "I probably would
have kept them segregated, and I would have demanded that the schools be given
I think that the teachers I had in the segregated schools
were much more dedicated than the teachers I have seen since."
know what to think about desegregation, but I believe our students are learning
something about how to grapple with a complex, emotional social issue that deeply
affects their interests.
Wednesday, January 15
In the afternoon,
our class at Northwestern High
School interviewed two people for our oral history project on the desegregation
of Prince George's County schools. One interviewee was the first African American
student at the school. (He was still the only one when he graduated three years
later). He said: "Initially I was actually hoping that it wouldn't work.
My parents had said that if there was a lot of violence, we would back up.
Instead of violence, there were three years of hostility." His main motivation
was to be "part of something bigger," the Civil Rights Movement. He
later became a successful chemical engineer. I found him enormously appealingand
easily understood what he meant in his understated way, but the kids took his
reticence about his own emotions as evasiveness.
The second interviewee
was a current member of the County Council, a white man who was formerly a civil
rights lawyer. He had sued to force bussing in the county schools and then arranged
the settlement that ended bussing. He moved to the County in 1971, and his family
was the only White one in the local community. At a community meeting, "I
said I was a civil rights lawyer and I wanted to be active in the community."
A community leader said, "Man, you are a phenomenon. Most white people are
trying to move out of here." In the 1970s, roughly 100,000 African Americans
relocated to Prince George's County (mostly from Washington), and roughly 100,000
White people lefta pattern that continued for the next 20 years. "Those
folks who moved in the seventies were running from black folks
In the eighties
and nineties, it had more to do with the aging of the population and the changing
of circumstance." People left for upper income housing and better schools.
"My dream in the early eighties was that this is the place where we
would make it work. This is the place where we would demonstrate to America that
it can work like it says in social studies books. Today I would say that we are
still working on that."
Wednesday, January 22
the most interesting part of my day is working with the class of students at Northwestern
High School. They interviewed a White teacher who had taught in the County schools
from 1968 to the present, as his students changed from all White, to Whites plus
one African American kid, to almost exclusively children of color. The teacher
claimed that this change had occurred slowly enough that he hardly noticed it
and that it made no difference, since "teenagers are teenagers." He
asked the kids what they had learned in our class so far. Several said that they
had gained an appreciation of Prince George's County. This is surprising, since
the history we have studied is mostly about racism and exclusion. But one young
woman said, "I thought it was the boringest county ever." The fact that
dramatic changes had occurred here made our community seem interesting. The fact
that the changes involved school policies made the kids feel part of an important
(and contested) institution. And the fact that teenagers were sometimes protagonists
in the civil rights stuggle gave them a sense of their own power and responsibility.
At least, this is my interpretation of what the students said.
We have now
conducted half a dozen interviews as a whole class or as individuals. Meanwhile,
I have been thinking a bit about historical method. We have encountered several
contrasting perspectives on the same eventsespecially the arrival at Northwestern
of one African American student in 1955, which we've heard described by himself,
his sister, and a teacher. It's not hard to see that there's one truth about the
past, albeit a complex one.
Thursday, January 23
in the day, amid much practical work involving The Civic Mission of Schools,
I made a showing
the population of Prince George's County, by race, since 1940. There was a huge
egress of White people starting at just the same time as busing (1971). Of course,
the mere departure of White people is not necessarily a bad thing, nor was busing
necessarily the cause. But it's food for thought, and we will bring the graph
to class next week.
Wednesday, January 29
Our high school students
interviewed a woman today who was one of only two African Americans at an all-White
junior high school in 1956, and then the only one when her friend quit. She later
chose to attend an all-Black high school because she couldn't stand the incessant
(unprintable) racial slurs and social ostracism. She related well with our kids
(more than half of whom were born in Africa), and gave them good arguments for
voting and otherwise participating. We also talked with the class about how to
present their historical research on their Website at www.princegeorges.org
and came up with ideas that excited both them and us.
I had a chance to meet today with a state social studies
supervisor, which was an interesting opportunity to find out more about the complex
interplay among state standards, high-stakes tests, curriculum design at various
levels, and the textbook market. If I write a civics textbook, I'll have to navigate
these treacherous waters.
