Saturday, February 11, 2012

Empowerment in the Classroom: How Do We Teach High School Students to See Themselves as Protagonists in History? One Idea Involves Lupe Fiasco, Matt Damon, and the late Howard Zinn

Cover of "A People's History Of The Unite...Cover via Amazonby Yana Kunichoff, Yes! magazine:

On Chicago's far Southeast side, past streets lined with boarded up buildings and 24-hour liquor stores, ten high school students buzzing with nervous energy enter a room full of adults - who may be just as excited as they are.

The school is Team Englewood High School, located in one of the city's poorest communities, and the students are part of a group that will perform a local spinoff performance of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States in the spring. The adults are a small group of movie stars, rappers, publicists, photographers, producers, teachers, and reporters.

And, no pressure, but they've all come to hear what Team Englewood's seven seniors have to say.

As part of the promotion for a new education initiative based on Zinn's book, Matt Damon and Lupe Fiasco, both of whom appeared in the 2009 documentary, The People Speak, have come to Chicago to perform in a benefit show and to talk to the Englewood students about American history and hear them perform some of their own pieces.

A key message of Zinn’s work, Damon told the students, is that “change always, always comes from the bottom up.”

"If [students] can connect to these historical figures, hopefully they will see themselves as part” of history, Damon said, touching on one of the central goals of Zinn’s work - and of the nonprofit Voices of a People’s History of the United States, which has created a curriculum based on Zinn’s book.

The group’s mission is to “bring to light little known voices from U.S. history,” including those of inner-city students of color. As part of this goal, they are rolling out an educator’s toolkit for 1,000 teachers in Chicago, complete with videos, lesson plans, and locally relevant readings.

“We select material from the past that speaks to the present,” said Brenda Coughlin, founder and director of the nonprofit. “We want students and people in the communities to be able to … say to young people: you make history.”

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