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Wednesday, January 8, 2003

At 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 were second-class. … There were not many people in our community who thought that way. … 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 equal funding … I think that the teachers I had in the segregated schools were much more dedicated than the teachers I have seen since."

I don't 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 appealing—and 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 left—a 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

As usual, 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 events—especially 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

.... Later 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.

Wednesday, February 5

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

During 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 by civil 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 median—so 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 issue—a really unfair demand. Yet I was disappointed, because I would like to know what they think.

Wednesday, March 12

In 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 useful.

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.

Third, 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.

The 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.

Wednesday, March 19

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 white students.

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)
  • improve the County's two Black schools and let White students in (7 votes)
  • build more Black schools (in different parts of the County); also let Black students attend White schools (5)
  • integrate the teaching staffs first (5)
  • ignore schools and integrate housing patterns by pressuring realtors (4)
  • allow students to transfer on request, and advertise this opportunity (6)
  • send 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 value priorities:

  • choice in what school to attend (2)
  • having a racial mixture in all schools (3)
  • having a few excellent, minority-dominated schools (1)
  • convenience (4)
  • avoiding disruption and conflict (2)
  • quality of education*

*"quality of education" won hands down on the first ballot, so everyone had to vote for another choice.

Wednesday, April 9

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 techniques—unfortunately 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.

The 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 historians—and 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 it.

We were given these links to good online oral history projects conducted by youth:
What Did You Do, Grandma?
The Whole World Was Watching: An Oral History of 1968
We Made Do: Recalling the Great Depression
The Stories of the People

(I have found the same list on this webpage.)

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

Thursday, May 22

Yesterday, our high school class interviewed a 30-year veteran teacher at their school, mainly about racial issues. He said—among other things—that 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's—although 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, whenever possible.

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," which includes:

1. exercise and "walkability"
2. security from crime, and
3. nutrition

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 data—although 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 map accordingly.

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 and obesity.

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.