Later, with our high school class, we spent quite
a bit of time talking about why they should (or should not) vote. I tried to move
the conversation to a related topic: How do we find out enough about candidates
that we can make a choice? It seems to me that the need for that kind of knowledge
is the biggest obstacle to voting.
Tuesday, March 4
Over lunch today, my colleagues and I planned a deliberative Website on
the history of desegregation in Prince George's County. We're thinking that the
"intro" will show class photos from Northwestern
High School, each year gradually morphing into the next as the school moves
from segregated white, to white with one black student in 1955-8, to today's mosaic
of ethnic groups. Next, visitors will be invited to explore a page that our high
school students have already constructed, with a timeline of County history and
interviews of participants in the integration stuggle. Visitors will then be able
to move to a page that presents three contrasting answers to the question: "What
should the County have done in 1955 to address school segregation?" Finally,
they will be transferred to an online discussion forum to post their opinions.
A major goal is to help our students see history not only as the record
of state actions, powerful people, and downtrodded victims, but also as a story
of communities making difficult decisions.
Wednesday, March 5
our high school class today, we had a good and useful time talking about statistics
on race and school enrollments. The bottom line is that the proportion
of African American students in Prince George's County school soared upward by
72 percentage points from 1960 to the present. Around 1980, the Black and White
student populations were about equal. Since there was mandatory busing in those
days, we assume that a lot of students attended truly integrated schools. Then
the White students left, at a faster rate than the White population of the county.
Now the "exposure" of Black students to White students (as measured
right lawyers) is very low compared to other counties.
I think our
students learned a fair amount about statistics and were intrigued by the facts.
But when we started asking them what they thought about the trends, they clammed
up. The history of school desegregation in this County could be viewed as a temporary
success (until the 1980s) and a long-term failure because schools are almost as
segregated today as they were in 1960. Or one could say that the departure of
White students is not bad news at all, since the Black population is extremely
diverse (65 languages are spoken at Northwestern High School alone), and the median
income of the County is much higher than the national medianso there are
plenty of resources for an excellent school system. Our students wouldn't say
what they thought, and I don't blame them. Not only is this a difficult issue,
but three White college employees were suddenly asking them for their candid opinions
of a sensitive racial issuea really unfair demand. Yet I was disappointed,
because I would like to know what they think.
Wednesday, March 12
our high school class, we spent almost two hours editing the text that accompanies
the first seven pictures in this slideshow
on the history of school desegregation in Prince George's County. We had
planned to cover much more ground, but I believe the editing exercise was extremely
First, I don't think the students usually edit what
they write, so this was a valuable experience for them.
Second, there are
profound political differences implied by small changes in the way you describe
events. It sounds very different to say, "African American students were
required to ride buses to predominantly White schools," or "The NAACP
forced the County to bus students to promote integration." Both are true;
but the political implications are hugely different. Trying to write narrative
text is a wonderful way to learn skills of historical interpretation.
I kept pressing the class to make sure we had evidence for our claims. They wanted
to say, for example, that busing led to White protests in Prince George's County.
This turned out to be true, but at first nobody could remember any evidence to
support the claim. I tried to persuade the class that we have an obligation to
prove to ourselves that our assertions about specific places and times are right.
text that is currently on the Website does not yet reflect the students' latest
edits. They were eager not to focus too much on their own high school (which used
to exclude Blacks as a matter of law). Our students themselves would all be excluded
today, but they still don't like the negative focus on their school. They also
want to avoid a simple Black/White narrative, since the communities they know
are more ethnically and racially diverse. But it's hard to figure out what to
say about other races in the 1950s. It appears from old yearbooks that some people
who would today be called Latinos attended all-"White" schools. We have
no data on Hispanics/Latinos, since the Census did not use that category until
the 1970s. As for Asians, there were only 283 in the County in 1950, according
to the Census, so we don't know what happened to their kids.
Talking about desegregation: Our high school students
interviewed a white graduate of largely African American public schools in Prince
George's County (class of '98). It was interesting to compare her experience to
that of the African Americans who first attended the County's all-White schools
in the 50's. In short, she fared much, much better. She professed never to be
uncomfortable because of race, although her friends were mostly among the other
We asked our students to frame possible answers to the question:
"What should have been done with the County's segregrated schools in 1954?"
They come up with these options:
- "leave it alone" (1 vote)
the County's two Black schools and let White students in (7 votes)
more Black schools (in different parts of the County); also let Black students
attend White schools (5)
- integrate the teaching staffs first (5)
schools and integrate housing patterns by pressuring realtors (4)
students to transfer on request, and advertise this opportunity (6)
everyone to the nearest school (6)
- bus to achieve an equal racial distribution
in all schools(4)
(I list the students' votes not because they
necessarily represent the views of any larger population, but only to give a sense
of the class's opinion.)
There could have been two kinds of "diversity"
in the schools of 1954 when the County was about 11 percent African American.
Some schools could have been predominanly Black and others predominantly white
(diversity among schools); or all schools could have been 11 percent African
American (diversity within schools). Our students, who are all kids of
color, unanimously preferred the latter.
We also asked them about these
- choice in what school to attend (2)
a racial mixture in all schools (3)
- having a few excellent, minority-dominated
- convenience (4)
- avoiding disruption and conflict (2)
*"quality of education" won hands down on
the first ballot, so everyone had to vote for another choice.
My colleagues and our high school class have been using oral
history methods to construct the Prince
George's County Information Commons history page. Today an expert from the
Oral History in Education
Institute at University of Maryland came to class to teach our students proper
interviewing techniquesunfortunately too late to improve our most important
interviews, which are over. I thought one of the most interesting distinctions
she made was between journalism and oral history. She claimed that oral history
is less adversarial than reporting. "We are recipients of the story,"
she said. She taught the students to avoid leading questions and questions that
anticipate yes/no answers. Open-ended questions are the oral historian's tool.
class and I came to understand our serious responsibilities better as a result
of the session. The desegregation of Prince George's County Schools was an epic
struggle. Understanding it is crucial, since racial divisions and inequities remain,
and no one is sure how to address them. In nearly half a century since the struggle
began, no one had interviewed some of the key players, such as the first African
American students to attend White schools in our county. Chances are, no one else
will interview them after us. So we alone are creating primary source materials
for later historiansand they better be good. We didn't seek this responsibility.
Our original intentions were to provide a civics lesson and to develop innovative
ways of using websites. But the responsibility is real even if we backed into
We were given these links to good online oral history projects conducted
Did You Do, Grandma?
Whole World Was Watching: An Oral History of 1968
Made Do: Recalling the Great Depression
Stories of the People
(I have found the same list on this
Friday, April 25
Our high school students'
online history project tells the epic history of their own schools' desegregation,
from 1955-2000. It includes an introductory slide show, a timeline and graph of
the county's massive demographic changes, a set of oral history interviews, and
then a deliberative forum on the topic, "What should have been done to address
school segregation in 1955?" The project will never be complete, because
students can always add interviews, historical data, and new perspectives. But
it is now ready for a public launch at an event tomorrow. Therefore, we invite
anyone and everyone to visit and participate. The URL is www.princegeorges.org/history.htm
Yesterday, our high school class interviewed a 30-year veteran
teacher at their school, mainly about racial issues. He saidamong other
thingsthat people in his home county (Montgomery, MD) read, whereas young
people in Prince George's do not. They just watch television, he said; and if
they read, it's "trash." Montgomery is predominantly White; Prince George's
is majority Black. After he left, I asked the students what they thought about
this particular comment. Some were evidently offended and suspected that the teacher
was relying on racial stereotypes. Others thought that he was factually correct.
We held a debate on the question: "Do people read more in Montgomery?"
I said that I honestly didn't know, but that I wouldn't jump to conclusions just
because Montgomery is whiter and richer than Prince George's. One male student
who was offended by the comparison said that girls read in Prince George'salthough
boys don't. This comment received a lot of assent.
Wednesday, July 30
At several meetings that I have attended recently, I've heard about
young people or poor people who have "documented" some asset,
problem, or activity. It occurs to me that academics and other professional
researchers "document" things only as a first stage in research
(if they do it at all). Their real interests are comparing, assessing,
and explaining phenomena, not merely listing or portraying them. I understand
why disdavantaged people stick to documentation; it requires fewer skills
and resources. But much more power comes with assessment and explanation.
I'm starting to think that the rich do research while the poor get
"documentation." The solution is to try to involve young
people, poor people, and other disadvantaged folks in real research,
In this connection: a colleague of mine has Palm Pilots with database
software installed. We're going to lend them to high school kids, whom
we'll train to walk around the neighborhood conducting surveys of physical
assets. The data they collect can then be used to generate maps, which
we will post for public use on the Prince
Georges Information Commons site. Later, we'll help the kids use
the data they collect for genuine research.
The topic that we're planning to study is "healthy living,"
1. exercise and "walkability"
2. security from crime, and
All of these factors can be placed on the same maps, so that it's possible
to see, for example, where there are sources of healthy food that are
also safe and walkable.
We're going to start with walkability and crime. Walkability is relatively
easy because there is a standard survey instrument that kids can easily
use to determine whether each street segment is walkable. It's very
straightforward for the kids to create a map with the walkable streets
colored in and the unwalkable ones left white (or something like that).
They just walk down a street and fill out a checklist on a Palm Pilot.
We can simultaneously work on crime. One idea would be to try to get
actual crime statistics from the police and add them to the map. Apparently,
police departments do not like to release these dataalthough maybe
we could overcome that problem. Another option would look like this:
The kids would take digital photos of places that they consider very
dangerous, and very safe. They would compare and discuss their pictures.
They would then show their collected pictures of safe and unsafe places
to experts, such as police officers and criminologists, who would offer
their opinions. Once the kids had reflected on their choices, they would
declare certain areas to be relatively safe and unsafe, and mark the
Thursday, August 14
This is the latest plan for a grant proposal that would allow us to
work with high school kids, doing research in the community and generating
public products for the website that they have been building at www.princegeorges.org.
It is important for people to consume healthy food: products that are
low-fat, high-fiber, varied, and cooked with fresh ingredients. It is
also important for people to walk to work or to school and to complete
routine errands such as food shopping on foot—if the local streets
are safe. This is because regular activity plus healthy nutrition decreases
the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes and may relieve depression
Promoting healthy nutrition and walking is especially important today,
since obesity is increasing at an alarming rate, especially among adolescents.
Also, physical activity is lower among minorities and people with lower
education levels and less income.
A standard approach is to educate people to live more active lifestyles,
but such efforts tend to be disappointing. Changes in the environment
are more promising. To find out what environmental factors influence
whether people walk, consume healthy food, and (specifically) walk to
purchase healthy food, we will first survey a large sample of students
about their own nutrition and exercise within the preceding 24 hours.
They will be asked exactly where they walked during that period (i.e.,
the addresses or names of the places they visited). The respondents’
home addresses will also be collected, along with some demographic information.
This survey will allow us to estimate the distance that each student
walked using GIS methods, without relying on their own approximations.
Under our direction, a smaller group of high school and college students
will then collect data on the walkability of local streets; the danger
of crime on those streets; and the availability, cultural characteristics,
and price of healthy food in the community. To collect some of these
data, students will walk around the neighborhood with Palm Pilots, filling
in a field survey. The data that they collect will be layered onto a
GIS map. The most useful parts of this map (for example, the locations
of healthy food sources) will be made public on the website.
By combining these two sets of data—on student behaviors and
home addresses; and on local physical features—we hope to develop
a mathematical model that shows the relationships between active lifestyles
and specific aspects of the local environment
We hypothesize that it is not only the proximity of healthy food sources
that increases the chance that people will walk to these sources and
consume healthy food. It also matters how safe the streets are between
the person’s home and the store or restaurant; the price and cultural
attractiveness of food at that establishment; the concentration of stores
near the destination; and other variables that have never been studied
together in projects of this kind.
Wednesday, Sept. 17
We've made it past the first stage of a grant competition to provide
funds for our local mapping
work with high school kids. That's great news, except that now I
have to write a full proposal on short notice. Among other questions,
I need to answer this: "What is unusual about your project?"
We intend to help high school students who are not college-bound to
play leading roles in original scholarly research on a matter of public
importance, and see whether that work increases both their academic
skills and their civic commitment. The topic, which I've discussed here
before, is healthy nutrition and exercise and the degree to which these
outcomes are affected by the physical environment.
The Orton Foundation provides a great collection of youth-generated
maps at communitymap.org.